Archive for the ‘RACE REPORTS’ Category

Running through the struggle like a golden thread was the indomitable human spirit and a capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey at 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

(Howdy! For those interested in a full treatment of the Comrades Marathon including its many unique and long-standing traditions, I recommend you start with my two-part report from last year’s “up” run HERE. On the other hand, if you’re basically just here for the pictures, carry on…)

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

These quiet declarations reached my ears as little more than a mumble emanating from the gaunt runner to my right. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help but smile. The two of us strode forward slowly yet inexorably, like iron filings drawn toward the great white magnet looming directly ahead. Every step brought us closer to our ultimate destination and the object of his desire: Moses Mabhida Stadium, its central arch rising in defiance against the afternoon sky.

Despite our conspicuous outer differences — his deep ebony skin and Old World accent vs. my own melanin-challenged physique and New World English — the two of us moved as of one mind and body, eyes locked on our mutual Mecca as we approached the end of this arduous pilgrimage together. Eternal glory and an ice-cold soda beckoned.

At that moment we were kindred spirits, brothers in arms (and legs), intimate associates pulling in the same direction and with the same focused fervor for the same compulsive cause.

Or what Webster’s Dictionary would call comrades.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2018 Comrades Marathon expo


Had it really been a year?

371 days to be exact, since I’d stood in a similar position at the start line of my first Comrades Marathon, sweating incongruously in the cool morning air while the butterflies of the moment treated my stomach like children treat a bounce house.

This was like déjà vu all over again.

The scene around me now was electric — not surprising at the start line of the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. The collective human electricity of nearly 20,000 tightly packed runners intermingled with the harsh electric floodlights, the latter sending the pre-dawn shadows into hiding along the back alleys of downtown Pietermaritzburg.

Directly ahead at one end of the sea of heads stood the brighly lit red arch with “Bonitas” written in script letters on either side of the word “START.” The scene felt very much the same as I remembered it from a year earlier.

And yet different. Durban City Hall, which had towered over these same start corrals one year ago, had been replaced with the equally majestic brick façade of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. This, of course, is one defining feature of the Comrades Marathon: its course reverses direction in alternating years, so that whereas last year’s “up” ran started in Durban and finished in Pietermaritzburg, this year’s “down” run would travel the opposite route, starting in Pietermaritzburg before finishing 90.184 km (56 miles) away in Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban

The familiar face alongside me was also a welcome difference from the 2017 run. IRONMAN triathlete power couple Jimmy and his wife Catherine had accepted our invite to join us for this year’s down run, with Jimmy running and Cath joining Katie in providing all-important crew support (or “seconding,” as it’s termed in South Africa). This would be not only Jimmy’s first Comrades but also his first ultramarathon, in recognition of a milestone birthday. What better way to celebrate half a century on this planet than by traveling halfway across it to run 56 miles?

Likewise Beth from Vancouver, whom we’d first met five years earlier when she’d won the half marathon in Antarctica, had decided this year’s down run would be her first Comrades and first ultramarathon in celebration of her own milestone 40th birthday. Because you’re never too old to make questionable decisions!

Beth’s husband Miguel, the only soccer player among us, would be joining Cath and a now-experienced Katie to form the day’s most bad-ass seconding crew. Having the three of them on the course armed with a beautifully detailed map courtesy of 12-time Comrades finisher Rory — another Antarctica pal and our excellent host for Comrades 2017 — gave me a huge sense of confidence. Talk about strength in numbers.

Relaxing at Southern Sun Elangeni leading up to 2018 Comrades Marathon

The days in Durban leading up to Comrades are just packed

Another notable distinction from the 2017 race was my nerves, or more accurately my unnerving lack of nerves. Standing in the monolithic presence of Pietermaritzburg City Hall chatting with Jimmy, I felt none of last year’s anxiety or apprehension. Sure, a lot of unknowns lay ahead on the 90 km journey to Durban, and for that the butterflies in my stomach were up to the challenge. But this time they all seemed to be flying in formation, rather than each doing its separate thing — the moment brought to mind the 80s video game Galaga, with the enemy warships all flying in formation at the start of each new screen, compared to the ensuing swarm of every ship for himself. And as the South African national anthem reached its conclusion, I felt relaxed and strangely at ease.

That said, even the best-behaved butterflies can’t help but be thrown off course by the power and beauty of what comes next: the Ndebele mining song, “Shosholoza.” Rather than observe in awestruck appreciation as other runners around me joined in the performance, though, this year I joined in myself. This despite the fact my voice was little more than a vibration in my head against the sonic wall of vocal harmonies, which resonated deep in my chest like a lion’s roar at close range.

“Shosholoza” segued predictably into “Chariots of Fire” as I made a last-second adjustment to the safety pins holding my bib number. Moments later the last notes of Vangelis’ classic score faded away, and the pregnant pause in its wake sent a few more butterflies fluttering out of formation. Adrenaline flooded my bloodstream.

Then, as loudly as if I’d been carrying a restless rooster in the lightweight pack on my back, the ear-splitting sound of Max Trumbull’s recorded cockerel crow pierced the morning quiet, signaling the start of the 93rd Comrades Marathon just as it has every Comrades Marathon for the past 71 years.

The decisive crack of a gunshot followed and with that, every one of the 19,116 starters assembled outside Pietermaritzburg City Hall — from the eventual champions in Corral A to the final finishers in Corral H — was at the mercy of the ticking clock. Because no matter our corral seeding or how long it would take us to cross under the official red START arch, we would have exactly 12 hours from the moment of that opening gunshot to cross the finish line in Moses Mabhida Stadium some 90 km away. “Gun to gun” (rather than “mat to mat”) timing is one of the signature traditions of the Comrades Marathon.

2018 Comrades Marathon start line selfie of Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam

NO TURNING BACK — except for a start-line selfie

As Jimmy and I joined runners from 79 other nations in the relentless march toward Durban, I reflected on the irony of my being here after last year’s race. Comrades 2017 had left me so emotionally and physically depleted that I’d been unable to get comfortable for hours after crossing the finish line at the Scottsville Racecourse. Even my palate had hurt the next day.

But as every ultrarunner can tell you, miserable is memorable, and it wasn’t long before the siren song of the coveted back-to-back medal (earned by running the up and down runs in consecutive years) had reached my ears in Los Angeles some 10,000 miles away. And as the official Comrades Coach Lindsey Parry had pointed out at the pre-race expo three days earlier, you haven’t really run the Comrades Marathon until you’ve run both the “up” and “down” runs.

In other words, what goes up must come down. And gravity ain’t got nothin’ on Comrades.

90 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon start

The calm before Comrades
Jimmy, Cath, Katie and I had arrived in Durban on Wednesday after back-to-back-to-back flights from Los Angeles to London, London to Johannesburg and Joburg to Durban. Based on our positive experience of the previous year, we’d again elected to stay at the Southern Sun Elangeni in coastal Durban near the pre-race expo, rather than save ourselves time on race morning by staying closer to the start line in Pietermaritzburg.

We’d taken advantage of our mid-week arrival to recover from jet lag and tackle the intimidatingly large expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre on Thursday, well before the crush of foot traffic that would descend on Friday and Saturday. (Luckily the registration line for international athletes is typically short on any day, not surprising given that South Africans account for over 90% of registered runners.)

2018 Comrades Marathon expo

After flying 11,000+ miles, you better believe there’s no turning back (Me, Katie, Jimmy, Cath)

All manner of vendors stood alongside their booths hawking various goods and services, from athletic gear and apparel to other South African running events to Cape Town wineries and even an aggressive, aerosol can-wielding team of fellows who seemed hell-bent on shining my New Balance running shoes.

Several local charities had set up tables to raise awareness, and we sought out the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children — the school itself is located near the 37 km mark of the down run — to make a donation. In one corner of the exhibition centre we purchased tickets for the Sunday shuttle to Pietermaritzburg, while in another a convenient food court boasted a diverse selection of lunch fare.

I could only imagine how claustrophobic this hall would feel come Saturday.

[Comrades Tip #1: The earlier you can hit the pre-race expo, the better — things start to get very busy on Friday afternoon.]

Along with the Old Mutual stage where Coach Parry shared his tips and tricks for the down run, the highlight of this year’s expo was the food court, where during lunch we met Benny and his wife Monica, an enthusiastic couple from Johannesburg. With Monica’s support, an infectious smile and an easy laugh, Benny was preparing to run his first Comrades. Nothing unusual about that, except that he’d only run his first mile a year earlier, and so was not only a novice to Comrades but to the sport itself.

Benny was clearly eager to embrace the opportunity and put his best foot forward; at the same time, he harbored no allusions as to the challenge ahead. And though in the end he’d just miss the Pinetown cutoff and be among the 13.8% not to finish this year’s race, he’d message me afterwards to say that he’d had “so much fun” and that he’d start preparing for 2019 just as soon as his “penguin walk” subsided. And I have no doubt he’ll be ready.

Breaking bread with Comrades first-timer Benny (left) and his wife Monica (third from left)

Because that, in a nutshell, is what Comrades does to your brain — like your favorite childhood memory, it takes hold and never lets go. I can’t imagine many Americans following Benny’s ambitious “Couch to Comrades” program. And it’s probably fortuitous that Katie and I don’t live in South Africa, because despite the distance I’d have a helluva time saying “no” to a hometown race like Comrades.

On Thursday evening we’d attended the International Runners Reception at the Hilton Durban, which this year was sparsely attended and featured an obnoxiously loud musical score that quickly drowned out every conversation I tried to start. As usual, the highlight of the reception was 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce with his waggish energy and bottomless quiver of amusing anecdotes. Everyone appreciates Bruce — he’s a magnetic personality and the best ambassador this race could ever hope for.

As it had last year, our Saturday began with thousands of our fellow Comrades runners at the packed Durban North Beach parkrun, where we’d met up with our buddy John from Anchorage, like me a returning runner chasing his back-to-back medal. Along the 5K route we’d also met “Marathon Granny” Joyce from Kenya, who apparently had taken up running after developing arthritis in her knee and who would be running her first Comrades at age 64. Not only would Joyce start her first Comrades, but she’d finish her first Comrades in an astonishing 10:27:15, easily eclipsing runners half her age to become one of the weekend’s most inspiring stories. Rock on, Joyce!

Durban North Beach parkrun day before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Durban North Beach parkrun (clockwise from top left): Shaking out our selfie muscles with John from Anchorage, center; Cath turns parkrun into a full-body workout; catching up with Marathon Granny Joyce from Kenya; Cath and Katie do their best human butterfly impression

The rest of our Saturday had been overly restful, so that after a solid five hours of sleep I’d awoken on Sunday morning feeling well rested and ready to go, with the voice of experience in my head calming any potentially skittish butterflies in my stomach. After all, as noted American poet Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” With one Comrades finish under my belt, I liked to think I knew what the hell I was doing.

After a semi-normal breakfast (as normal as 2:00am breakfast can be), Jimmy, Beth and I hopped aboard the 2:45am shuttle bus for the long and (luckily) uneventful ride to the start of our personal journey in Pietermaritzburg.

2018 Comrades Marathon profile map

Asijiki: No Turning Back (Pietermaritzburg to Little Pollys)
Now, with confetti falling all around us, Jimmy and I crossed the start line two minutes and 30 seconds after the gun, 30 seconds slower than last year. As the sea of official red-and-white race caps disappeared into the darkness ahead of us, I fell into a comfortable jog alongside Jimmy, gauging the weight distribution of the lightweight Ultimate Direction pack on my back that held my limited assortment of baby food pouches and GU packets. Learning my lesson from last year’s race, I’d left the hydration bladder at home.

[Comrades Tip #2: Resist the urge to carry a hydration bladder — there’s plenty of water, Energade etc. along the course. If you must carry a pack, limit its contents to solid nutrition.]

Our game plan was simple: start strong to give ourselves a realistic shot at a 9-hour finish (Bill Rowan medal) and then adapt on the fly. Though I knew Jimmy’s competitive streak would drive him to push for 9 hours, I also knew I hadn’t trained to run a sub-9 finish time myself. After a high-mileage training program that enabled my come-from-behind run for charity at January’s Houston Marathon, I’d barely squeezed in a Corral C qualifying time at my hometown Los Angeles Marathon in March, registering at the last minute before beating the cutoff by a whopping 11 seconds. So I didn’t exactly arrive in Durban Bill Rowan-ready.

Even if I had trained properly, pausing along the route to take pictures would easily add 10-15 minutes to my finish time. If everything went according to plan, I saw 9:30 as a more likely scenario, with my primary goal being sub-10 hours as in 2017.

2017-2018 Comrades Marathon course signs

Not only had I not trained for a sub-9, but downhill running isn’t my strength — I’m much more consistent on the uphills. Whereas many runners naturally post faster times on the down run (with its 6,000+ feet of elevation loss vs. 4,000+ feet of elevation gain), I’d diligently trained my quads to survive and hopefully thrive on the extended descents between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. To my usual training regimen I’d added twice-a-week lunges and eccentric quad strengthening, the latter on the recommendation of Rory who’s completed the down run six times. I’d even run the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon in late April, a doozy of a test run boasting a net elevation loss of 5,300 feet over 26.2 miles.

So my quads were as ready as they’d ever be to tackle the challenge of the Comrades down run.

Luckily we’d have the ultimate wild card on our side this year — the South African winter. Unlike the previous year’s unseasonal heat and unrelenting sunshine, this year’s temperatures were expected to peak in the mid-70s with regular cloud cover to keep the sun at bay. Given that my spring training regimen had included spending 20-30 minutes a day six days a week in a 180°F sauna to build my heat tolerance, this was welcome news. And it would help to make up for the fact that the 2018 course would be the longest in 23 years.

At 90.184 km, this year’s down run would be the longest Comrades course since 1995 and nearly 3½ km longer than last year’s up run, which measured 86.73. Assuming I matched last year’s average pace of 10:53/mile, the extra distance would add over 23 minutes to my projected finish time. So never mind sub-9 hours — I’d have my work cut out for me if I hoped to improve on last year’s finish time of 9:52:55.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Comrades Wall of Honour

Paying homage to Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Comrades Wall of Honour

Like a gracious host reminding us that this was indeed the down run, the narrow road leading out of Pietermaritzburg started on a gentle descent. As my nerves fired and my pulse rate quickened, I did a full-system check to ensure all systems were go. My gut had dodged a bullet thirty minutes earlier after each and every porta-potty outside the start corrals had inexplicably run out of toilet paper, with no one to refill them. Talk about a helpless feeling, and only a bit of last-minute ingenuity had saved the day…

[Comrades Tip #3: That gauzy Bonitas hospital gown included in your pre-race goodie bag for warmth on race morning? It can also be torn into convenient strips for use as toilet paper.]

Jimmy and I cruised through the darkness of Pietermaritzburg and into Ashburton, the early route narrower and more tightly packed than it had been on last year’s up run, when we’d exited Durban via the well-lit N3 highway. In the pitch black I fell into a rhythm, quieted my mind and focused my mental energy on avoiding potholes as well as other runners carelessly drifting across invisible lanes of traffic.

On that note, I found myself frustrated by the sheer number of runners who seemed either unable or unwilling to run a straight line. And I know I wasted a nontrivial amount of energy pumping the brakes as restless runners insisted on weaving in front of me.

Though Jimmy and I would run together in the early going, each of us had every intention of running our own race. Because despite the fact that you’re surrounded by thousands of other runners and countless screaming spectators throughout the day, Comrades — more so than any other race I’ve run — is a very personal affair. It’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: Comrades is 90 km of you vs. you, and for most of us that’s plenty of competition.

After wearing RaceRaves gear in my Comrades debut, I’d decided to go the patriotic route this year with USA flag shorts, Statue of Liberty calf compression sleeves, an American flag behind my bib number on front and back, plus stars & stripes sunglasses I’d bought for $1 at Target to round out my wardrobe. Bruce Fordyce had recommended wearing our national colors the year before — “I can’t understand why someone travels all this way to run Comrades, and then runs in a San Diego Marathon shirt” — and I’d witnessed first-hand the raucous reception other runners had received for proudly sporting their national colors.

As I’d soon discover the red, white and blue elicits a curious mix of reactions, and especially among 80 nations in which Americans account for less than 1% of the field. Sadly I missed this exchange, but according to Jimmy a woman behind us in the early miles saw my shorts and yelled, “Go America!” to which a salty Brit behind us responded with, “Said no one evah!” In response to Jimmy’s sideways glance he added sheepishly, “Sorry, don’t hate me.”

Comrades is the perfect opportunity to showcase your patriotism

Daybreak’s pale, pink-tinged lips kissed the sky as we reached Polly Shortts — the last of the “Big Five” hills on the up run — at the 82 km mark. As the pace accelerated on the mile-long descent, I paused for important business by the side of the road while Jimmy shot ahead. Though he quickly vanished out of sight, I reeled him in on the next short climb before the pace again increased down Little Polly’s.

It was on Polly Shortts and her sister Little Polly’s (Little Mpusheni) that I realized Jimmy and I were running different races. While he attacked the downhills with gravity as his muse, I worked to keep my pace in check without riding the brakes. Because starting too fast is the #1 cardinal sin of Comrades, and I hadn’t come all this way just to shred my quads before sunrise.

77 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon at Camperdown

Little Pollys to Harrison Flats
After Little Pollys, we switched gears once again for our longest extended climb of the day up to Umlaas Road. Along the way we passed under the N3 to reach the first of six cutoff points at Lion Park (~75 km to go). Unsure of the best way to mentally divvy up 90 km, I’d decided the six time cutoff stations would be my best landmarks, as they stand 10-15 km apart.

Despite its significance as the highest point on the course (2,700 feet), Umlaas is nondescript and easily missed during the race — and especially on the down run, where it arrives so early. Except that this year, rounding a corner I happened to glance Rory’s tall distinctive frame among the spectators lining the road.

Unfortunately by the time my brain processed the moment I’d passed Rory by, and so not wanting to slam on the brakes and risk causing an accident, I turned quickly, yelled his name and threw up my hand in greeting as I continued on my way. I saw him respond to his name, but whether he’d recognized my voice or seen me in the crowd, I had no idea.

2018 Comrades Marathon on way to Camperdown

Savoring sunrise on the way to Camperdown

One advantage of the down run is the opportunity to cover the relatively quiet, wide-open stretch through Camperdown and Cato Ridge early in the day, before the sun is high in the sky. I could still recall how interminable these long, desolate and unshaded miles had felt during last year’s up run, with Inchanga in our rear-view mirror and Polly Shortts yet to come.

A pungent odor hit my nostrils, more like rotting animal carcass than the familiar Camperdown chicken farm smell I remembered from the year before. Luckily it passed as quickly as it had appeared. No harm, no fowl.

I texted Katie to let her know we were 2 km away from where she, Cath and Miguel would be waiting. I’d missed her and Rory at our first meeting place last year, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. We’d also made the sage decision this year to invest in a South Africa SIM card for our iPhones upon landing at the Johannesburg airport, so we’d be able to text freely throughout the trip.

We reached our terrific trio at the 66 km mark with Jimmy about a minute ahead. He passed the trio quickly without stopping while I paused for a couple bites of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich to supplement the baby food pouch I’d downed earlier. And I laughed as Cath, responding I think to Jimmy’s own sense of focus, urged me to get going while I took a minute to stretch my legs and pose for a picture with Katie.

Even the best seconding crew in South Africa’s gotta eat!

Seconding is a key part of the Comrades experience for both runners and crew; I appreciated their being there, and the excitement on their faces was a definite pick-me-up. I also knew that one or two minutes per pit stop wouldn’t make an appreciable difference in my final time. My nonchalance was fueled by my desire to enjoy race day to the utmost, but also by what I consider to be the most glaring oversight on the part of the Comrades Marathon Association. Let me explain…

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Comrades is its distinctive finisher medals, awarded on the basis of finish time as follows:

  • Gold: Top 10
  • Wally Hayward (named for the 5-time Comrades Marathon champion and oldest runner to finish the race): Out of the top 10 but less than 6 hours
  • Silver: Greater than 6 hours but less than 7½ hours
  • Bill Rowan (named for the first Comrades Marathon winner in 1921): Greater than 7½ hours but less than 9 hours
  • Bronze: Greater than 9 hours but less than 11 hours
  • Vic Clapham (named for the Comrades Marathon founder): Greater than 11 hours but less than 12 hours:

What jumps out at me from these numbers is the sizable two-hour gap between the first and last Bronze medalists. In this year’s race, bronze medalists accounted for 39% of finishers, compared to 31% for Vic Clapham and 13% for Bill Rowan. To my mind, the difference in performance between a runner who finishes Comrades in 9:01 and one who crosses the finish line in 10:59 is significant enough to merit distinct medals.

So then why not introduce a new medal, say the Bruce Fordyce medal, for runners who finish between 9 and 10 hours? Named after the race’s 9-time champion and its premier ambassador, the promise of a Bruce Fordyce medal would immediately inspire many runners who are on the cusp of 10 hours to train harder and run a smarter, more focused race. At the same time, it would set an exciting new standard for sub-10 runners like me — who currently know a Bronze medal awaits us whether we finish in 9:45 or 10:15 — and encourage us to treat the race with less nonchalance, knowing a sub-10 finish means the difference between a Bruce Fordyce medal and a Bronze.

So how ‘bout it, CMA?

The aid stations were as efficient and energetic as I remembered, though thanks to the cooler temperatures I didn’t need to visit quite as many this year. But despite the availability of trash bins, the streets around each aid station were littered with discarded water and Energade sachets, some still partially filled so that they emitted a last-gasp {POP} when stepped on.

[Comrades Tip #4: Unless you’re in the lead pack, toss your used cups and sachets off to one side of the road, near a trash bin. If you don’t like tramping over discarded trash and half-filled water balloons, why should the runners behind you?]

The 12-hour “bus” (pacing group) rolls through Camperdown

During the course of running 90 km you’re bound to experience at least one aid station snafu, and my most memorable came courtesy of a harmless-looking orange slice which I gratefully accepted from a proferred plate. Biting down to release the sweet juice, I was instead greeted by an unwelcome saltiness that nearly caused me to gag. Instinctively I spit out the foul fruit, my taste buds scrambling to reconcile the sensation of salty where there should only have been sweet.

Unfortunately by this time I’d already passed the aid station, and so it would be another km before I could wash the salty aftertaste {blech} from my mouth. Later in the race I’d grab another orange, but not without first interrogating the poor volunteer as to the flavor profile of his fruit. To his credit my ramblings didn’t faze him, and I thanked him as I jammed the sugary slice in my mouth.

Given my newfound suspicion of something as familiar as oranges, you can bet that I politely declined the offer of mageu, a milky drink made from fermented mealie pap and offered at aid stations in plastic yellow bags.

An aid station volunteer offers water sachets to thirsty runners

My stars & stripes running kit was a great conversation starter, with both international runners and fellow Americans curious to know where in the U.S. I was from and eager to share their own home country or state. And my kit complemented the race’s own strategy to distinguish South African and international runners — its colorful bib numbers.

True to the camaraderie of the event, the Comrades bib numbers communicate a wealth of information at a glance. I enjoyed congratulating other back-to-back runners, first-time international runners (as indicated by the “0” under “Medals” on their blue bib numbers) and especially Green Number hopefuls, whose yellow bib numbers distinguish them as 9-time finishers in pursuit of that coveted 10th finish. For the recreational runner, few achievements rival that of earning a Comrades Green Number, and the Green Number Club currently boasts 13,000+ members from the race’s 93 years.

Passing the second cutoff point at Cato Ridge (~60 km to go) brought us to the ironically named Harrison Flats. Luckily its rolling roads struck me as less challenging from this direction with their net downhill profile, and so I was able to make up time as the Old Main Road led us down into the belly of the waiting beast, my old buddy Inchanga.

56 km to go.

Harrison Flats to Drummond (Inchanga)
Though my energy levels remained high, all the climbing and descending was starting to wear on my legs as we made our way up the backside of Inchanga. And speaking of backsides, I can now appreciate that even though the Big Five — Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill and Cowies Hill — are notorious landmarks on the up run, they’re just as much a pain in the ass on the down run. Because it’s not like they suddenly flatten out in the opposite direction.

Climbing up the back of Inchanga we reached my favorite section of the course, the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children. At the same time emotionally disturbing and hugely uplifting, no memory of Comrades race day stands out like seeing the troubled children of Ethembeni, many with unfocused or faraway looks in their eyes, lined up with hands outstretched in the hopes of securing a high-five from passing runners.

Still wearing the beaded bracelet I’d received last year from the school’s headmaster, I smiled and high-fived every tiny hand available to me, in the hopes that feeling my encouraging slap on their palm might lift their spirits and, for even a brief moment, bring a smile to their face or heart.

Turning down the backside of Inchanga at the 2018 Comrades Marathon

Turning down the backside of Inchanga

Our brief visit to the Ethembeni School, coupled with the view from the top of Inchanga as runners below us descended the beast like two-legged ants, was well worth the struggle. Particularly since that struggle hadn’t been waged under direct midday sunlight.

Then down, down gravity carried us once again as I lay off the brakes and opened the throttle, taking the opportunity to catch my breath before the course briefly leveled out at its ceremonial midway point (cutoff mat #3) in Drummond. There the folks from Hollywoodbets greeted us alongside their familiar purple-and-yellow inflatable arch with music blasting and spectators screaming, as though we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. And while “loud” typically isn’t my scene, I tried to appreciate the raw energy of the moment before we’d immediately shift gears and start climbing again.

Because in case you hadn’t noticed, much like labeling Earth as “blue,” the terms “up run” and “down run” can be pretty misleading.

46 km to go.

Comrades Marathon halfway point: Drummond

Drummond to Winston Park (Botha’s Hill)
Unlike the up run where the second half begins with the nasty climb up Inchanga, this year we had something to look forward to on the climb out of Drummond and the Valley of 1,000 Hills.

First I paid a brief visit (along with a steady stream of fellow runners) to Arthur’s Seat, a shallow alcove carved out of the rock embankment on the south side of the road where 5-time Comrades champ Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his training runs. Legend has it that those who greet Arthur and leave him flowers during the race will enjoy a strong second half. And though my greeting had apparently fallen on deaf ears the year before, there was no use tempting fate by being an ugly American.

“Good morning, Arthur,” I said, leaning in and tapping the rock face gently as if to awaken its sleeping denizen. Who am I to flaunt tradition?

Arthur's Seat at 2018 Comrades Marathon

Just beyond Arthur’s Seat on the north side of the road stands the Comrades Wall of Honour, with its collection of plaques set in individual stones and labeled with the names and bib numbers of previous Comrades finishers — yellow plaques signify those with fewer than 10 finishes, whereas green plaques recognize members of the Green Number Club with 10 or more finishes. Amazingly, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy their own plaque to be displayed on the Wall. Can you imagine the folks at the Boston Athletic Association doing something similar for Boston Marathon finishers? Talk about great fundraising for the B.A.A.

Rounding the corner from the Wall of Honour I spied Katie, Cath and Miguel waving to get my attention. Pulling alongside them, I was psyched to see that Rory and his brother Kirby had joined them. Rory apparently had recognized me at Umlaas and had texted Katie to coordinate their positions. They all looked to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Katie informed me that Jimmy was about five minutes ahead and that they’d been able to see Beth in Camperdown. Good news all around.

Seeing the five of them was a solid pick-me-up, as was the Tailwind mix I sipped while catching my breath and stretching my legs. I could feel my quads growing heavy from all the hill work, and worried that they’d only continue to tighten as the miles mounted. Luckily the course would be largely downhill from here (= “down” run). So I did what I could to quickly loosen my weary legs before pulling back into traffic and continuing on toward Durban.

Miguel and Beth celebrate her farthest run ever in Drummond — only a marathon+ to go!

Looking around at the caravan of runners, I reflected on the fact that as a woman Beth was definitely in the minority here. Female runners made up less than ¼ (23%) of Comrades registrants and only 31% of international runners this year, consistent with the disproportionately lower number of female participants in ultramarathons around the world. This despite the fact that in the United States, women runners now outnumber their male counterparts. Attracting female runners should clearly be a priority for the Comrades Marathon and ultrarunning in general.

On the up run, Botha’s Hill is the third of the Big Five. On the down run, as Lindsey Parry had noted in his pre-race briefing, Botha’s is in fact three separate hills. And while none of the three is particularly steep, the road just seemed to roll ever upwards toward the sky, a physically and psychologically exhausting reality that turns many runners into walkers.

At last we crested Botha’s Hill and reached Kearsney College, where the students had apparently returned home early from a rugby tournament so as not to miss Comrades Day. Some boys lined the road while others sat in bleachers off to one side, each sporting his distinctive blue blazer with its “CARPE DIEM” crest on the lapel.

Top of Botha's Hill during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Welcome to Kearsney College and the top of Botha’s Hill

Lindsey Parry’s advice on the down run is to run conservatively until you reach the top of Botha’s Hill, just past the 50-km mark. Then, if you’ve played it smart and still have your legs under you, you’ll be able to pick up the pace in the final 40 km. Luckily my legs felt no heavier than they had during my pit stop in Drummond.

On the other hand, my body was once again rejecting the notion of solid (or even gelatinous) food, and so I knew the next 40 km would be challenging from a nutritional standpoint.

Reaching the bottom of Botha’s Hill, a nasty 1 km uphill jag welcomed us to the town of Hillcrest, one of the most raucous sections of the course. There, supercharged spectators lined the road, whooping and cheering their support for the runners. Many of them focused specifically on my stars & stripes with cries of “Go USA!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A!” I pumped my fist lightly in appreciation, not wanting to sacrifice too much adrenaline to the cause of patriotism.

Mike Sohaskey on Botha's Hill at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

If you were to close your eyes (though hopefully not while running) and judge solely by the music along the course, you could be forgiven for thinking Comrades was a US race. I heard plenty of American favorites including the theme song from Rocky and (twice) Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough like Jimmy to catch “Sweet Caroline.”

Aid station volunteers were pouring salt into runners’ hands; I recoiled like a red, white and blue slug. Was it really that hot? If so, I definitely wasn’t feeling it. Though the sun was approaching its zenith, extensive cloud cover ensured its influence would be minimal.

With 32 km to go, a quick left-then-right turn on Old Main Road brought us to the fourth cutoff mat at Winston Park. Here in the vicinity of Winston Park, I heard an announcement that the second female had entered the stadium in Durban. As much as hearing this underscored the freakish disparity between our respective athletic abilities, it also heartened me to realize I was far enough along that other runners were already finishing the race.

Have I mentioned how important a positive mindset is to success at Comrades?

30 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey crossing 4th cutoff in Winston Park at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Crossing the 4th cutoff mat in Winston Park

Kloof to Pinetown (Fields Hill)
Raise the roof, I’ve made it to Kloof, I thought with a wry smile. The thought lifted my spirits, since Kloof would be my third and final meeting place with the terrific trio of Katie, Cath and Miguel.

“We’re on the right, past the Coca-Cola hoopla at ~26km to go!” Katie had texted moments earlier, and now rounding the corner on the downhill I saw the Coca-Cola aid station just past the red Bonitas sign with its countdown thermometer indicating 28 km to go. I was a bit confused until, passing the aid station, I saw the three of them waiting just beyond.

Katie estimated Jimmy’s lead at 8–10 minutes, and I was psyched to hear he was still running well. So too was Beth, who I was told had looked strong in Drummond.

Jimmy makes one last stop to refuel in Kloof

For my part, I was thrilled to discover my legs felt no worse for wear now than they had at the midway point. Sure, the final 28 km wouldn’t be pretty, but just how un-pretty would depend more on the state of my stomach than the life in my legs. The good news was that I no longer had any need for my lightweight pack, since it wasn’t like my stomach would suddenly start accepting solid food again. So I dropped it with Katie, high-fived each of them to get my blood pumping and reluctantly bid them goodbye for the last time, promising with one last deep breath that I’d meet them at Moses.

Much like last year I know Fields Hills was long; I just couldn’t tell you how long. I do know it ended in Pinetown, an ending that couldn’t come soon enough. Because while the fourth member of the Big Five is definitely long and steep, it’s neither of these endearing qualities that makes Fields Hill public enemy #1 on the down run. That distinction belongs to its awful camber, which punishes the legs like nothing else on the Comrades course. I could easily see how runners might succumb to the siren song of Fields and fly down its steep slope, only to blow out their quads before Pinetown. And while Pinetown features plenty of car dealers and auto body shops, I didn’t notice any businesses touting “quad and calf repair while u wait.”

So I was relieved to reach the fifth cutoff point in Pinetown with my quads intact, and I’m confident my strength training (plus the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon as a downhill training run) made all the difference.

Conferring with Rory in Drummond

But though my quads remained intact, I can’t say the same for my stomach — because I still haven’t trained it to eat at the speed of Comrades. Thanks to the cooler weather I was able to snack more this year than last year, nibbling on a banana here and an (unsalted) orange there, along with two of my baby food pouches (200 calories, par-TAY!). Eventually, though, as has become its modus operandi, my stomach rebelled at any hint of solid food, so instead I resorted to the occasional sip of Coke or Energade to satisfy my body’s caloric cravings.

Turns out the problem with this strategy was the disconnect between mind and body — whereas my mind told me I needed the sugar/calories, as soon as I’d take another sip of Coke or Energade I’d feel the uncomfortable sloshing in my stomach. I ran ~15K from Kloof to Pinetown to Westville feeling like a human water balloon, even stopping once to answer nature’s call at a Pinetown porta-potty.

Finally, in the midst of my rising frustration it occurred to me to just ignore my mind and let my body use its fat stores as fuel, as I had for so many of my training runs. And though this certainly didn’t have the same magical effect as Popeye’s spinach, at least I was able to ease the bloating and get back to running (semi-) comfortably the rest of the way.

Again, it’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: you have to be ready, willing and able to adapt, mentally and physically, to any challenge and any situation.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Arthur's Seat

Pinetown was off the chain, much more so (understandably) than during last year’s up run when we’d arrived early in the day at around the half marathon mark. Now, loud and high-spirited crowds several deep lined the road, which narrowed at one point to almost single file as spectators pressed in from both directions. Boisterous chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” filled my ears, and I seemed to be running with my hand in a perpetual “thumbs-up” position.

Pinetown was amazing.

One of the human highlights of Comrades is the volunteers — like the race itself, they’re in a class by themselves. They do a remarkable job maintaining their focus as sweaty glassy-eyed runner after sweaty glassy-eyed runner shuffles toward them, eagerly snatching two water sachets at a time from their outstretched hand and often dropping one in the process. So the undisputed lowlight of the day was seeing one runner in Pinetown pause to reprimand a volunteer who apparently hadn’t lived up to his lofty expectations. “Pay attention!” the runner barked at the volunteer, who I didn’t see.

If you have enough energy to be dressing down volunteers this late in the race, I thought, you should be running harder.

Leaving Pinetown, a mild-mannered older woman saw my shorts and replied, “Oh, America… so sorry about Trump, eh?” I smiled wryly and thanked her for her sympathy, waving over my shoulder as I passed. I was admittedly curious to see what reactions my USA running kit would evoke, and hers was the overwhelming sentiment within South Africa, from runners and spectators on the course to our safari ranger several days later who matter-of-factly referred to our 45th President as “a retard, eh?”

20 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Based on the crowds around me, I must have been leading the race at this point

Pinetown to Mayville (Cowies Hill)
With nearly 72 km (45 miles) in my legs, the last of the Big Five loomed large. On the up run, Cowies Hill makes an early appearance as a key part of the long, steady climb toward Drummond. On the down run, though, it includes a nasty ½ mile ascent that reduced me unashamedly to a walk and earned me with a 12:25 mile, my slowest moving mile of the day. Luckily the payoff for reaching the top of Cowies was a smooth downhill run into Westville.

[Comrades Tip #5: Uphill, downhill, it doesn’t matter — smile for the photographers when you see them. One moment of faux happiness is worth a lifetime of memories. And at very reasonable prices relative to other large races (I paid ~$33 USD for the entire digital package), you’ll likely want to purchase your race day photos.]

Descending toward Westville I thought Ah, so this is why it’s called the down run. Seeing the urban landscape of Durban laid out below me, I let myself relax as waves of suppressed fatigue washed over me. Having been on my feet for over eight hours, I let my mind wander as we cruised along King Cetshwayo Hwy, the encouraging shouts of the spectators now sounding muffled and distant as I retreated into my own head.

Last year the 10-hour “bus” (Comrades-speak for a pacing group) had caught me as we approached Little Polly’s with 10 km to go. I was determined that wouldn’t happen this time as I kept pushing forward whenever possible. At the same time, I still recalled the punishing latter stages of last year’s up run and had no desire to relive that misery. Because the thought suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning on a clear day — this may be the last time I ever run Comrades.

With that sobering thought in mind, I allowed myself to look up, look around and use my walk breaks to soak it all in. I basked appreciatively in the adulation of the endless throngs with their tireless cheers, their uplifting chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and their altruistic offers of whatever we needed to help us get to Durban.

Yes, I wanted to run my best possible Comrades — but not at the expense of hating the final 20 km.

My reverie was shattered by a fellow runner dressed in African tribal gear who insisted on blowing his referee’s whistle as loudly and as frequently as possible. And while I appreciated both his enthusiasm and his outfit (and especially his ability to run 90 km in such an impressive headdress), at that moment I wanted to be anywhere else but running next to him and his freaking whistle. So whenever he’d pull alongside me with several shrill blasts to announce his whereabouts, I’d quickly speed up just enough to propel myself out of his direct earshot.

I’m sure the spectators appreciated his shrill whistle

In my bid to conserve energy, I wasn’t happy at being forced to accelerate in short, sporadic bursts. It felt like a bad dream where I’m trapped in drill team practice and can’t escape. And I wondered irately, Why blast a f@*#king whistle in your fellow runners’ ears for 10 hours?

Luckily I soon pulled far enough ahead to escape his one-note recital. The silver lining? His shrill blasts helped me stay sharp and maintain focus as we descended into Westville. After all, this stretch along King Cetshwayo Hwy is a quieter section of the course where, with Cowies behind and Durban ahead, it’s easy to lose your mental edge momentarily and feel fatigue setting in.

In the final ten miles or so as we neared Durban, every uphill seemed to require at least a short stint of walking, usually just long enough to take a few deep breaths and pull myself together. And though my legs were always reluctant to start running again after these slowdowns, once I did I found myself able not only to run but to run well, making solid progress and passing other runners. So I was definitely using the walk breaks to my advantage.

In Mayville we crossed the sixth and final cutoff mat, the last major milestone en route to finish line glory.

9 km to go.

The crowds thinned a bit between Cowies Hill and Westville — it is a highway, after all

Mayville to Moses Mabhida Stadium (finish)
One of the most memorable climbs of a long and memorable down run was also one of its shortest — the on-ramp from the M13 to the N3 at around the 83 km mark. After a sharp left turn, this steep uphill jag greeted us with a rise of 50 ft in just over 1/10 mile.

As I power-hiked upward to begin my final approach to Durban, a South African runner congratulated me on having my back-to-back medal “in the bag” — which at that moment sounded brilliant. I thanked him, and seeing my shorts his friend added that “Trump would be proud of you.” “Don’t think you want to go there,” the first fellow responded, and I agreed with a nod that our President’s approval was the furthest thing from my mind. Didn’t these two realize that exercise only depletes the body’s finite amount of energy?

[Comrades Tip #6: For all things coaching, Lindsey Parry is the definitive voice of the Comrades Marathon. That said, I’d respectfully disagree with his claim that the N3 on-ramp in Mayville is the last real uphill on the down run. With 84+ km in my heart and legs, the subsequent climb up to Tollgate and the N3 off-ramp into Durban both took the wind out of my sails.]

While it’s easy to predict the beating your legs will suffer over the course of 90 km, what may be less obvious is the steady pounding absorbed by the core muscles of your stomach and lower back. As we crested Tollgate my core muscles grew increasingly weary, and I did some quick high knee lifts in the hopes of granting them a momentary reprieve.

As it turns out, it’s tough to do much of anything without full cooperation from your back and stomach.

On the other side of the highway, drivers heading in the opposite direction honked (or hooted, as the South Africans say), and passengers hollered their support from passing cars. Which reiterated the insane fact that on this day we silly, selfish runners pursuing our silly, selfish hobby were the proud focus of a nation 56 million strong. And that humbling reminder immediately put a pep in my step.

Setting sights on Durban during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Hello Durban!

With around 7 km to go the concrete, steel and glass skyline of urban Durban came into view at last. The moment was empowering, to be running on a national highway lined with cheering supporters as the sprawling skyline of South Africa’s third largest city — and our final destination — beckoned in the distance. Welcome, the soaring gray skyscrapers seemed to say. We’ve been expecting you.

Pulling out my iPhone for a picture, I happened to glance down at the time: 2:35pm. Which meant I had roughly 54 minutes to cover 7 km and still finish in less than ten hours, a much slower pace than I’d been running to that point. And I’ll be honest — after seeing the time and doing the math, it became increasingly difficult to push myself any harder. As long as I broke ten hours, what was the difference between finishing in 9:54 (last year’s finish time) vs. 9:44? Aside from my overall place in the final results, to my mind there was no meaningful difference.

Moments like this emphasize the importance of a well-defined goal to help maintain focus; without one, a race like Comrades becomes even more challenging than its 90 km distance.

Though barely a blip on my final Garmin tracing, the last uphill of the day would be the N3 offramp that would drop us down onto the city streets of Durban for the final 5 km. Though not a formidable climb at any other time, glancing up now I felt almost dizzy following the sweeping arc of the overpass as it curved upward and away toward Moses Mabhida Stadium. And so, with heavy legs and a light head, I walked.

From there the course did something it hadn’t done in the first 85 km — it leveled out.

Scenes from Durban before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Scenes from Durban (clockwise from top left): “Mzansi” is the Xhosa word for South Africa; Indian Ocean’s-eye view of the beachfront; with an expected R355 million (~$24 million USD) impact on Durban’s economy, Comrades is all around you; street market spices — the city is home to the world’s largest Indian population outside India

We’d been told so many times leading up to race day that the new course would pass by the old finish venue at Kingsmead Stadium, that by the time we finally passed the unassuming cricket facility with 3 km to go, I felt as though I’d been here before. But even with 87 km in my legs, I was more than happy to bypass Kingsmead in favor of shiny new Moses Mabhida Stadium, which as we rounded the bend just past Kingsmead came into full and glorious view.

From there, the final “Toyota Mile” was a straight shot past the cheering masses lining Masabalala Yengwa Ave, as though Moses (Mabhida) himself were parting the sea of spectators ahead of us.

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

I glanced over at the gaunt fellow mouthing these words to my right and smiled weakly as the object of his desire rose up to greet us. The screaming onlookers faded into the background as I focused on the stadium’s distinctive ladder-like arch, reminiscent of a DNA double helix. Meanwhile, the asphalt beneath my feet rolled by like an urban treadmill. One step at a time. Step, stride, repeat. Feel free to breathe.

Absurd as it may sound, even better for me than seeing the finish line at Comrades is seeing the big red Bonitas sign announcing 1 km to go. Because that’s when I know the official victory lap begins. Being nearly 11,000 miles from home, soaking in that last ½ mile while basking simultaneously in the exhaustion and glory of the moment is like no other feeling I’ve experienced as a runner. And that includes right on Hereford, left on Boylston.

The understatement of the year — on Africa or any other continent — goes to the official-looking banner hung the full width of a pedestrian bridge just outside the stadium that read earnestly, “THERE IS NO TURNING BACK NOW!”

89km mark of the 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Nothing like a bit of last-minute motivation at 89 km

Then we’d arrived, and with a left turn we entered the stadium through a dark tunnel, emerging onto the bright green grass of the playing field. Ironically, after running under open sky for nearly ten hours, I suddenly felt very small under the venue’s massive open-air roof surrounded by 56,000 seats. Originally built to host the World Cup in 2010, Moses Mabhida Stadium is a breathtaking venue in which to complete your Comrades journey.

I’ve heard other runners, in the full throes of cliché, say there are no words to describe the finish of the Comrades Marathon. I disagree. There are plenty of words, with “freaking awesome” being the first that come to mind. The last stretch from entrance tunnel to finish line is a moment of sheer exultation that I wish I could have bottled to relive and share with others for the rest of my life. And when I die, the bottle could live on, inspiring other runners in its new home at the Comrades Museum in Pietermaritzburg.

The familiar green-and-white finish line topped with its double balloon arch welcomed us in full view — unlike last year’s winding finish inside the Scottsville Racecourse, there would be no game of “Find the finish line.” I savored those final 100m to the fullest, scanning the stands quickly for familiar faces before raising my arms in triumph and completing my back-to-back quest in an official time of 9:48:25.

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

0 km to go. AND… breathe.

Mike Sohaskey crossing finish line of 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Holy Moses!
Wobbling to a stop after my longest run ever, the first booming voice I recognized was Rory’s, and I glanced up into the stands to see him clapping excitedly in my direction. I was psyched to see him, and I can’t tell you how much it means to receive personal congrats from a fellow who finished this race 12 times, who earned a Green Number and to whom this event means so much.

Shuffling through the finish chute, I gratefully accepted my second consecutive bronze medal and Comrades patch, though sadly a yellow rose was excluded from this year’s awards. Hopefully Katie would understand when I showed up empty-handed.

Looking up at the steps that led from the field to the International Runners seating area, the grim reality of Moses Mabhida Stadium reared its ugly head. Because after covering 90 km in less than 12 hours, there’s nothing a runner wants less than to climb or (worse) descend stairs, and especially a stadium full of them. On the bright side, thanks to the mild weather I was in better post-race shape than last year when I’d been unable to move, much less negotiate stairs.

Jimmy Nam in homestretch of 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Jimmy’s day-glo calves put the finishing touches on their first ultramarathon

One slow and unsteady step at a time, I ascended the concrete stairs in search of the others. I saw Jimmy seated in a section by himself and waved — he’d run a brilliant race in his first Comrades, finishing in 9:25:23. From my vantage point, he looked comfortable and none the worse for wear.

For my part, I’d run 4½ minutes faster than last year, despite this year’s course being 3½ km longer. The mild weather had a lot to do with that, as did a familiarity and comfort with the event itself. And even with all else being equal, most folks clock faster finish times on the down run.

Reaching the top of the stairs and the inner concourse, I bumped into John from Anchorage who had finished just one minute and 52 seconds ahead of me to earn a second consecutive bronze of his own. Tiredly we congratulated each other and agreed that yes, two in a row was just about enough Comrades for a while.

But aside from finding Katie, my immediate post-race focus was on securing my back-to-back medal. Eventually I located its caretaker, a Comrades official on the move who wore the medals around his neck and who quickly presented me with mine before hurrying past on another mission. Why the back-to-back medals hadn’t been made available at the finish line with the other finisher medals is unclear, but who am I to tell the CMA their business?

The back-to-back medal is hands-down my proudest achievement in running. If I were to come home one day to find our house in flames and I could grab only one earthly possession, my Comrades back-to-back medal may just be it. I don’t know whether I’ll have the chance to add a third Comrades medal to my collection (though I’m already eyeing Comrades #100 in 2025), but in any event the first two — along with their back-to-back brethren — will never get lonely.

At last, ambling weakly around the concourse in search of familiar faces, I found Katie and threw my arms around her, lingering for a few seconds to let her hold me up. Because the alternative wasn’t pretty.

Exhausted finishers sprawled out on the floor of the concourse as other runners and supporters gingerly stepped around them. Unlike Scottsville Racecourse which last year offered grassy expanses on which to rest and recover, Moses Mabhida provided nowhere for finishers to comfortably gather their wits. The only available options were the cramped stadium seats with little room to stretch your legs, the cold concrete ground around those seats or the floor of the concourse with its busy foot traffic.

Acknowledging Rory’s support in the grandstands

None of the three options was ideal, but I needed to collapse somewhere. So while I sprawled uncomfortably on the floor of the concourse trying to a) get comfortable and b) avoid getting stepped on, Katie visited the concession stand and returned with nirvana in a cup. I don’t think I’ve had orange soda since I was like ten years old, but the Fanta orange soda she brought me at that moment was the best orange soda — and maybe the most amazing beverage — I’ve ever tasted. It was life itself, equal parts nectar, unicorn tears and liquid crack. Hello, insulin!

In addition to all the stairs and the lack of recovery spaces, massage tents (which last year were easily accessible) were inconveniently located on the outer concourse of the stadium, a fact I didn’t realize until it was time to leave. And immediately past the finish chute, South African runners were being directed to their club tents outside the stadium, meaning that unlike last year they were unable to mingle with the international runners. All because running clubs were prohibited from setting up their tents on the grass playing surface inside the stadium.

The five of us were on “Beth watch” as the clock ticked toward 11 hours. We wouldn’t be disappointed. As it turns out Beth paced the latter stages of her race beautifully, finishing with the 11-hour bus in 10:57:28 and earning her own bronze medal with 2½ minutes to spare.

With everyone present and accounted for we all reconvened, shared congratulations and then made our way toward the seats at midfield, directly in front of the finish line. Despite feeling like the walking undead, we weren’t about to miss what came next.

Cath and Jimmy wisely wasted no time in celebrating

The Spirit of Comrades
Without a doubt, the 12-hour cutoff for the Comrades Marathon is one of the most dramatic moments in all of sports. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, played out within yards of each other on a national stage. And I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to witness it in a venue like Moses Mabhida, with its warm fluorescent lighting and grandstand seating offering a full view of the finish line. Spectator viewing is where Moses Mabhida really excels as a finish venue — no offense to the rickety bleachers and overmatched floodlights of the Scottsville Racecourse.

[Comrades Tip #7: If you’re an international runner, and unless you were swept off to the med tent or have a bone protruding through your skin after the race, DO NOT MISS the 12-hour cutoff. It’s human drama like you won’t see at any other sporting event, and it may make you cling just a bit tighter to your own finisher medal.]

The announcer was again in top form for this year’s finish, setting the stage in dramatic fashion with his full-throated countdown. And it was in the final minute of the 12 hours that the Spirit of Comrades played out magically before our eyes.

View from the 2018 Comrades Marathon finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

View from the finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

Wobbling down the home stretch toward the finish line like a drunken schoolboy, a runner lost control of his body and collapsed to the grass roughly 30 yards from the finish. Several fellow runners, so close to glory themselves and risking their own finish, lifted the man off the ground and supported his limp body while propelling him forward, his head bouncing listlessly like a rag doll. Only his legs still seemed to grok their role, churning slowly beneath him as the rest of his body tried to call it quits. Apparently 11 hours and 59 minutes of concentrated effort had been enough.

It was like Weekend at Bernie’s meets reality television. About five yards from the finish he collapsed for the final time, and a volunteer signaled to his impromptu crew, presumably telling them he had to cross the finish line under his own power. And so, as the energized crowd cheered him to glory, he crawled on hands and knees past the waiting human chain of volunteers and across the finish line with 40 seconds to spare. It was then that I realized I’d been holding my breath behind my camera, and immediately I exhaled and erupted in applause of my own.

I’ve never seen anything like it, and I may never see anything like it again. And if I had to summarize the Spirit of Comrades in 45 seconds, I’d probably point to this footage:

Then the final countdown began, and seconds later the human chain swung into place, blocking the finish line as approaching runners looked on in a poignant mix of horror, disbelief and resignation. So close and yet so very, very far. Like marionettes who had danced for 12 hours before having their strings cut, several dropped to the grass within yards of the finish line and lay there with exhausted bodies and broken hearts.

The six of us stood for several heartbeats in shocked silence before our sympathy gave way to heartfelt applause. Two women seated nearby wiped tears from their eyes.

And with that, the curtain fell on the human theater of the 93rd Comrades Marathon. All the actors had played their roles admirably, and the performance would predictably garner rave reviews. The sequel opens June 9, 2019, and though the itch will undoubtedly be there when registration opens in October, I’m hoping to scratch it with a different South Africa race in 2019. But where Comrades is concerned, I’ll never say “Never again” — and especially since #100 happens in seven short years.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the day’s most remarkable story. Though he didn’t earn a medal, South Africa’s Xolani Luvuno earned a whole lot of love from his fellow athletes and countrymen by completing the 2018 Comrades Marathon — on one leg. Luvuno, a former addict who lost his right leg to amputation following a bone cancer diagnosis in 2009, started 5 hours ahead of the field and completed the 90 km distance on crutches in 15 hours, 50 minutes.

The next time your brain tells your body it can’t do something, think about Xolani Luvuno. Then stop listening to your brain and go do it. No less an authority than Nelson Mandela once said, “It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” He would know.

When the dust settled and the sun descended over Moses Mabhida Stadium, 16,478 of the day’s 19,116 starters (86.2%) had earned a finisher medal, with the distribution as follows:

618 = Gold + Wally Hayward + Silver
2491 = Bill Rowan
7,455 = Bronze
5,914 = Vic Clapham

(Source: Louis Massyn on Facebook)

As for the elites, Comrades 2018 was a clean sweep for the home team, with Bongmusa Mthembu claiming his third overall and second consecutive Comrades title in 5:26:34, while Ann Ashworth led the South African women to four of the top five slots, winning in a time of 6:10:04. (Defending champion Camille Herron of the US was forced to withdraw ten days before the race with a quad strain.)

2018 Comrades Marathon winners

Comrades champions Bongmusa Mthembu and Ann Ashworth led the way for South Africa (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I’ve gotten the question several times now: Which direction do I prefer, the up run or the down run? And the honest answer is, both and neither. Because there’s so much more to this race than the placement and gradient of the hills.

On the one hand, given the amount of downhill in the second half, the down run is traditionally a faster course (Lindsey Parry agrees). If I were ever to seriously consider a run at a sub-9 hour finish and Bill Rowan medal, I’d do it on the down run. I also met a handful of Comrades veterans whose only successful finishes have been on the down run, along with several unsuccessful attempts at the up run. (I’ve yet to hear of the reverse happening.) If you’re a slower runner who’s concerned with beating the 12-hour cutoff, I’d recommend the down run.

On the other hand, the down run is consistently 3-ish km longer (89 vs 86) than the up run, and will punish your quads and calves if you haven’t adequately trained for downhill running. By the midway point of this year’s down run, my legs definitely felt more fatigued than they had after the first 43 km of climbing last year. So if your strength (like mine) is uphill running, the up run may be your best bet.

That evening, despite our sadly limited appetites, Rory generously hosted dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. Dining at a nearby table, Bruce Fordyce dropped by to say hello and shake Jimmy’s hand in recognition of an excellent performance in his first Comrades. It was a singular moment and, together with dinner itself, a perfect ending to a day I didn’t want to end. Because it’s not often you earn a personal congratulations from one of the planet’s greatest athletes, amirite?

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run, while I steal a handshake

Turns out our day wasn’t quite over — or at least not our night. With wire cutters in hand, Katie and I drove the darkened streets around Moses Mabhida Stadium, snipping yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards from lamp posts to keep and distribute as souvenirs. (I’d secured my matching 2017 placard, signed by both Bruce and 1982 women’s champ/current CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn, via a charitable donation at the International Runners Reception.) The street crews were happy for the help, since they planned to remove the signs within the week anyway.

[Comrades Tip #8: Want a cool unofficial souvenir? If you have a car, on the night of the race borrow a set of wire cutters (we got ours from the hotel) and go snip one of the yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards that are affixed to lamp posts along the route. This also helps with post-race clean-up.]

Amazingly, come Monday morning my legs were minimally sore, and even that low-level soreness faded by Wednesday. Either I hadn’t run hard enough, or I’d training my quads well for the downhill pounding — or maybe both. As usual after a tough marathon or ultra, though, my immune system was the real casualty. Over the course of the next week I developed a nasty cold and cough, just in time for back-to-back 11+ hour return flights from Johannesburg to London and London to Los Angeles.

Having crossed finish lines in both Pietermaritzburg (up run) and Durban (down run), I can now say by any standard that I’ve completed the Comrades Marathon. And I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s nothing else like it in the world. It certainly isn’t the most scenic event — there are many more picturesque courses including South Africa’s own Two Oceans Marathon, which bills itself as the “World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.” But it’s hands-down the best, owing to its epic scope — its 93 years of history, its uniquely time-honored traditions, its diverse brotherhood of runners from around the globe, and its cultural and spiritual significance to an entire nation that has fought long and hard to embody the values of dignity, respect and equality that are the cornerstones of the Ultimate Human Race.

Bruce Fordyce has said that “If you don’t shed at least one tear during Comrades, you must have ice in your veins.” He may be right. But even if you’re not the misty-eyed sentimental type, you’ll never be the same once you’ve experienced this event for yourself. And my suggestion for next year’s race slogan would simply be Liyakushintsha, from the Zulu meaning, It changes you.

Though unthinkable a year ago, the truth is that this year’s sequel more than lived up to the original. This was in large part thanks to the excellent companionship of Jimmy, Cath, Beth and Miguel, plus the excellent returning companionship of John and Rochene from Anchorage and other friendships renewed and forged throughout the weekend. The only thing better than competing in the Ultimate Human Race may be sharing the experience with someone else.

Because while the 90 km marathon may be the focus of the weekend, and rightfully so, this race is all about the comrades.

U-S-A! Ca-na-da! U-S-A!

Comrades Marathon resources I leaned on (in addition to Rory):

  • Lindsey Parry’s podcast “RUN with Coach Parry”—especially its archives—is a treasure trove of expertise and insights from the official Comrades coach; older episodes are less than ten minutes each, so you can listen to several at a time. Coach Parry also has some very good content on YouTube.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them myself, both volumes of his “Fordyce Diaries”—Conquering the Up as well as Tackling a Down Run—are available as e-books exclusively on the site. If anyone can teach you to conquer Comrades, it’s the man who won it nine times!
  • Though we planned our own itinerary this year, our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades 2017 and for our post-race travels in South Africa.

2018 Comrades Marathon finish line selfie with Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho

BOTTOM LINE: At the risk of sounding like a (happily) broken record, the Comrades Marathon is the greatest running event on the planet. Not only is it the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, but no other event can match its epic scope and time-honored traditions, its all-day adrenaline, and the easy camaraderie forged among runners from around the globe. Comrades is truly a race that celebrates all runners and wants everyone to succeed, from international runners who travel halfway around the world to local runners who qualify for the race but can’t afford lodging — for these athletes, the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) sets up cots to sleep on near the start line the night before the race.

But to whom much is given — in this case, the opportunity to participate in the Ultimate Human Race — much is expected, and you can expect the journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (or the reverse) to be anything but smooth. Because Comrades is a trial by fire. Both mental and physical hardships await on the long, hot, hilly road to Durban, each of which will test you, test your resolve, and ultimately change you. As the 2016 race slogan predicted, Izokuthoba: It will humble you. And if you’re anything like me or the many other runners from around the world who return to this event year after year, you’ll discover that 90 km cycle of destruction and renewal to be cathartic and even downright addictive — physically, spiritually and psychologically. You’ve been warned.

2018 Comrades Marathon and 2017-18 back-to-back medals

PRODUCTION: Awesome, except for the post-race logistics in Moses Mabhida Stadium, which despite its sleek modernity was less runner-friendly than the smaller Scottsville Racecourse last year. I won’t be the first or last person to tell the CMA that the stadium as a finish venue is a work in progress. Whereas its grandeur and spectator-friendly viewing arrangement are beyond reproach, as a post-race recovery zone for runners it leaves a lot to be desired.

There’s plenty of work to be done to reimagine Moses Mabhida as a more comfortable and inviting post-race venue, and hopefully that starts with letting finishers and running clubs gather on the grass playing field. While I’d imagine there are liability and security issues that limit its access, it seems absurd to have exhausted runners dragging themselves up and down concrete stairs, sitting in cramped plastic seats and sprawling underfoot on the floor of the concourse while an immaculate grass surface lays unused below them.

Aside from that, race day was perfect. And a special shout-out of appreciation to all the volunteers without whom Comrades would be impossible — I’m constantly amazed at the selflessness of the folks who voluntarily stand on their feet for hours in any weather to help runners like me achieve our personal goals. You all are the real heroes of the Comrades Marathon!

Appropriately, Jimmy’s shoes get the last word

SWAG: At roughly the size of an American quarter or RSA 5 Rand coin (the back-to-back medal is only modestly larger), the Comrades finisher medal may be the smallest in distance running. And yet it’s also among the most coveted. My three Comrades medals — two bronze, one back-to-back for running consecutive years — are the guests of honor in my collection alongside my Boston Marathon unicorn. To me, the medals are beautiful in their simplicity. Plus, they’re great conversation starters, particularly for puzzled non-runners who balk at the notion of running 90 km for something that small.

Unfortunately, the official race shirt this year was downright ugly. As Jimmy suggested, it’s almost as if Mizuno learned they’d won the Comrades sponsorship and immediately sent someone into the back of the warehouse to find a bunch of blank tech shirts on which to print a Comrades logo, year and distance. The royal blue shirt has the beginnings of a honeycomb pattern on front which morphs into a strange geometric pattern reminiscent — to this lab rat — of viruses viewed under an electron micropscope. All of which adds nothing to the design. The shirt lacks the design sensibility of last year’s New Balance merch, a truth that extended to everything in the Mizuno store at this year’s expo. I showed up at the expo ready to support all things Comrades as I had in 2017, only to be disappointed by Mizuno running shoes with no Comrades branding and Mizuno t-shirts that simply said “Osaka Japan” on the front. In the end, I grudgingly saved my money and opted for a simple black tech shirt with a tiny Comrades logo on the sleeve. So a word to the wise at Mizuno: get back to the drawing board before next year’s event and KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. You could sell hella more merch with even the slightest bit of foresight and design sensibility.

(Huge thanks to Cath, Katie and Miguel, without whose photos I couldn’t have filled up a 13,000-word race report!)

2017-2018 Comrades Marathons medals

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Jun 10, 2018 (start time 5:30 am, sunrise 6:49 am)
56.58 miles (91.1 km, officially 90.184 km) from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa
Finish time & pace: 9:48:25 (second time running Comrades, first “down” run), 10:24/mile
Finish place: 4,957 overall, 1,760/5,710 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 16,478 total (78% men, 22% women)
Race weather: cool (57°F) & partly cloud at the start, warm (72°F) and partly cloudy at the finish, overcast throughout the race
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,024 ft ascent, 6,134 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 20 ft, 2,710 ft

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I used to love the feeling of running, of running too far. It made my skin tingle.
– Larry Bird

Mike Sohaskey with DINO (Do INdiana Off-Road) truck

Ask any 50 States runner why they want to run a marathon (or half marathon) in every state, and one answer you’re unlikely to hear is “Indiana.”

Turns out those folks just don’t know where to look.

Admittedly, my visit to the Hoosier State started out more guns than roses. In fact, I was having second (and third) thoughts as I waited impatiently in a long line of cars trying to enter a construction-riddled section of highway that Indiana friends Jeff and Susan had, with exasperation, referred to as “The Pence.” Apparently this particular infrastructure project had begun as a public-private partnership under the not-so-watchful eye of former governor and current Vice President of the United States Mike Pence, who had awarded the I-69 extension project to a European Company with no experience in the U.S. and which Bloomberg in 2015 deemed “the riskiest company in the world.”

What happened next was as predictable as a Bobby Knight temper tantrum. With Mike Pence shelving his integrity and retreating to the swamplands of Washington DC, the state had dissolved the costly partnership, leaving the I-69 project far behind schedule and way over budget. The end result was the embarrassing clusterf*#k that now had many frustrated Hoosiers and one aggravated Californian sitting at a complete standstill on a rural byroad on a Friday night for no apparent reason.

After not advancing an inch in 20 minutes, I elected to exit the queue and turn back the way I’d come, following a more circuitous (yet faster) route to the college town of Bloomington. There my pal Jeff awaited, fresh off a lengthy drive from his hometown of Fort Wayne — or as he describes it, the “Riviera of the Midwest.”

Mike Sohaskey, Katie Ho, Jeff Rohleder & Susan S

Good times with Susan & Jeff in LA

I’d first met Jeff and his partner Susan way south of the Mason-Dixon Line in Antarctica in 2013. One of our favorite couples from the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, Katie and I had kept in touch with the two of them regularly since then, meeting up for two World Marathon Majors in Berlin and New York City and for their occasional visit to Southern California, as during 2016’s inaugural Desert Trip Festival (or in Jeff words, “old people’s Coachella”).

Since our first meeting at the bottom of the world, Jeff had encouraged me to come run the Tecumseh Trail Marathon, his favorite trail marathon in his home state. Calling it a “Great run in Hooterville,” his tongue-in-cheek RaceRaves review had referenced two of the toughest races on his running résumé, touting the course as a “scaled-down Machu Picchu or Pikes Peak outside of Bloomington Indiana,” and emphasizing that during the race you find yourself “so deep in the woods and seeing so many shacks, you expect to see the kid from ‘Deliverance’ playing ‘Dueling Banjos’ to keep you entertained.”

If even 50% of what Jeff said were true, I was 100% intrigued. Luckily Indiana wasn’t a state where I had my heart set on a particular race, as with Illinois (Chicago) or Massachusetts (Boston). And so for several years I’d tried to fit Tecumseh into my race schedule, until life had finally presented me with an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. With friends Pete and Faby having their first child in nearby Chicago in early October, Tecumseh in late October afforded the chance to visit two of my favorite couples plus my favorite newborn, all while adding Indiana to my 50 States map as state #18.

Indiana University entrance

Bloomington’s own house of higher learning, home of the Hoosiers

Unfortunately as it turned out, neither of our better halves would be able to join us in Bloomington, meaning Jeff and I would have a boy’s weekend all to ourselves in the home town of his alma mater, the University of Indiana.

And like the growed-up responsible adults we now are, that night we carbo-loaded at a local pizza parlor before heading straight back to our hotel room to watch my hometown Dodgers lose Game 3 of the World Series. Then we hit the sack for a 5:45am wakeup call. As a night owl coming from the West Coast I knew I’d struggle to fall asleep, and so the next day’s unusual 10:00am start time was much appreciated, a testament to the laid-back ethos of the trail running community.

Call me easy, but I was liking Tecumseh already. Hooterville, here we come.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon finish area around Yellowwood Lake

Finish area around Yellowwood Lake

Rolling out the red carpet
Saturday morning was a divergence from the usual pre-race routine. With hours to wait until race start and plenty of time to digest, Jeff and I took advantage of the free breakfast buffet at the hotel (Hampton Inn Bloomington), where we chatted with fellow Tecumseh runner Mike, a wiry gentleman in his 70s from Franklin, Tennessee, who’d run a paltry 360 marathons and ultramarathons in his life. It’s not often I’ll deviate from my usual pre-race breakfast of granola, non-dairy yogurt and peanut butter, but then again this wasn’t the usual road race with the usual butterflies — this was as chill as marathons get.

And speaking of chill, that’s exactly what awaited us after breakfast as we wished Mike good luck (he’d end up winning his age group, 70-99) and hopped in the car for the 30-minute drive to Yellowwood State Forest. With temperatures hovering in the mid-30s and no precipitation, it was shaping up to be a beautiful day for a trail run.

Mike Sohaskey and Jeff Rohleder at Tecumseh Trail Marathon

Jeff knows a good race — he’s run all 6 World Marathon Majors and on all 7 continents

Within an hour we’d parked in the dewy grass alongside Yellowwood Lake adjacent to the finish area, checked in at the DINO (Do INdiana Off-road) tent to collect my bib number and race sweatshirt, and boarded the bus that would transport us to the start line 30+ minutes north of us in Morgan-Monroe State Forest. To me buses are always welcome, since I’m a big fan of point-to-point courses and actively try to avoid running loops or out-and-backs. As we rolled along, two-time Tecumseh finisher Jeff recalled the year they’d run the race in ankle-deep snow, before the organizers had wisely moved the race from December to its current October time slot.

Truth is, if the race were still held in December, I probably wouldn’t have been so keen to run it. There’s a good reason I live in SoCal without skis or snowshoes — winter and I don’t really see eye to eye. Why swathe myself in several layers of heavy clothing in a desperate attempt to maintain body heat until eventually I can retreat to an artificially heated room and appreciate how nice it is, as a warm-blooded mammal, to stay warm? As awesome and intuitive as that sounds, I prefer to cut out the middleman and go straight to the part where I’m warm. I don’t have enough body fat for real winters.

As soon as we deboarded, I was reminded of another reason I love small trail races — just steps away awaited a group of porta-potties with short lines. (Though having run enough trail races to know better, I’d brought along my own roll of toilet paper, juuust in case.)

Tecumseh Trail Marathon start area

Almost “go” time in Morgan-Monroe State Forest

Ten minutes later I said goodbye and good luck to Jeff, who planned to take things smart and easy — after recent surgery for a torn meniscus in both knees, his sole focus was to reach the finish line. And as the reason I’d chosen Tecumseh in the first place, I knew he was here to graciously host me in his home state and at one of his favorite races. To me, cool kids like Jeff are what this 50 States quest is all about, and I was psyched he’d made the nearly 200-mile drive from Fort Wayne to join me.

I downed a 5-hour Energy, not only to cover the amount of time I’d likely be out here but to get the blood flowing, as a way to counter my shivering and offset the morning chill. Then it was “go” time as 175 marathoners stampeded across the start line and toward the forest en masse, like lost labradors trying to find our way home.

Immediately we were among the trees, as the short stretch of gravel trail transitioned to soft dirt. My mindset quickly morphed from “Damn, it’s cold” to “Damn, what a perfect day” — this felt good. A gazelle I’m not, but it had been a while since running on dirt had felt this effortless (certainly not in Colorado), and my love for the trails came flooding back. Because as much as I enjoy the faster pace and urban scenery of road races, there’s a serenity and a solitude to running in nature that soothes the mind, relaxes the body and lifts the spirit in a way that running on asphalt never can.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 1

What’s not to love when mile 1 looks like this?

Not that I’d done much trail running in 2017, with my primary focus being the Comrades Marathon. According to my training log, Tecumseh would be only the fourth time all year I’d worn my trail shoes (two of the first three being the Way Too Cool 50K in March and Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler in September). So it definitely felt good to be back on dirt.

At the same time, Colorado was still very much at the back — check that, front — of my mind. Seven weeks after a physically grueling effort and a nasty spill at Run Rabbit Run, my bruised rib cage and wrenched rotator cuff had yet to forgive and forget. And though both tissues had more or less healed, one awkward spill could easily undo seven weeks of painful — and painstaking — recovery.

So rather than chasing an arbitrary time goal on an unfamiliar course deep in the woods, my #1 goal today would be to reach the finish line without falling. Aim high, I know. Unfortunately that was easier said than done on a course with so much elevation change and so many potential pitfalls — roots, rocks, holes — lurking beneath the leafy carpet. And unlike a road marathon, I knew that watching my every step while also scanning three steps ahead for an entire 26.2 miles would be mentally exhausting. Luckily, with five hours of energy coursing through my bloodstream and nowhere else to be the rest of the day, I was in no hurry.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 3

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep… (mile 3)

I pulled off my right glove to allow for easier picture-taking, while leaving the left one on for warmth. Immediately the opening bars of “Thriller” played in my head. Luckily for the other runners around me, there’d be no moonwalking if I wanted to reach the finish line before everyone went home.

Coming from Southern California, I rarely see leaves in any color other than green or brown. So with the scantily clad forest exploding in eye-popping reds, oranges and golds, it was easy to get distracted and take my eyes off the trail — a trail which, given the Law of Conservation of Foliage (Newton’s Second Law of Botany, look it up!), was now largely concealed by those same leaves that until recently had adorned the half-naked trees all around us.

So with fall in full swing, the marathon course was essentially a multilayered carpet of leaves for miles at a time, interrupted by the occasional gravel connector between sections. Luckily, despite my heroic lack of directional sense and the uniformity of the leafy carpet (which made following the trail’s twists and turns a constant challenge), I was never in danger of a wrong turn thanks to frequent pink ribbons and white rectangles drawn on tree trunks to mark the course.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 12

Compared to the softer dirt, the gravel connectors were jarring to the legs (mile 12)

Unlike the Ice Age Trail 50 with its occasional open meadows, nearly all our time was spent running in forest or on gravel. The wide gravel roads offered a brief but much appreciated respite from having to focus on every step, though at the same time the gravel surface felt jarring compared to the softer, more forgiving trail.

Aid stations and good-natured volunteers were strategically placed along these gravel stretches to provide water, Gatorade, snacks or directions. In the cold weather and still satiated from breakfast, my aid station stops for the day amounted to two gulps of water and one gulp of Gatorade.

Cruising below the multihued canopy of oak, walnut and sycamore trees, the rhythmic {snap} of branches and {crunch} of dead leaves underfoot served as the morning’s soundtrack. With forest in all directions, this felt like a scene from “The Blair Witch Project,” minus the shaky camera work and panicked gasps.

Mile 9 featured one of the day’s highlights as the Tecumseh Trail rolled out its own red carpet for us with a uniform stretch of bright red leaves blanketing the ground. I’d never seen anything like it, and as I gazed around me in appreciation I nearly missed a turn and headed off into the trees in the wrong direction. Unfortunately for you, this recap would probably be a lot more interesting if I had.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 9

Green (and red) with envy: Rolling out the red carpet in mile 9

Hats off to Hooterville
Near the halfway point along the course’s longest stretch of gravel road, I passed a sign that read HIGH WATER AHEAD. “Better than Hell,” I joked to the two smiling spectators standing in front of the sign, cheering us on. Turns out the sign would have the last laugh, though, as I splashed through the standing water on the gravel footbridge, exposing my feet to their first dunking of the day.

And speaking of spectators, a few appeared sporadically along the gravel transitions, including one excitable woman who I saw more than once and who was dressed in costume, as though Halloween couldn’t come soon enough. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and luckily I had the chance to thank her at the post-race picnic.

Throughout the race I’d pass other runners on the uphills (my strength), only to have them pass me again on the downhills (my weakness). This is typical for me in trail races and kept me entertained for much of the day. Eventually, though, I managed to distance myself from most of my pursuers as I continued to climb hills at a steady pace, slowed in the second half not by fatigue as much as by the increased frequency of slick footing, rocks and roots.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon elevation profile

TTM is a net downhill, with not a lot of level footing

One note of exasperation here: not sure whether this is a “friendly Midwesterner” thing, but many of the runners at Tecumseh seemed to lack an understanding of personal space. In the first half in particular, there were stretches where I found myself moving faster than I wanted, propelled along by runners who for some reason felt the need to run in my back pocket. I half-expected my iPhone (stored in the Spibelt at the small of my back) to ring and for one of them to answer it. Yoda clinging to Luke’s shoulders on Dagobah thought they were too close.

Their proximity didn’t bother me so much during short stretches of conversation, but when we’d run in silence it quickly got on my nerves. And especially when one of them would inexplicably refuse my offer to let them pass. Fewer than 200 runners spread out along 26.2 miles of trail, and you have to run on my heels?

Luckily, as the miles passed and the runners spread out more, the gaps between us widened and I was able to reclaim my personal space. And at that point I felt like I could run all day — up and down, climbing and descending and switchbacking my way through the forest without a care in the world. I was in the zone and quickly lost track of my mileage. I was running for the sheer love of it, at a comfortable “Goldilocks” pace that never left me feeling tired or hungry — not too fast, not too slow, but juuust right.

Mike Sohaskey at Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 12

Pausing for a “Stand By Me” (or maybe “Stranger Things 2”?) moment in mile 12

And through it all, I managed to maintain my balance and stay upright. The increasingly slick, rocky and rooty trail demanded constant vigilance to avoid a nasty spill. Occasionally my foot would slide one way or the other, but still I managed not to fall. And I was careful to lift my feet — one lazy step and, before I could blurt out my favorite four-letter profanity, I’d be lurching face-forward into the leaves (or worse).

A babbling stream, a rustic cabin, the hush of a leaf-carpeted forest letting its silence speak for itself — this was all the stuff of a Robert Frost or Henry David Thoreau poem (or “Deliverance” without the banjos, if that’s your thing). Ask any runner what they think about when they think about trail running, and the mental picture probably looks a lot like Tecumseh. This was unlike anything I’d experienced on the West Coast, and I was basking in the quietude —

A yelp of pain jarred me out of my quiet place, and I glanced up to see one of the two fellows directly ahead of me hopping on one foot beside the trail. I paused to make sure he was ok, and he nodded. “Weak ankle,” he responded, “Keep re-twisting it.” I continued on, empathizing with his struggles — I’d been in his shoes myself, most recently at the 2013 ET Full Moon Midnight Marathon where I’d run/limped nine more miles to the finish after twisting my ankle at mile 17.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 19

Switchbacking uphill in mile 19

Moments later he passed me at an impressively eager pace, followed soon after by that same agonized yelp. A mile or so later, the same thing. With each cry I winced and gritted my teeth. At one point his companion also hit the ground ahead of me, apparently toppled by a rock or root. What a pair. After the third yelp I’d heard enough, and I leapfrogged him and his angry ankle for the final time as he called ahead to his buddy, “Right behind you!”

After this slapstick interlude, I happily ran by myself the rest of the way. Just as my Garmin chortled mile 22 (which may have been closer to mile 23, but being deep in the forest who knows), I heard the welcome voice of the PA announcer from across Yellowwood Lake, which we now were circling on our approach to the finish line.

Jeff had warned me to expect frequent stream crossings; fortunately we’d caught Yellowwood in a dry spell and I ended up with wet feet on only three occasions, the third and final time an avoidable slog through standing water in mile 23.

Finally, with no clue how long I’d been in the forest, I emerged onto the final stretch of gravel and turned onto the high grass leading to the finish alongside Yellowwood Lake. Still looking like a Michael Jackson tribute runner with one glove on, the lone representative from the state of California crossed under the finish banner in a personal worst marathon time of 5:03:22.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Tecumseh Trail Marathon

The other one-glove-wearing Michael from California (free photos courtesy of Do INdiana Off-Road)

It was admittedly longer than I’d expected, but at the same time a finish is a finish, and the day’s real victory had come in staying upright for the entire five hours. Salud, rib cage! You’re welcome, rotator cuff! And I felt invigorated, with enough gas left in the tank to complete the Tecumseh Trail 50K had it been offered (which as it turns out in 2018, it will be).

Unfortunately the finisher’s medal (available for an extra $8 at registration) would be engraved with our name and finish time and then mailed to us, and so wasn’t awarded at the finish line. But that fleeting moment of disappointment was quickly drowned in finish line endorphins and then vanquished by the excellent post-race spread, which featured a variety of soups, sandwiches and chips — including vegetarian and vegan options — as well as hot and cold drinks and two types of craft beer.

I thanked DINO Director Brian Holzhausen, then donned my pullover and wind pants and sat down alongside the lake to eat quickly while I waited for Jeff to finish. Between bites I chatted with a fellow finisher who’d been similarly twitterpated by the beauty and scenery of the marathon course. Then I glanced up to see Jeff standing beside me — apparently he’d conquered 18 miles or so before his knees had said no más, and he’d smartly chosen to retreat to the warm car and the Saturday sounds of college football on the radio.

Yellowwood State Forest sign at Tecumseh Trail Marathon

I finished up quickly and we said our goodbyes to Hollywood Yellowwood, driving back to Bloomington where we’d spend the afternoon/evening touring his alma mater and enjoying the college-town vibe. And now I need to get back to Bloomington because my #1 goal on the IU campus — to see a Big Ten basketball game at legendary Assembly Hall — is still out there.

As much as Tecumseh exceeded all expectations, the bulk of my appreciation goes to Jeff — for turning me on to this hidden gem tucked deep within the wilderness of Southern Indiana, for making the drive and sacrificing his weekend to host me when he certainly had no obligation to do so, and to him and Susan both for being the perfect living, breathing examples of why there’s no better way to see the world than 26.2 miles at a time. Because while the exhilaration of visiting a new city, state, country or continent is tough to beat, it’s the people I meet along the way that will always animate my memories — and especially when those people are as animated as Jeff and Susan.

So it was that on the lush green backdrop of Yellowwood State Forest in Brown County, I’d been treated to an autumn masterpiece from Mother Nature — a vibrant palette of reds, oranges and golds that awoke the mind, inspired the body and titillated the senses. Who knew that a boy from dark blue California could find so much to love about the deep red Midwest?

Color me impressed, Indiana.

Mike Sohaskey - Tecumseh Trail Marathon finish line selfie

A sadly Katie-free (and medal-free) finisher selfie

BOTTOM LINE: Close your eyes — what comes to mind when I say “trail running”? Odds are it looks an awful lot like Tecumseh. TTM is the quintessential “over the river and through the woods” type of experience, unlike most of the California trail races I’ve run which, while awesome in their own right, typically feature hard-packed dirt terrain in more exposed surroundings. And it’s a point-to-point course from one forest (Morgan-Monroe State Forest) to another (Yellowwood State Forest), always a bonus for those of us who try to avoid running loops and out-and-backs.

For weather reasons the organizers at Do INdiana Off-road (DINO) moved the race date from December to late October several years ago, giving Yellowwood State Forest the chance to fully flaunt its fiery fall colors. And aside from the brief gravel transitions, the entire trail for this year’s race was covered with a multilayered, multihued carpet of leaves cast aside by the surrounding forest.

Tecumseh feels like the middle of nowhere, to be sure — but what the course lacks in majestic mountain or expansive ocean views, it more than makes up for with rural Americana charm. Especially for us West Coast types who aren’t used to seeing leaves in any color other than green. My buddy Jeff, a Tecumseh veteran and the reason I decided to make TTM my first Indiana race, describes the course as “so deep in the woods… you expect to see the kid from ‘Deliverance’ playing ‘Dueling Banjos’ to keep you entertained.” Whether amusing or discomforting or maybe both, the truth is he’s not far off.

So whether you’re a road runner in search of something completely different, a trail runner seeking the best the Midwest off-road race scene has to offer, or a 50 Stater looking for a challenging change of pace in the Hoosier State, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than this hidden gem tucked deep in the backwoods of Yellowwood State Forest. Banjo strictly optional, though you never know — you may just find a kindred spirit in Yellowwood.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 8

Sometimes trail running simply means finding the path of least resistance

PRODUCTION: Brilliantly executed, with just enough production to ensure the day ran smoothly and efficiently while not interfering with the low-key ethos. The comfortable, warm 30-minute bus ride from the finish area (where we parked our car) to the start in Morgan-Monroe State Forest was a nice waker-upper to start the day. And the leaf-carpeted course interspersed with gravel connectors — a wrong turn waiting to happen — was expertly marked by pink ribbons and hand-drawn white rectangles, with volunteers positioned at aid stations and other strategic spots to point us in the right direction where necessary.

Fans of stale bagels and green bananas may be disappointed by the excellent post-race spread, which featured an assortment of food and beverages including several soups and sandwiches (with vegan vegetable and peanut butter & jelly as vegetarian options) plus chips and drinks such as lemonade, coffee and hot chocolate. Two types of beer, an IPA and an Octoberfest, were also available from newly tapped kegs. The post-race party wasn’t held indoors around a roaring fire as it has been in past years, but despite the chill I was perfectly happy to sit out alongside Yellowwood Lake and chat with my fellow finishers while we all refueled.

Tecumseh Trail Marathon sweatshirt and medal

SWAG: Tecumseh featured a couple of firsts for me on the swag side, as the first time 1) I’ve received a race sweatshirt and 2) the finisher’s medal has been mailed to me after the race — the latter to allow time for the organizers to engrave the medal with my name and finish time. The sweatshirt is reasonably nice and feels warm enough to stand up to the Indiana winter, but the truth is I’ll never wear it in Southern California — I’ve lived in LA for five years now, and the next time I wear a sweatshirt here will be the first. And while the engraving is a nice touch, I prefer to receive the medal immediately after crossing the finish line, with optional engraving available post-race. Unfortunately, whereas my TTM experience will always stand out in my mind, the uninspired finisher’s medal won’t stand out on my wall. In fact, my first thought on sliding it out of its brown manila envelope was of winning my 3rd grade spelling bee, because the generic-looking award has my name and finish time engraved on the front, above and below the less conspicuous TTM logo. Yes, I know trail races aren’t usually known for their bling… but if you’re going to do it, do it well. On the bright side, at least it’s a medal I can hang and not a coffee mug!

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey 50 States map

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Oct 28, 2017 (start time 10:00am)
25.17 miles (inaccurate due to loss of GPS signal in the forest) from Martinsville to Nashville, IN (state 18 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 5:03:22 (first time running the Tecumseh Trail Marathon), 12:03/mile
Finish place: 65 overall, 7/17 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 175 total (124 men, 51 women)
Race weather: cold & cloudy at the start (36°F) and finish (39°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,907 ft ascent, 2,234 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 563 ft, 956 ft

Tough times never last, but tough people do.
– Dr. Robert H. Schuller

MIke Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Welcome to New Mexico sign

Some states are easier than others.

For the runner whose goal is to run a marathon or half marathon in all 50 states, one of the toughest tasks can be deciding which race to run in a particular state. Most states offer several appealing options — California, for instance, features at least a dozen highly rated marathons, not to mention all its excellent half marathons and ultras. Conversely, very few states boast one “must run” event that dwarfs the competition; as the oldest and most prestigious marathon in the country, the Boston Marathon in Massachusetts is certainly one of these.

You may be surprised, then, to hear that New Mexico is among the latter — because a short drive from the Texas/Mexico border, on the high desert plains of the White Sands Missile Range, awaits one of the most unique race weekends you’ll ever experience.

If you can’t trust online quizzes to set you straight, who CAN you trust?

The Bataan Death March (April, 1942)
On April 9, 1942, following the three-month Battle of Bataan and surrender of the Bataan Peninsula, 66,000 Filipino and 10,000 American soldiers were forced by their Japanese captors to march 69 grueling miles from Bataan to San Fernando in temperatures as high as 110°F. Starvation, disease, physical brutality and wanton killings characterized the five-day march, with many soldiers being bayoneted for being too weak to walk.

Though estimates of the death toll range widely, thousands of POWs died along the route from Bataan to San Fernando, with only 54,000 reaching the prison camps at Camp O’Donnell. There thousands more perished from starvation and disease and were buried in mass graves. After the war, an American military tribunal judged the march to be a Japanese war crime and executed the commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines.

Forty-eight years later, in the high desert of Southern New Mexico on the grounds of the White Sands Missile Range, a living patriotic tribute was created to honor the soldiers who were forced to endure — and who in many cases succumbed to — the atrocities of that march. In so doing, one of the nation’s most inspiring and memorable marathon experiences was born. Established in 1990, this year would mark the 29th annual Bataan Memorial Death March.

I didn’t want to wait for the 30th, and risk missing my opportunity to honor the heroes of Bataan before the sands of time run out on its few remaining survivors.

White Sands Missile Range sign pre-race

¡Hola, El Paso!
But first, our trip to the Land of Enchantment would start with a detour through my childhood.

In 1972 Frank Sohaskey, recently retired from the United States Air Force after 20 years, packed up the family (including his fleshy pink infant son) and moved from Michigan back to El Paso, TX. I say “back” because as an officer, Dad had been stationed there years earlier, during which time both my sister Sandy and brother Chuck had been born at ironically named Fort Bliss. El Paso offered a familiar and practical setting for the next three years, while our newly civilian father worked to complete his accounting degree at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). From there, his first job offer led us across the state to Dallas. That was late 1975, and the rest as they say…

So West Texas had been home not only to our family for those three years, but to my earliest life memories, most of which involved being chased by man-eating tumbleweeds (underestimate them at your own risk!). I hadn’t been back since our move to Dallas over 42 years earlier; Chuck had returned once and then only briefly. With El Paso being the closest airport to Southern New Mexico and the White Sands Missile Range, we jumped on the chance to visit before making the 40-mile drive to Las Cruces.

And visit we did — our old duplex with its tiny current occupants playing in the driveway and its rock landscaping, a concession to the arid climate; the desert ravine at the end of our street where as a clueless toddler I’d followed my older siblings like the hero-worshiping little brother I was; the middle school they’d both attended; and the indoor mall at Bassett Place which Chuck told us used to be open-air, but which now seemed like so many suburban American malls clinging to the last vestiges of its brick-and-mortar glory.

Mike Sohaskey's playground in El Paso as a 4-year old

Behold! My El Paso playground as a 4-year-old… what could go wrong?

El Paso (population ~683,080 in 2016) shares much of its western border with Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, the Rio Grande forming a natural border between the two nations. It’s the second busiest international crossing point in the U.S. behind San Diego. But unlike San Diego with its high-priced beach communities, pro sports teams and year-round sunshine, El Paso feels distinctly laid-back and low-key, like a place that time — if not forgot, then at least deprioritized. Our brief visit brought to mind a true border town in the Old West, Cormac McCarthy sense of the word. And it reminded me why the Southwestern U.S. is one of my favorite regions of the country.

The city owes its demographics in large part to immigration, with Hispanics and Latinos accounting for over 80% of its population. At the same time, it’s consistently among the safest metro cities in the country, despite its high poverty and low median income — a fact that flies in the face of conventional wisdom on the role of socioeconomic status in crime.

As we drove north on I-10 toward New Mexico, I gazed across the border and shook my head at the thought of a physical wall separating our two nations — a multibillion-dollar testament to the racism, xenophobia and callous ignorance that, for now at least, wield an empowered megaphone in the one nation on earth that should be able to rise above its own inner demons.

“The drugs are pouring in at levels like nobody has ever seen,” claims our misinformed Commander-in-Chief. “We’ll be able to stop them once the wall is up.” Never mind that in 2015, 95% of drugs coming into the US entered via container ships and other vessels — and good luck stopping that access with a border wall. [Cue 45 tossing his page of prepared notes over his shoulder.]

As much as our leadership in 2018 may treat the truth like a soiled diaper, them’s the facts. And the only thing a wall would do is keep all Americans on the wrong side of history.

First view of White Sands Missile Range and the San Andres Mountains

Our first view of White Sands Missile Range and the San Andres Mountains

White Sands and a living history lesson
Chuck, Laura, Katie and I rolled into Las Cruces, NM on Friday evening, then drove 30 miles east to White Sands on Saturday for “In-Processing” and packet pickup. We’d been told to bring valid ID plus current registration and proof of insurance for our car, and to expect delays at In-Processing. Luckily our official Vehicle Pass (emailed by the organizers before the race) enabled us to enter the complex with minimal fanfare.

White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), which its logo calls “the birthplace of America’s missile and space activity,” is the largest military installation in the country. Established in 1945 as the White Sands Proving Ground, the first atomic bomb test — code named Trinity — was conducted near the range’s northern border, three weeks before the US detonated the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. (Side note: the Trinity Site is open to visitors but only two days per year, one in April and the other in October. So plan accordingly and expect crowds.)

For the Memorial Death March, all race activities take place on the southern end of the range, closer to Las Cruces and some 100 miles from the Trinity Site. In-Processing happened at the MST Building adjacent to the Bataan Ceremony Field, where the race would begin the following day.

In-Processing was quick and easy, followed by a brief walk-through of the exhibitor booths, some of which were selling Bataan memorabilia while others (understandably) were targeted more toward military personnel and their families. On display along one wall were US and world maps that looked like paper pin cushions, their colored pins indicating each marcher’s self-reported country of origin. I didn’t take a magnifying glass to Delaware or Rhode Island, but every US state looked to be represented along with over two dozen other countries. Not surprisingly, the density of pins was particularly high in the Philippines.

Bataan marchers hailed from all 50 states

Bataan marchers hailed from all 50 states (and several countries)

Playing on a loop in the center of the room was a 6½-minute course video. And though its speed (26.2 miles/390 seconds = 1 mile/15 sec = 240 miles/hr) coupled with the lack of camera stabilization made me wish I’d taken Dramamine, the footage gave us a good sense of what lay ahead. So I’ve added the YouTube video to the RaceRaves Bataan race page.

From In-Processing we made the short drive to the White Sands Museum & (outdoor) Missile Park. There an assortment of missiles and rockets tested at White Sands stood proudly on display, an impressive testament to America’s mililtary might through the years. Walking among the weaponry pointed in different directions as if ready to dispense death and destruction at a moment’s notice, I felt like Ant-Man shrunk down to insect size and surrounded by the model rockets of my childhood (though admittedly mine had better paint jobs). Patriot, Pershing, Nike, they were all there — even a replica of Fat Man, the second nuclear weapon dropped on Japan and the last to be used in warfare.

Watching a frazzled mom try to regain control of her offspring, it hit me — there’s nothing more surreal than the giggles of two small children chasing each other around an atomic bomb that once killed 75,000 people.

Equal parts awe-inspiring, thought-provoking and unnerving, a visit to White Sands without touring the Missile Park would be like a trip to Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful.

White Sands Missile Park

Scenes from the White Sands Missile Park (clockwise, from upper left): American firepower on display; Patriot Missile launcher; bomb casing for Fat Man, the atomic weapon dropped on Nagasaki; Katie finds the family jet?

Our final stop of the day at WSMR would be the highlight of the weekend, as we attended a “Meet the Bataan POWs” session where we listened to retired US Army Colonel, Professor Emeritus of English at Clemson University and Bataan survivor Ben Skardon. Remarkably, at 100 years of age Colonel Skardon is not only very much alive, but he still marches the first 8½ miles of the marathon course each year. (Go ahead and read that again, I’ll wait.)

Colonel Skardon injected some levity early when the wail of an ambulance siren outside interrupted his opening remarks — “I hope that’s not for me,” he quipped. He then recounted from prepared notes, with a clear voice and keen ear for detail, his recollections of the brutal march in which disease and hunger were his constant companions. With no hint of animosity toward his Japanese captors he emphasized survival, loyalty, faith and the importance of never giving up hope. His words and the humility with which he delivered them earned him a well-deserved standing ovation from the enthralled audience.

We decided against that evening’s pasta buffet, opting instead to eat closer to our hotel in Las Cruces. We certainly didn’t leave hungry, though, as the day had given us plenty of food for thought. Now we just needed plenty of carbohydrates to get us through the next morning.

Colonel Ben Skardon, USA, Ret. details his experience on the original Bataan Death March

Colonel Ben Skardon, USA, Ret. details his experience on the original Bataan Death March

The 29th Bataan Memorial Death March: Opening Ceremony
Sunday, 6:15am. Harsh electric lighting exploded the pre-dawn darkness as we pulled into the grass parking lot adjacent to the Bataan Ceremony Field. The looming silhouette of the San Andres Mountains provided a majestic backdrop for the day’s mission. Our 30-minute drive had been extended to over an hour by the slow yet steady crawl of traffic into the installation, our last four miles taking longer to cover than the first 28.

Despite my pullover, I shivered in the desert chill as we made our way toward the field for the opening ceremony. The morning’s schedule called for all marchers to report to their designated start corral on the field no later than 6:00am — wishful thinking given the traffic and the fact that this year’s 8,460 marchers would be the largest in the event’s 29-year history. As the opening ceremony got underway at 6:35am, we joined many of our fellow marchers — both civilian and military — in the time-honored marathon tradition of waiting in line for the porta-potties.

Bataan Memorial Death March opening ceremony

Laura and Chuck soak in the Opening Ceremony

And that would be our vantage point for most of the ceremony. As the first tinge of daybreak painted the edges of the sky, the Garrison Commander welcomed the crowd and reiterated our common goal: “to honor the heroes of Bataan in a living history lesson.”

The presentation of the Color Guard was followed by the singing of the Filipino and American national anthems. And that was when the goosebumps cascaded like dominos down my neck and arms, because this was the most powerful live performance of the national anthem I’d ever heard. In that moment, as the impassioned vocals seemed to usher in the sunrise and lift the remaining darkness, it was clear to me how patriotism can serve as a double-edged sword for both pride and prejudice.

Seven Bataan survivors (including Colonal Skardon) were in attendance to answer the Symbolic Roll Call. And for anyone reading this who’s interested in running or marching, I’d urge you to do so soon while these gentlemen are still alive to share their stories and bring the weekend to life. Though its objective may remain the same, BMDM will be a dramatically different event once they’re gone.

Bataan Memorial Death March opening ceremonies

The opening ceremony concluded with a flyover of twin F-16 Fighting Falcon jets as we entered the runners-only corral at the far end of the field, closest to the start line. As runners, we’d have the opportunity to start near the front, ahead of the corrals for the civilian and military marchers in both the “heavy” and “light” divisions.

A significant number of the nearly 8,500 marchers would be military personnel in full uniform. And as if marching in uniform weren’t enough of a challenge, a lot of these officers would be carrying a 35-pound rucksack on their back (its weight validated at In-Processing) to qualify them for the “heavy” division. Like their military counterparts, civilians could choose to march with (heavy) or without (light) a pack, with most of the packs carrying food to be donated at the end of the race.

Months before, when I’d first resolved to run Bataan, I’d briefly contemplated the notion of entering the heavy division and wearing a 35-lb pack, only to come to my senses soon after. No, I realized, I had zero desire to test my mettle with 8+ hours of nonstop core strengthening under the hot desert sun on sandy terrain a mile above sea level — fun as that may sound. And while I’m all in on helping to feed as many underserved people as possible, I’d rather not carry the food on my back during the race.

Bataan Memorial Death March weighing in of 35-lb packs

The official weighing of the 35-lb packs for the Heavy Division

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a masochist. But if I wanted to do a Spartan Race, I’d do a Spartan Race — and I’ll never do a Spartan Race. I’m a runner, not a marcher or obstacle course guy. For military personnel at Bataan, I understand and respect the solidarity of marching with a pack. But I don’t feel the need to prove my toughness by carrying extra weight or splashing through mud or crawling under chain-link fences or climbing over walls. Busting my ass to get from start to finish in the shortest time possible is enough for me. The rest is just silly distraction.

Back on the field we waited for several minutes while the seven Bataan survivors followed by the Wounded Warriors exited first to a round of applause. And finally, with the sun now above the horizon and the clock closing in on 7:30am, a cheer erupted as our corral began to move. Chuck, Laura and I said our goodbyes to Katie who would be our support crew for the day, and broke into a jog as we hit the paved surface leading to the main road.

Bataan Memorial Death March start line selfie

No better way to calm pre-race jitters than a goofy group selfie

My goal would be to maintain a four-hour (9:09/mile) pace for as long as possible — easier said than done after the previous weekend’s Los Angeles Marathon, where I’d pushed just hard enough to punish my quads and improve my corral seeding at June’s Comrades Marathon in South Africa.

We passed under a nondescript white metal structure equipped with a number of rectangular appendages, a framework that looked like something you might expect to see set up in the desert to detect radio waves from space. Was that the start arch? I wondered as we passed beneath it. Chuck seemed confident it was (apparently those “appendages” were timing sensors) and started his Garmin, so I did the same. Then I fell in step behind him as we headed out of the base, following the masses onto the main road and into the rising sun.

Who knew our first right turn would be so wrong…

Bataan Memorial Death March race start for Military Heavy Division

Forward, MARCH! Race start for the Military Heavy Division

When the going gets tough… (miles 1 – 14+)
Other than a brief and seemingly unnecessary stretch of running on the grass, the first three miles were on asphalt. Which would have been fine, if only the first three miles were supposed to be on asphalt. But as Chuck recalled from the course video the day before, we were supposed to transition onto dirt by mile two. Which could only mean one thing…

Continuing east with the sun in our eyes, we looked up in confusion to see the hazy silhouettes of runners ahead of us now approaching in the opposite direction, many of them moving slowly and looking — well, lost. And I knew this wasn’t an out-and-back course.

I would love to have had a bird’s-eye view of the course at that moment, as hundreds of runners made a U-turn en masse and headed back the way we’d come. My unease at realizing we’d come the wrong way was soon replaced by the frustration of not knowing which was the right one. To be sure, I’ve taken wrong turns at races before — but never so early, and never crowdsourced to this extent. How had this happened?

Chuck Sohaskey running Bataan Memorial Death March

Chuck heads toward the horizon after a brief detour

Turns out I may never know, but the why didn’t matter right now as much as the how — as in, How the hell do we get back on track? This year’s course — at least the start — was new, and clearly the organizers hadn’t worked out all the kinks. But how had there not been clear signage and plenty of orange pylons at that first critical turn?

Moments before I’d remarked on how nice it was, after Houston and Los Angeles where I’d started at or very close to the back of the pack, not to be weaving around other runners. And now here we were, trying to make up for lost time by… weaving around other runners. This was ironic in the most Alanis-like way. And the hordes of marchers streaming onto the main road ahead of us like a human tributary only added to our workload and frustration.

We passed Laura heading back the way we’d come, and I texted Katie to let her know what had happened. Spectators weren’t able to access the course, and I didn’t want her waiting at the finish line anxiously with no sense of timing.

I counted myself among the luckiest wrong-turners since a) I was in good enough shape that the bonus mileage didn’t bother me, and b) I wasn’t wearing a nylon/cotton uniform or carrying a 35-lb rucksack on my back {whew}. Admittedly, though, our 1.6-mile detour coupled with a 10+ minute mile 4 spent fighting through the crowds dashed my already slim hopes of reaching the finish in less than four hours.

That said, perspective was important — I hadn’t chosen the Bataan Memorial Death March to try for a personal best or to qualify for Boston. So instead of crying over spilled miles, I congratulated myself on being among the first to run the inaugural BMDM Ultramarathon.

Glancing off to the right, we saw several runners heading off into a field as if they knew where they were going, despite any apparent official course markings. Despite my confusion, I remained confident this would all get resolved soon. Fool me once, I thought. Won’t get fooled again, my brain finished, channeling its inner Dubya. Which seemed appropriate, what with White Sands being the test site for the first nu-cu-lar weapon.

Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 elevation profile

Thanks to a wrong turn early, this profile is off (long) by ~1.6 miles

Chuck and I continued ahead until soon the pack veered off the asphalt and on to the dirt. With great relief I saw a giant flour arrow on the ground, the first indication we were on the right track. Here the double-wide dirt trail stretched out ahead of us, and after passing the mile 3 marker I relaxed and settled in for a nice four-mile stretch of flat off-road running.

And I think I saw every mile marker after that.

The trail was largely hard-packed dirt with regular sections of shallow softer sand. Subtle to be sure, but insidious in making the legs — and especially the quads — work juuust a bit harder with every step. Assuming over 50,000 steps taken to complete a slower marathon like Bataan, this incremental extra work adds up in a hurry.

And speaking of extra work, I was wildly impressed to see so many soldiers moving swiftly and making great progress despite their 35-lb packs. Their arms swung stiffly at their sides, propelling them forward and presumably keeping their shoulders relaxed under the load. Their effort made me appreciate their resolve as well as my own decision to run light.

If I could have chosen a day to run in the southern New Mexico desert, this would have been it. A light breeze kept the air cool as the sun searched in vain for a break in the the clouds. And we fell into a rhythm of sorts, never easy on a dirt trail.

This would be the first time Chuck and I had raced together since the 2012 Brazen Diablo 50K, my first ultra and the historic race that had started this whole blogging thang. This had been a long time coming, though whether we’d be able to run the entire course together today, I had no idea. So I was determined to enjoy it while it lasted.

Imagine a poorly drawn version of Massachusetts on its side wielding a lasso, and that’s what the map of the BMDM route looks like. The course is run counterclockwise starting at the bottom. Marathoners run up the right half of Massachusetts (eight miles), followed by the lasso (12 miles) and finally down the left half of Massachusetts (6.2 miles). By contrast, participants in the Honorary March (14.2 miles) cover only the Massachusetts loop. Make sense? This is one of those times when a picture is worth a thousand words:

Bataan Memorial Death March course route

(Click for a larger version)

I ducked into a porta-potty in mile 6 and then hustled to catch up to Chuck, all while managing to keep my mile time under nine minutes. Nice. Chuck then made a pitstop of his own in mile 8, veering off with a “See you at the finish!” Nonchalant as my pace felt, I assumed he’d catch up to me soon enough, at the next aid station if not before.

Unless it’s hot, I’ll normally disregard aid stations during a marathon — I don’t sweat much, I don’t eat much. But I still had vivid recollections of my struggles in Tucson two years earlier, and so I knew that in the high dry New Mexico desert, failure to stay hydrated could have dire consequences — even on a relatively temperate day like today. And anyone running 26.2+ miles in the desert has enough to worry about without doing their best camel impression. So I forced myself to take two or three sips of water at every aid station. And lo and behold, I never felt thirsty.

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 7

Scenery along the course was exactly as you might expect, with plenty of sand and low-lying vegetation including creosote bush, grasses, sagebrush and succulents. Very little of the vegetation was taller than me (six feet), so I could see significant distances in all directions. To the west, the San Andres Mountains dominated the skyline, their silent majesty lending gravitas to the scene and imparting a sense that the spirits were watching over us.

And yet my brain half-expected to hear a “Meep! Meep!” and see the Road Runner speed by with Wile E. Coyote in hot pursuit on the back of an Acme rocket. So much for gravitas.

The downside to being taller than my surroundings was, of course, a lack of shade. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the persistent cloud cover, the only shade on the course would have been the US 70 underpass in mile 9 (and again on the return trip in mile 20). It was easy to imagine how brutal this course could be on a hot day.

Mike Sohaskey at Bataan Memorial Death March mile 9

A shady mile 9, even without the US 70 underpass straight ahead

At the mile 8 marker the course turned right onto the main road (in my route description, the spoke of the lasso) and began a steady climb of six miles to its high point. The runners were spread out by now, and the next 3+ uphill miles on asphalt along the side of the highway were more mentally than physically challenging, with little to distract or motivate. So I was relieved to catch up to and fall in step with three students from the University of Colorado, who were setting a nice consistent pace on the uphill.

We chatted a bit, one of them asking me my finish time goal. “Under 4:30 if possible,” I responded. “How about you?” “Four hours,” he answered. I glanced at my watch, the current pace showing just over ten minutes per mile. Four hours — an average pace of 9:09/mile — would require a bit more effort on their part, and I wondered how realistic their goal was. With miles of downhill awaiting us, though, it could still be done.

Up, up, up we went.

Ahead of us I saw what looked like a cloud of smoke spanning the road, and my first thought was of someone grilling. Uh-oh. As we got closer, though, I realized the “smoke” was actually mist from sprayers set up on the side of the road to cool the runners. I was reluctant to run through the mist, not wanting to get my feet wet and risk blisters. But in the end, rather than swerve to avoid them I yielded, and as it turned out the mist was so light I barely felt it — a far cry from the dense cloud they’d projected from afar.

Up, up, up.

At last we saw signs of life as some low-lying buildings appeared in the distance — administrative buildings? barracks? Nearing aid station #5 and the end of the asphalt (for now), I pulled ahead of my three young pacers. I was more focused on the woman who’d just passed us moving with the resolve of a heat-seeking (or maybe finish line-seeking) missile.

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 11

Pacing off my CU Buffs buddies in mile 11

Given the alternating stretches on asphalt and dirt, each new segment at Bataan felt like its own “mini race.” Back on the dirt now for the next mini race, the course continued its seemingly endless uphill trajectory as I struggled to keep my female hare in sight. Only two more miles of climbing, I promised my legs by way of motivation. I was looking forward to some much-deserved ”down” time.

Despite feeling increasingly sluggish, I passed a couple of runners who’d pulled ahead of me earlier but who now looked to be fading after the extended ascent. And at last we reached the high point of the course (5,400 ft) just past the midway point — oh, sweet downhill.

Aid station #6 signaled 14 miles down, and I ducked into a porta-potty to relieve the tension building in my stomach. My brief pitstop worked wonders, and I exited with renewed energy, ready to reclaim some momentum on the long descent.

Before setting off again I activated the Share My Run app on my phone, which would notify Katie and allow her to track my progress in real time for the last 12 miles. That way she wouldn’t be standing around waiting at the finish line any longer than necessary.

Onward and downward!

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 13

What goes up: Approaching the high point (5,400 ft) in mile 13

Marchers and sand pits and wind, oh my! (miles 15 – finish)
I refocused on making up time on the downhill, notching sub-9:00 times in two of the next four miles. Mile 16 in the marathon has always been a psychological boost for me — sure, ten miles is still a long way to go, but being able to count down the remaining mileage into single digits is always a pick-me-up. When you’re running 26.2 miles at a time, it helps to celebrate every little victory along the way. And to take nothing for granted.

Bataan isn’t your typical urban marathon, and there would be no pithy spectator signs or musical performers along the course. In fact, most of the music I heard came courtesy of runners/marchers carrying portable speakers in their packs — a bit annoying, since that’s what earbuds are for. The only memorable melody was the timely “Steady As She Goes” by the Raconteurs, with Jack White’s muffled voice blasting from one fellow’s pack as I hustled to pass him in the later miles.

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 15

… must come down: Picking up the pace in mile 15

I paused as we passed the oddly ramshackle remains of the Hal Cox Ranch Headquarters, a cluster of dilapidated buildings that looked very much out of place here. I guessed — and the sign confirmed — that the ranch had been around and operating in the years before the land was annexed as part of the White Sands Missile Range.

Mile 19 signaled our return to asphalt, followed by a brief moment of confusion as a parade of marchers passed me going in the opposite direction. With my subpar sense of direction, it took me a minute to gather my wits and realize these folks were following the uphill route I’d already run, meaning I was nine miles ahead of them. But what really threw me off were their sheer numbers — the density of marchers here was similar to the crowds in mile one.

In that moment it struck me just how many Bataan participants take the word “march” seriously, and why the average finish times are so much slower than even other trail marathons. (Case in point, for my own Civilian Male Light Division, this year’s average finish time was 8:22:09, an average pace of 19:09/mile; for the Heavy Division, it was 9:25:59 or 21:36/mile.)

Bataan Memorial Death March – Hal Cox Ranch at mile 19

The ramshackle remains of Hal Cox Ranch, mile 19

Having completed the lasso loop of the course, I felt good as I let gravity pull me back down the spoke of the lasso on the shoulder of the highway. I’d earned these next two miles and planned to enjoy them. Several of the marchers heading uphill cheered me as I passed, and I returned the favor. “Man, I wish I was you right now!” yelled one fellow with a smile. I laughed and gave him a thumbs-up; I couldn’t help but agree.

You won’t often catch me saying this in mile 19 of a marathon, but this was fun.

Normally my legs will protest the hardness of asphalt after miles on dirt, but here they seemed to welcome the change of pace and respond well. It helped that I wasn’t pushing my body to its limit thanks to my Comrades Marathon qualifier run in Los Angeles seven days earlier, after which my thrashed quads had recovered just in time to board a plane to El Paso. All things considered, it was a beautiful day for a marathon.

Bataan Memorial Death March aid station in mile 19

All business at Aid Station #8 in mile 19

Back through the Hwy 70 underpass with its momentary shade, then past the mile 20 marker where I sucked down my first and only GU of the day as I approached aid station #9. Here the course rejoined the lower loop and merged with the Honorary Marchers for the last 6.2 miles. Just in time for the infamous Sand Pit.

To (mis)quote Mark Twain, the rumors of the Bataan Sand Pit have been greatly exaggerated — and especially if you’re a trail runner. The Sand Pit awaits marchers almost immediately after the transition back to dirt in mile 21 and feels much like walking through a sandbox, minus the small shovels and pails. Without any signs to signal its beginning, its end or even its existence, it’s difficult to estimate its exact duration, but based on my Garmin I’d say the toughest footing persists for ½ to ¾ of a mile.

Admittedly the soft sand wasn’t the easiest running surface. More than anything, though, it was the slow-moving pack of Honorary Marchers together with a suddenly fierce headwind that slowed me to a march for stretches of the next two miles, before I’d quickly remember I didn’t have the patience for marching and start running again.

And though the Buff I’d worn around my neck in case of a sandstorm turned out to be unnecessary, I was glad I’d worn gaiters over my trail shoes to keep the soft sand out of my shoes and socks. If you plan to run or march Bataan, I’d recommend you do the same.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that, of the three Sohaskey siblings, the only one who couldn’t be here this weekend had been our sister — Sandy.

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 25

In the home stretch, mile 25

While it’s true the two miles including and immediately after the Sand Pit were my slowest of the day, I never really felt like the wheels were in danger of coming off. Which sadly couldn’t be said for the poor fellow sitting off to one side of the course being watched over by two race officials on ATVs — he wore a racing singlet and short shorts and looked like he may well have been on his way to winning this thing before his Ferrari ran out of gas.

At aid station #12, the last of the day, I grabbed two sips of water along with two sips of Gatorade and an orange slice — one last sugar kick for the home stretch. And I made sure to thank the volunteers, all 2,000 of whom had been at the top of their game all weekend. Because without the volunteers, there is no Bataan Memorial Death March.

Passing the mile 25 marker meant the end was in sight, though the finish line couldn’t come soon enough for the University of Minnesota runner whose team members — dressed in matching cross-country unis — helped to steady him as he looked ready to collapse.

The last mile leveled out nicely on smooth gravel, the tradeoff being a stiff headwind that was too little too late to keep me from almost enjoying this home stretch. I hadn’t looked at the time on my wrist in hours and had no idea if I was closer to four or five hours. And I didn’t care. All I knew was that I was about to complete one of the toughest marathons in the United States, thanks in part to 75,000 soldiers who 76 years earlier had endured more in six days than many people endure in a lifetime. And why? To guarantee all of us, marchers and non-marchers alike, the inalienable freedom to do what we love doing.

One last turn onto asphalt brought the final white metal timing “arch” into view, and with a wave to Katie state #20 was history in an official time of 4:35:04.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Bataan Memorial Death March 2018

Katie sighting! Making the final turn to the finish

Shaking hands with history
Unlike other races, we’d already received our finisher’s medal — in this case, dog tags — in our goodie bag before the race. So the finish itself felt a bit anti-climactic without the ceremonial bestowing of the bling. That is, until…

Seated with his daughter in the tent just beyond the finish line sat Mr James J. Bollich, a Bataan survivor and geologist from Lafayette, Louisiana. Mr. Bollich seemed to be enjoying himself as he sat upright in his chair, greeting finishers. Still exhausted but trying to seem coherent, I struggled to find my voice as I shook his gloved hand. Then I thanked him for his service, for the opportunity and for everything he’d done to make this moment possible.

“How’d you do?” he asked. “Great day for a run,” I managed. I wasn’t about to admit to any kind of hardship or fatigue — not to a WWII veteran who had marched 69 miles in 110°F heat with a bayonet at his back, and then spent the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp.

Mr. Bollich’s daughter (who’d driven out with him from Mobile, Alabama via Louisiana) told me he’d been blown away by the opportunity and the support, and I assured her the feeling was mutual. She too seemed to appreciate the outpouring of recognition and support that her father and his fellow soldiers had received from civilians and military personnel alike. This was their weekend, and we were all fortunate to be part of it.

Moving through the finish chute to the sidelines, I wrapped my arms around Katie in a happy finisher’s embrace. Then I set about trying to get comfortable — sit down, stand up, lean back, lean forward, repeat — while waiting for Chuck and Laura to finish. With the sun now directly overhead, the dry desert heat and altitude were having an impact and I sipped constantly at a bottle of water to stay hydrated, my mouth drying out quickly between sips.

Chuck and Laura Sohaskey finishing Bataan Memorial Death March 2018

Chuck and Laura show off their finishing kick

I was surprised I hadn’t seen Chuck again after his mile 8 pitstop, though I’d glanced back several times in the hopes he’d be right behind me. No such luck. Turns out he’d hit a rough patch around the midway point and had struggled from there. But he looked good as he turned the final corner with the mountains behind him, coming home in 5:28:45 with Laura three minutes behind (and third in her age group!). Why he’d struggled so mightily he couldn’t be sure, but then again that’s the marathon — always a humbling experience, and some days more than others. Particularly in a place like White Sands.

We sat on the curb and then under the shade of the tents for a while, basking in our accomplishment. There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment in the post-race area, not that we were looking for a dance floor or bounce house. And with none of us having an appetite, we were unable to take advantage of the impressive post-race spread in the adjacent Frontier Club, where finishers feasted on hot dogs, veggie burgers, side dishes and drinks including soft drinks and canned beer.

Many marchers would be out on the course for several hours yet. But the day was still young, and so we limped back to the car for the 30-mile drive north to the White Sands National Monument, which more than lived up to its name as one of the few natural wonders in the nation more pale than me. And walking on the hard-packed sand dunes reminded me that yeah, the footing that morning could have been much worse.

My own trip into the New Mexico desert hadn’t been quite as life-changing as another doctor’s 56 years earlier, when gamma rays from an experimental bomb had tranformed Bruce Banner into the destructive superhero known as the Incredible Hulk. But to be able to experience 76 years of history through the eyes of those who lived it — that’s not something I’ll soon forget. And though my Marvel-loving younger self may not have understood, the reality — and one we can all live by — is that the strongest heroes among us aren’t always the largest or the loudest. Sorry, Hulk.

Glancing down at Google Maps on our drive back to Las Cruces, I had to smile as one name jumped out at me, a destination just north of us on I-25 that, unfortunately, we’d have to leave for another visit.

But what better state than New Mexico for a town called Truth or Consequences?

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Bataan Memorial Death March finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: Are you a traveling runner in search of a uniquely inspiring (and patriotic) race experience? Or a 50 States runner looking for more than the usual race weekend of “fly in, collect t-shirt and medal, fly out”? Or maybe a recreational hiker looking to experience history through the eyes of those who lived it? All three opportunities await you on the White Sands Missile Range in the high desert of Southern New Mexico.

Bataan is a race with a purpose, and the marathon itself feels almost anticlimactic in the grand scheme of the weekend. In the words of one of the officers who spoke at the Opening Ceremony, race weekend is an opportunity “to honor the heroes of Bataan in a living history lesson.” If you aren’t familiar with the history of the event, I’d suggest you check out the race website for details.

This year, the 76th anniversary of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines during World War II, seven survivors remained on the Symbolic Roll Call. With each of them approaching or exceeding 100 years of age, soon there will be none. Bataan will always be a special event for what it represents and what it honors, but being able to hear one survivor tell his story and to shake another’s hand at the finish line was incredibly special. And I’d urge any runner reading this to register for next year’s race while there are still Bataan survivors among us. Survivors like centenarian Ben Skardon of South Carolina, who shared an extraordinary narrative of the horrors and humanity he experienced as a POW, forced by his Japanese captors to march 69 miles over five days in tropical heat of 110°F. Along the way, with the help of his fellow POWs he conquered hunger and disease without ever giving up hope. And yet years later, he was able to visit Japan as a free man who harbored no ill will toward his former captors or the Japanese people. That feels like heroism to me.

In a country and a time when few of us will ever be asked to make any real sacrifices in our lives, Bataan is an opportunity to pay our respects to those who did and to whom we owe the freedom and the comfortable lifestyle we readily take for granted.

And speaking of comfort, one suggestion for race day: you don’t necessarily need trail shoes (the course is ~25% asphalt, ~75% dirt/sand), but do consider wearing gaiters to prevent any sand or small rocks from finding their way into your shoes and forcing you to either run in discomfort or stop to shake out your shoes along the course.

The upshot? Road shoes, trail shoes, marching boots or bare feet, it doesn’t matter — run/march Bataan and do it soon, before our nation’s last living connections to World War II are gone forever.

Mike Sohaskey at White Sands National Monument

Looking SoCal-tan at the White Sands National Monument

PRODUCTION: Throw out the first two miles, and the weekend ran with almost military precision. The most conspicuous race-day error was an apparent lack of signage in mile 2, resulting in a wrong turn that led hundreds of runners astray and added ~1.6 miles to my own total. Had this been most other races the fallout might have been loud and belligerent, but Bataan isn’t most other races — no one is there to set a personal best or qualify for Boston, and so instead I congratulated myself on my 4:34 finish in the inaugurual Bataan Memorial Death March Ultramarathon.

A couple of other race-day suggestions: 1) increase the number of porta-potties at the start, and especially if the event continues to increase its participant cap as it did this year with a record 8,460 marchers — unable or unwilling to fight the call of nature, many military personnel and civilians (like me) experienced the Opening Ceremony from our place in the long porta-potty lines; 2) create an actual start arch, or at least add clear signage to the existing “arch” (i.e. first timing station) to give runners and marchers a better sense for the start line.

Based on my Garmin the 26.2 miles of the official course were well measured, and after missing the first three mile markers due to the crowds, I saw every marker from mile 4 on. On the dirt portions once the runners spread out, there were a couple of side roads and potential detours off the main trail that could have been more clearly marked as “Wrong Way,” but even my own questionable sense of direction didn’t lead me down any of them.

Every one of the 2,000 volunteers, comprising both civilian and military personnel, was amazing. With 100% focus on the marchers and their needs, there was no drama and no distractions. I never had to waste valuable energy guessing who had water and who had Gatorade — that was made clear as I approached each aid station. A heartfelt THANK YOU to all the volunteers whose selfless hard work made Bataan weekend in White Sands a huge success.

As usual my appetite abandoned me after the race, despite an impressive selection of post-race food. The organizers did a nice job of refueling their marchers, offering all participants an entrée (including hot dogs and veggie burgers) plus three side dishes and a drink, with soft drinks and canned beer available. It all added up to one of the better post-race spreads I’ve seen at a marathon.

One last recommendation for the organizers would be to post the 6½-minute high-speed course video — shown on a loop at the expo — on the race website, to give all prospective runners a better sense for the terrain. (I’ve added it to the Bataan race page on RaceRaves). I knew to expect hot dry weather on race day, so course layout and terrain were the biggest wild cards. And preparation is the cornerstone of a good soldier!

Bataan Memorial Death March dog tags

SWAG: Nobody runs Bataan for the swag, and in fact it almost feels like an afterthought with all runners/marchers receiving their swag in a reusable goodie bag before the race. And though I missed the pomp and circumstance of receiving a medal after crossing the finish, thumbs up to the organizers for the appropriate choice of dog tags rather than finisher medals. (The only problem with dog tags is they’re relatively small and, when hung on a wall alongside larger finisher medals, easily overshadowed.) Another cool touch would have been for the event to offer engraving services (e.g. name and finish time) à la actual dog tags at the post-race festival. At any rate, the dog tags are definitely one of my more unique and memorable pieces of swag.

Sadly I can’t say the same for the shirt, a neon green Gildan cotton tee with “bataan” printed in thin, unimpressive blue letters on the front and which I can’t see myself wearing among my collection of race tees.

Along with their bib number all marchers received a full-color “Certificate of Participation,” which the WSMR Arts & Crafts Center would custom frame — along with your dog tags and challenge coin — for $65 at the expo/In-Processing while you waited. This service wasn’t available at the post-race festival, so if you’re interested in a cool keepsake you should jump on this opportunity before the race.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map
RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Mar 25, 2018 (start time 7:30am)
27.81 miles in White Sands Missile Range, NM (state 20 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 4:35:04 (first time running the Bataan Memorial Death March), 9:53/mile
Finish place: 41 overall in Individual Civilian Light Division, 14/313 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 8,460 total (66% men, 34% women); 2,393 in Individual Civilian Light Division (1,362 men, 1,031 women)
Race weather: cool (57°F) & partly cloudy at the start, warm (72°F) and partly cloudy at the finish, breezy early & gusty later
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,944 ft ascent, 1,900 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 4,052 ft, 5,411 ft

 

There are two noble things in life: one to do charity and other to look after your body.
– Fauja Singh, i.e. the “Turbaned Tornado” and the only centenarian to run a marathon

(Happy birthday, Mom! What proud mother doesn’t want a 7,000-word blog post for her birthday?)

We Run For Houston sign at the Houston Marathon expo

As the bumper sticker tells it, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” California may be my birth place and current home, but I grew up in Texas. Almost all of my first 23 years were spent in the Lone Star State, including 14 in the suburbs of Dallas and another four as an undergrad at Rice University in Houston.

I’ve been told (with a wink and a smile) I’m a terrible Texan, and I can’t disagree — I’ve never owned a pair of boots, have no discernible accent (Mom is from Colorado, Dad was from Boston) and am a liberal, BBQ-averse vegetarian. So you might think Texas and I have our irreconcilable differences. But in the case of me and my home state, opposites really do attract… or maybe it’s more like a case of Stockholm Syndrome? In any case, I have a curious but unshakeable affinity for the state that gave the world Crazy Rick Perry and “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz — though certainly not the same affinity I have for California.

In fact, noted Californian John Steinbeck may have best summarized what it means to be a Texan, saying, “I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion…. Texas is the obsession, the proper study, and the passionate possession of all Texans.”

I recognize, too, that much of this nostalgia for my home state stems from my four years spent at Rice, a nerdy blue oasis of letters and science in an otherwise red desert of football fanaticism.

Mike Sohaskey at Rice University

Growing up a basketball player, I didn’t transition from team sports until I reached the West Coast — I had run some shorter races in Texas, but never anything longer than a half marathon. So when I embarked on my current quest to run a marathon (or longer) in all 50 states, my home state was understandably high on my “looking forward to” list. I knew I wanted to do something different, something special to celebrate my homecoming and set it apart from the other 49 states. Something worthy of the popular refrain that “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” But what that was, I had no idea.

Then came Hurricane Harvey. And in the blink of an eye, that popular refrain mutated from tongue-in-cheek promise to nightmarish reality.

Over the course of several days in August, Harvey dropped over 60 inches (roughly 20 trillion gallons) of rain on Southeast Texas, causing catastrophic flooding, 104 confirmed deaths and a reported $125 billion in damage. All of which made it the single largest rainstorm and one of the costliest natural disasters in US history, with a monetary toll comparable to Hurricane Katrina.

The totals are too mind-boggling for most of us to wrap our heads around. By comparison, it takes more than four years for my hometown of Los Angeles to accumulate that much rain. Watching the news coverage in helpless disbelief as scene after scene of watery devastation played out across Houston, I realized my best chance to help the city I’d called home for four years was by running — not away from the problem, but toward it.

With large swaths of the Bayou City underwater and less than 20% of homeowners having flood insurance, it quickly became apparent that once the camera crews departed and the daily coverage subsided, the hard work of getting the nation’s fourth-largest city back on its feet would begin. And for many, the fight to pick up the pieces left behind by Harvey would be the uphill battle of their lives.

Texas flag in floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey

(photo: Ralph Barrera / Austin American-Statesman)

Running for a Reason
With the Houston Marathon scheduled for mid-January, the timing was ideal for me to plan and execute my own version of the Texas two-step: running and recovery. So in September I made the decision to run marathon #30 in state #19 while raising funds for Hurricane Harvey relief. And the organization I chose to support was the Houston Food Bank.

With 64 potential charity partners in the Houston Marathon’s “Run for a Reason” program, why the Food Bank? Honestly, the choice was easy. One reality I can’t wrap my head around is the fact that in America in the year 2018, there are still many individuals who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. No citizen of the wealthiest nation on the planet should ever face food insecurity, and yet 1 in 8 do. Katie and I have volunteered at food banks in California and appreciate the excellent work they do with scarce resources. So when I decided to support the hurricane relief efforts, the Houston Food Bank appealed to me as a top-rated charity that addresses a dire need and does it with unrivaled efficiency, given that every dollar donated provides a full day of meals for a child, adult or senior.

What’s more, I knew running for the Food Bank would help fuel my fundraising efforts. Because anyone who’s tried can tell you: fundraising is hard. No one ever likes to reach out to friends and family to ask for money. But when you’re all in and deeply committed to the cause, that commitment makes all the difference. And ensuring people have enough to eat — plus the dignity that comes with food security — is a cause I’m proud to get behind.

At the same time, I wasn’t naïve. Harvey may have been the worst hurricane of 2017 in terms of its financial toll, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Irma and Maria followed in rapid succession, slamming into Florida and the Caribbean and, in the case of Maria, marking the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s history. Add to that the devastating wildfires in Northern and Southern California as well as drought, hailstorms, tornadoes and other extreme weather, and 2017 ended as the most expensive year ever for the United States in terms of natural disasters, with a record $306 billion price tag.

Chevron Houston Marathon cookies

If 2017 were a movie, it may well have been titled “Mother Nature Strikes Back.” And one sad-but-true consequence of nature’s extended wrath was that Americans began to experience “natural disaster fatigue,” for lack of a better term. People wanted to help, but quickly became overwhelmed by the number of worthwhile individuals and organizations asking for their money. So rather than a straightforward appeal to “I run, you donate,” I opted for something a bit different.

I wanted something fun and interesting, but not too gimmicky. And I wanted this to be a legitimate marathon, one in which I’d (literally) be able to put my best foot forward. So no joggling, no running backward, nothing cutesy enough to land me in a Runner’s World newsletter. Then I remembered how, several years earlier, another runner had raised money with a compelling twist: he had been the last runner to start the marathon, and had asked friends and colleagues to pledge based on their estimate for the number of runners he would pass along the 26.2-mile course. The more runners he passed, the more money he raised.

Immediately I loved the idea, in large part because it suited my temperament. Sure, I could run a mediocre marathon and still raise a meaningful amount for the Food Bank. But by running harder and faster I’d raise even more, with the total amount hinging on my own performance. And hopefully my “fundraising with a twist” strategy would get the attention of runners and non-runners alike, who would find the idea offbeat and compelling enough to donate. I was sold.

If I were to do this, it was important to me that I first gain the approval of the Houston Marathon organizers. Thankfully I was able to score an introduction to the Executive Director of the Houston Marathon Committee, who after some back-and-forth signed off on my strategy, with one caveat: coincidentally, the Committee would be featuring its own official “Last Man Starting,” a fellow from Houston with a 2:32 marathon PR who would be running to raise funds for the Houston Marathon Foundation. And so I agreed to replace “Last Man Starting” in my outreach with the phrase “starting at the very back of the pack,” since the latter sounded better than the more honest “First Man Passed.”

Houston Marathon Last Man Starting promotion

With the logistics worked out, I launched my campaign with an ambitious goal of $5,000. Soon I was fortunate to have my story featured by my alma mater in Rice News as well as by KHOU 11, the CBS affiliate in Houston.

Then I turned my attention to the race itself. And while fundraising turned out to be a laborious and time-consuming process, it would be the tip of the iceberg compared to the training that followed. My determination to give Houston everything I had inspired me to train… and train… and train. Smartly to be sure, keeping my fast runs fast and my slow runs slow, but at a higher intensity than ever before.

Whereas I’d reached 70 miles in a single week on only a handful of occasions before November, for 6 of the last 12 weeks leading up to Houston my training volume exceeded 70 miles. I even topped out at 80 miles to celebrate the last week of the year, three weeks before race day. (Many thanks to speedy running buddy Krishna for sharing his excellent training logs and advice on which I based my own regimen.)

I needed to ensure my legs were ready for the dodge-and-weave, stop-and-start running that awaited them. I still remembered the Walt Disney World Marathon three years earlier, where I’d effectively dashed from one character photo stop to the next. By the time I’d crossed the finish line, my quads were so toasted they practically had smoke rising from them. So I had to be ready to run on tired, heavy legs.

Because I’d never have another shot like this.

Houston Marathon banners downtown

Houston, we have a challenge
A wintry blast of reality greeted our arrival in Houston on a bitterly cold Friday evening. Twelve hours later, motivated in large part by a desire to generate heat and stay warm, Katie notched her personal best at Saturday morning’s ABB 5K. The weekend’s kickoff event was nicely organized and well attended despite the chill, with high energy and closely packed start corrals. I quickly found a small patch of sunlight to warm me as I watched and waited for Katie at the mile 3 marker.

After a celebratory brunch, we headed back to the George R. Brown (GRB) Convention Center (site of the 5K start line) for the easily navigated expo and packet pickup (see “Production” below). Thanks to RaceRaves, we’d been fortunate to be invited on the Houston Marathon Industry Tour, hosted by the Executive Director of the Houston Marathon Committee and joined by several race directors and running industry insiders.

Katie ringing PR bell for Houston Marathon 5K

Katie answered the PR bell in the ABB 5K

On the tour we were treated to an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes glimpse into life behind the curtain on race day. We visited the United Command Center (the hub of all race-day communications), media center, medical facilities, check-in/hospitality room for elite athletes, and finally the enormous ground floor of the GRB where — as I’d experience for myself the next day — finishers are directed in a one-way flow from the finish chute at one end of the convention center to the family reunion zone at the other. And I gained a new-found respect and appreciation for the remarkable choreography that goes into producing a world-class event like the Houston Marathon.

As amazing as the tour was, though, the most memorable part of the day was still to come. Because immediately following the tour was the Skechers pre-race party featuring the debut of the new documentary “Meb: The Home Stretch,” which chronicles the final year of Meb Keflezighi’s storied career as America’s greatest marathoner. And Meb himself was in attendance, along with his brother Hawi and fellow Skechers elite athlete Kara Goucher.

RaceRaves co-founders Mike and Katie with Meb and Kara Goucher

With Kara Goucher and Meb at the Skechers pre-race party

During the Q&A, with no one else raising their hand, I asked Meb about his bold decision to break away from the lead pack during his Boston Marathon victory in 2014, the year after the bombings. And when the moment arrived for a face-to-face with two of running’s biggest stars — well, I could relate to Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he finally meets Santa, as I imagined myself staring blankly into Meb’s eyes, nodding my head dumbly and mumbling, “Yeah, football.” I half-expected him to turn to an associate and say, “Ok, get him out of here.”

But as anyone who’s ever met Meb or Kara can attest, both were genial and down-to-earth, and each took the time to chat with every last running geek who lined up to meet them. This was even cooler given that I first started running in Skechers after the 2016 LA Marathon, in large part because of Meb, and have happily worn them ever since.

Sure, in retrospect maybe I did spend too much time on my feet the day before one of the biggest races of my life. On the other hand, maybe our busy Saturday was smart strategery, since that night’s pre-race sleep was one of my best ever at nearly seven hours (!). And I awoke on Sunday morning feeling more relaxed than usual. It helped that our hotel was conveniently located within easy walking distance of the start line. That, together with the fact I’d be starting behind all but one runner, meant I could sleep in until essentially the last minute since I didn’t have to worry about fighting the crowds in the start corrals.

The morning was even colder than predicted (mid 30s) as we made the short walk to join corral “D” queuing outside Minute Maid Park, home of the World Series champion Astros. The first rays of sunrise reflected off the towering glass facades, bathing downtown Houston in a warm orange glow. Unfortunately, that would be the only warmth available as I waited for some sign of forward motion from the densely packed crowds.

At the back of the pack at the Houston Marathon start line

If you squint a bit, you can just make out the blue start line arch ahead

There I stood in my Texas flag shorts alongside a bundled-up Katie, waiting and shivering, shivering and waiting — though I didn’t realize the extent of my shivering until I glanced down at my iPhone to see the “You will not receive notifications while driving” warning. I hadn’t been in a car for 36 hours.

Around me, runners dressed like Arctic explorers prepared for a very different marathon experience than my own. Which, in turn, reminded me that this was a very different marathon experience than my previous 29. Typically I’d wiggle my way as close to the front of the corral as possible. Here, though, I waited with growing anticipation as runners like “No Train Dane” (according to his bib) loaded into the corral ahead of me…

… until at last the moment arrived. I ducked into the corral just ahead of the course sweepers with their large, unmistakable balloons. One of them saw the back of my shirt and thanked me for what I was doing. The mass of runners crept forward like a human amoeba as I glanced over at the last line of porta-potties and realized… I’ve gotta go. Delaying the inevitable now would only sabotage my mission later.

Quickly I exited the corral and waited with the last remaining stragglers as the sweepers issued a two-minute warning: “You have one or two minutes, if you’re not ahead of us at the start line your time won’t count!” Nothing motivates quite like fear, and the door to the porta-potty may not even have fallen shut before I’d rejoined the caravan now moving smoothly toward the start. Glancing to my right, I saw a slender fellow smiling on the sidelines and sporting a bright orange “LAST MAN STARTING” singlet. Then the long cold wait was over, and embracing my role as “first man passed,” I crossed the start line 53 minutes and 47 seconds after the gun. The orange singlet would follow 17 seconds later, though I never saw him pass.

The nation’s tenth-largest marathon was underway. And the chase was on.

Finally starting the Houston Marathon

That orange singlet is the marathon’s official “Last Man Starting” crossing the start line

The first 13.1: finding flow
No sooner had I high-fived Katie at the start than my eyes immediately began to scan the scene ahead of me, darting back and forth, looking for openings. Like a running back on the football field I’d see an opening, accelerate slightly to hit the hole quickly, and then zig or zag to avoid the next moving obstacle.

My plan was to target a net finish time of 3 hours, 30 minutes (average pace 8:00/mile) while passing 5,000 marathoners, the latter number being based on our analysis of Houston Marathon finisher results from the past several years. Unfortunately, that same analysis had predicted a more reasonable 37-minute lag time between the opening gun and my own start, so the extra 17 minutes certainly wouldn’t help my cause. And another key variable we’d forgotten to take into account: not only would 7,000+ marathoners be starting ahead of me but also 11,000 half marathoners, many of whom I’d have to pass but none of whom would count toward my fundraising totals.

Whoops.

Mike Sohaskey dodging and weaving at the Houston Marathon start

Looks like that guy in the shorts had a wardrobe malfunction

Studies have shown that the optimal race-day temperature for elite marathoners is in the high 30s, with that number rising for slower runners — the faster you run, the more heat you need to dissipate. I’ve run my best finish times in roughly 50-degree temperatures, so Houston’s chill was suboptimal for my SoCal-trained physiology. And it showed, as I could feel my legs taking longer than usual to loosen up and relax.

In the tightly packed spaces of the early miles, a series of on-the-fly decisions informed every step: How much room between me and my next target? How long should I wait before making my move? Can I hit that hole before it closes? Can I squeeze by without getting in anyone else’s way? What’s my margin of error? What is the runner ahead of me — and to my left, and to my right — going to do next? Should I be running on the left or right side of the course? Aid station ahead, veer left!

A key factor in my racing strategy would be to avoid riding the brakes, since doing so decreases the mileage in your legs just as surely as it does the gas mileage of your car. Now, as traffic ebbed and flowed around me, I tried to pick up the pace where possible, only to be confounded by runners who clearly didn’t appreciate their role in my race.

You might think running 26.2 miles is a simple case of crossing the start line and then continuing in a straight line until you reach the finish. But apparently not. I quickly came to realize just how many runners inexplicably drift from side to side when they run, while others would cut in front of me suddenly and without warning, forcing me to make a split-second adjustment to avoid a collision.

Evaluate, anticipate, accelerate, repeat.

One well-meaning friend had suggested it might be “real fun” for me to wear a hurricane costume during the race, as if other runners and spectators would be tickled to see me treating the cause of so much misery with a light-hearted touch. As much as I appreciated the feedback, natural disaster humor is rarely a crowd-pleaser. So instead I superimposed our RaceRaves “running guy” logo on the Texas flag, then shared my motivation on the back of my shirt:

Houston Strong
GOTTA RUN…
The more runners I pass, the more $$$ for the Food Bank!

I figured this would be a better way to communicate my intentions than by appraising every runner as I passed: “YOU’RE worth $2.00! And YOU’RE worth $2.00! And YOU’RE worth $2.00!”

Mike's custom RaceRaves-Houston Marathon shirt

One of the coolest things about the Houston Marathon is its many HOOPLA stations along the course where diverse musical performers and raucous spectators cheer on the runners. By the race’s own estimate more than 250,000 supporters and spectators participate on race day, and certainly the race isn’t lacking for on-course energy.

Passing the HOOPLA station at mile 3.5 where the Houston Food Bank had their table, I paused to high-five their green apple mascot and share a hug with Courtney, who I’d met through my fundraising. Despite being appropriately dressed like an eskimo, she was in high spirits and I appreciated her encouragement.

Given my focus on passing other runners, I spent more time than usual in my own head and failed to take in as many spectator signs as I normally would. The most memorable sign of the day, though, arrived early in mile 2 or 3 and made me smile as it simultaneously acknowledged and poked fun at a sign every marathoner hates: “YOU’RE ALMOST THERE! ISH”.

I viewed most runners in the same way Pac-Man views dots — as nameless, faceless targets to be overtaken without passion or prejudice. But just as Pac-Man has his flashing power pellets to energize him, admittedly I felt a surge of adrenaline as I passed the fellow wearing the jersey of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who had created a firestorm during the World Series when he made a blatantly racist gesture in the dugout after homering off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish.

MIke Sohaskey high-fiving the Houston Food Bank mascot

Must be one of them GMO apples! (Houston Food Bank station, mile 3.5)

With the crowds thinning after mile 4, I kept my pace as close as possible to 8:00/mile, which I’d tagged as my optimistic-but-still-realistic goal depending on the extent of my dodging, weaving and braking. I knew dropping the pace too far below 8:00/mile in these early “feel good” miles would come back to haunt me later in the race, with every ounce of energy as precious as a drop of water in the desert.

The course opened up considerably near the end of mile 8, where the marathoners split from the half marathoners. Perfect timing too, as the quiet tree-lined stretch down Rice Blvd past my alma mater was (not surprisingly) my favorite mile of the day. Here an unusually restrained subset of the Marching Owl Band performed for runners, their energetic conductor smiling broadly as we passed.

With its frequently offensive, ill-advised and unapologetic sense of humor, the Marching Owl Band — i.e. the MOB, i.e. “the marching band that NEVER marches!” — is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise pompous world of college athletics. The band’s mocking, devil-may-care attitude toward opposing teams has landed it in hot water on several occasions, most recently in 2016 when it taunted Baylor University for its mishandling of sexual assault allegations. In a conservative state like Texas, the MOB (and Rice in general) stick out like a zebra with spots. And the band’s well-deserved notoriety is a source of great pride among students and alumni.

Lovett Hall, Rice University

Lovett Hall, Rice University

Aside from Rice, the only landmark I’d remember from my college days would be the House of Pies on Kirby (mile 5), a dessert institution that would live up to all my collegiate memories later that evening after the race. Still the best Boston cream pie in Texas!

With Rice behind us, soon we were back amid strip malls and residential neighborhoods, with screaming spectators seemingly waiting around every turn. Without any other college campuses to smooth its rough edges, much of the remainder of the course would give the (accurate) impression of vast urban sprawl — not unexpected for the nation’s fourth-largest city.

That said, my least favorite section of the course would be the hairpin turnaround at mile 13, on the frontage road alongside US 59. Luckily the least attractive part of the route would be brightened by its most attractive spectator. Katie’s appearance at the midway point was a pleasant surprise, since unlike most races we were never in sync in Houston. I’d later learn this was due to her spending much of the morning directing bewildered Uber drivers, most of whom had no idea a marathon was happening, much less any idea how to circumnavigate the resulting road closures.

And I thought running 26.2 miles was stressful.

Mike Sohaskey looking strong at Houston Marathon mile 13

Hankerin’ for 13 more miles

The second 13.1: Pass or fail
As if arriving on cue to start the second half, a chilly headwind hit us in the face as we turned back east on Westpark, the headwind shifting and persisting as we passed the Galleria heading north. More resistance was definitely not what I needed, and I tried to focus instead on my footing — head down, one foot in front of the other — since rough and rutted roads predominated in this construction-rich area.

Several people asked if we noticed evidence of Harvey’s devastation during our time in Houston. The answer is no, not directly, as we didn’t rent a car and so didn’t have a chance to visit the city’s different neighborhoods. But what Katie did notice while hustling from one spectating point to the next was an awful lot of contruction, which we both attributed at least in part to post-Harvey reconstruction.

I didn’t hear a lot of chatter behind me from people reading the back of my shirt, though at one point I did hear a woman’s voice say, “Omigosh, he started at the back and he just passed us!” followed by a chorus of laughter, which made me smile. Much better than GU packets hitting me in the back of my head.

I paused to shake hands with Gary, a fellow I’d met in the Comrades USA Facebook group who’d set up his Runners High table in mile 16. And while there’s still a long hard road ahead in mile 16, the anticipation of counting down the remaining miles into single-digits has always been heartening to me.

Houston Marathon Skechers shoes

My feet began to ache. When was the last time that had happened during a road marathon? Usually aching feet is a result of running on rugged, technical terrain where every step lands your foot at a different angle. Here, though, I attributed my discomfort to just one thing — concrete.

Most non-runners — and even many runners — don’t realize there’s a significant difference in hardness between asphalt and concrete. Asphalt, or blacktop, is a highly viscous petroleum-based liquid that’s typically used to bind together the elements in “asphalt concrete,” a material used on road surfaces and composed of roughly 95% stone/sand/gravel and 5% concrete. Because of its viscosity, asphalt is much more forgiving on the legs and feet than cement-based concrete, and by extension preferable for running surfaces. The Berlin Marathon, widely considered the flattest and fastest course in the world, points to its asphalt/bitumen surface as one reason the past six marathon world records have been set there.

On the other hand, any kid who’s ever played on blacktop in Texas in July can tell you: asphalt melts in the summer sun, making it much less durable and cost-effective for road construction than its less temperamental counterpart. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, on occasion I’d discover the summer blacktop sticking to the bottom of my shoe like a wad of chewing gum. Despite my bigger brain and removeable footwear, I could relate to the dinosaurs that wandered into the tar pits only to get inextricably stuck.

So unlike cooler weather states like, well, nearly all of ‘em, most roads and highways in Texas are surfaced with heavy-duty, long-lasting concrete. Which is great for increasing the lifespan of the road, though not so much the lifespan of your legs as a runner. And the fact is, the human body hasn’t evolved to run on concrete so it lacks well-honed adaptation mechanisms.

The upshot? Concrete is Kryptonite for the most well-trained legs and feet.

Katie Ho finishing Houston Marathon ABB 5K

We interrupt this long-winded marathon to admire Katie’s 5K finishing form

My “head-scratcher of the day” award goes to the announcement broadcast over the PA system in mile 20 that “Registration for the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Half Marathon opens this afternoon at 3 pm!” The moment was so surreal, so absurd, I couldn’t help but smile. Or maybe the message was intended as comic relief? Either way, my quads were unimpressed… not a real keen sense of humor in those boys.

Passing the vast, browned-out expanse of Memorial Park, my distracted brain wrestled with the reality that this entire area had once been underwater after Harvey. The notion was tough to fathom given that the scene now looked so… normal.

My final Katie sighting came just inside the inflatable red CLIF arch in mile 22. There I paused for a few high knee lifts, hoping to loosen and revive my legs for the last few miles. My quads were having none of it. The CLIF Energy Zone turned out to be a loud and lengthy stretch of music I barely noticed, though I do mark it as the point at which the wheels started to — if not fall off, then at least wobble noticeably. Ah, the nostalgia of the marathon…

The final four miles became a deeply focused exercise in “Next runner standing.” Like a video game, I’d set my crosshairs on the closest runner or group of runners, channel all my energy into passing them, then quickly refocus on the next runner. The aching in my feet was supplanted by the heaviness in my quads, which slowly but surely were adopting the rigidity of the concrete beneath them.

This is it, I thought — the moment I’d trained for, the reason for the two-a-days and the motivation behind the 70+ mile weeks. And though I’d continue to leak oil as my mile times crept above 9:00, the truth is I could’ve hit The Wall much harder. All the high-mileage training weeks would pay off mentally and physically, as I refused to stop moving despite the increasing difficulty of lifting each leg.

Evaluate, anticipate, accelerate, repeat.

CLIF Bar mascot at the Houston Marathon

Glad I wasn’t the only one seeing dancing CLIF Bars on the course

Adjusting my stride to take shorter, quicker steps, I kept my attention focused on the runner immediately ahead of me as my surroundings faded into the background. NASA (or SpaceX) could have launched a rocket on the side of the road and I barely would have noticed.

Mile 23, and a reminder over the PA that registration for the 2019 race opens at 3 pm. Like a boxer taking a standing eight count, the voice sounds very far away. Three miles ahead, Molly Huddle is celebrating her new American half marathon record despite finishing 7th overall. I’ve now run in the same races where the American women’s half marathon record and the current marathon world record (Berlin 2014) were set. That can’t be coincidence, right?

Looking at my splits and the elevation gain/loss per mile this sounds ridiculous, but miles 24 and 25 included several small but significant hills (i.e. highway overpasses) that I actually appreciated for the opportunity to engage different muscle groups. And the corresponding downhills couldn’t have come at a better time.

I recalled an email exchange with Krishna in which he’d referenced studies showing that the major cause of marathoners slowing down in the latter stages of the race isn’t hydration or nutrition, but rather muscle breakdown. Much of my own experience jibes with this conclusion, and once again here I was falling victim to the cold, cruel reality of muscle breakdown. Because as physically hammered as my legs were, I felt remarkably good from the waist up.

I don’t sweat much even under normal conditions, and since the Comrades Marathon last year I’ve taken to training in a depleted state. So on a cold day in Houston I ended up using not a single aid station — no water, no Gatorade, no nutrition, no need for it. At one point I thought about eating one of the three GUs I was carrying, but the idea never sounded appealing and I didn’t want to risk sabotaging my efforts by throwing my stomach a curve ball.

Mike closing the gap at the Houston Marathon finish

Closing the gap on the last few runners in the home stretch

One eternal truth about the marathon: whether you’re running a 6:00 or 10:00 mile, if you’re able to keep running in the last 6 miles you’ll pass a lot of people. And so I did, as runners turned to walkers and walkers stopped to stretch their cramping legs on the side of the road. What my pace was, I had no idea and frankly it didn’t matter — I was doing everything in my power to keep running, despite my leaden legs pleading with me to call it quits and walk it in from here. Let’s walk just a few steps, it’ll feel sooooo good.

I remembered the image of Meb collapsing in exhaustion at the finish line of his final New York City Marathon in November and thought to myself, My legs are going to have to give way beneath me; otherwise we’re going to keep moving and finish this thing, Houston Strong. There’s no other way.

Corny though it may sound, the thought of disappointing a single donor or missing out on a single meal for the Food Bank pained me far more than the heaviness in my quads. Physical discomfort would fade with time; disappointment would not.

High-fives to the awesome spectator who called out “FINAL TURN!” as we veered onto Lamar for the home stretch. As appreciative as I was, though, I couldn’t yet see the finish line ahead and had no clue just how long this final straightaway would last, since I wasn’t sure how much bonus mileage I’d accrued with all my dodging and weaving.

I glanced down as my Garmin beeped for the 26th and final time: 9:23, yikes. Given the effort I was exerting with each step, I’d felt sure I was moving at Road Runner speeds. Turns out it was more like Wile E. Coyote. I exhaled and glanced up feebly to see — no sign of the finish line ahead. Damn.

Head down, keep going, keep passing, hear the cheers, this is it, stay strong, stay focused, trust you’re almost there, pass him, pass her, catch him catch him catch him, empty the tank, YEE-HAW YOU GOT THIS PAHD’NAH!

And then, in one indescribable moment of sheer pride, 16 weeks of my life came to fruition in the form of a brilliant blue finish arch, which welcomed me home in a gun time of 4:35:43 and chip time of 3:41:56, a nearly 54-minute differential. Happily, the wheels hadn’t completely fallen off the wagon in the second half. Certainly my splits — 1:49:21 in the first half, 1:52:35 in the second — earned me my 29th positive split in 30 marathons. But given that I’d started so far behind the eight ball, this may well have been the most positive split of them all.

Mike feeling the accomplishment after finishing the Houston Marathon

Try telling my quads that’s “accomplishment” they’re feeling

Mission accomplished
As it turns out, I’d had greater success running from the back than the official “Last Man Starting,” who ended up crossing the finish in a chip time of 3:22:20, some 50 minutes off his personal record. Meanwhile, my own finish time fell within 20 minutes of my PR from the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon.

Pausing to ensure my legs were still under me, I turned to watch a few more runners follow me across the finish mat. And I stood for a moment, basking in the realization that each and every finisher for the next 2+ hours would be someone I’d passed along the course.

Then, barely registering the cold on my skin, I took my time strolling through the finish chute, gratefully collected one of my proudest finisher medals to date and mindlessly followed the flow of weary runners into the George R. Brown. As outlined on Saturday’s Industry Tour, the GRB was smartly set up to provide all finishers with a place to warm up and chow down before reuniting with friends and family (see “Production” below). There I collected more finisher’s swag and grabbed a quick bite at the HEB breakfast station, before Katie and I retraced our steps to the finish line to cheer across the last few finishers — even the fellow in the Gurriel jersey.

The Boston cream pie at House of Pies never tasted better than it did that night.

Houston Marathon post-race facility in the George R. Brown convention center

Post-race in the not-so-notorious GRB

For the next two days, on the heels of my successful come-from-behind effort, I’d be walking… on my heels. Quad extension would be challenging at best, and if you hadn’t known better you would’ve guessed this was my first 26.2-mile rodeo. My lack of mobility turned almost comical on Tuesday as freezing rain coated the streets with ice, turning even the shortest walk into a slow-footed shufflefest. Icy curbs might as well have been the Berlin Wall.

But every microscopic muscle tear would be worth the discomfort. Because when the dust settled, I’d officially passed 3,820 of 7,000 finishers, not counting the 11,000 half marathoners who’d started at the same time. And thanks to all the amazing friends, family and colleagues who answered the bell, we eclipsed our already ambitious goal by raising $8,400.56 = 25,201 meals for the Houston Food Bank and the victims of Hurricane Harvey. I’m proud to say that’s more dollars than even words in this blog post. And I can’t thank my donors enough for their heroic empathy and selflessness.

Don’t mess with Texas, indeed.

Katie and I extended our Houston stay so we could visit the Rice campus on Monday (MLK Jr. Day) and volunteer at the Food Bank on Tuesday. Mother Nature, though, would have other ideas, as the aforementioned freezing rain ended up canceling both our volunteer shift at the Food Bank and our return flight to SoCal. So we had no choice but to “stay a spell” and enjoy Houston’s hospitality for one more night, as the city hunkered down under a rare winter storm warning.

Our snowed-in situation brought to mind a verse from my childhood, memorable for both its unapologetic grammar and its unabashed sentiment, and most likely learned from a bumper sticker years before the birth of the Internet:

The sun has ris, the sun has set,
and here I is in Texas yet.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho – Houston Marathon finish line selfie

The Houston Food Bank, a top-rated 501(c)(3) charity on CharityNavigator.com, is able to stretch every $1.00 donation to provide one person with a full day of meals. Please support their continuing hurricane relief efforts to help rebuild lives and keep the Bayou City #HoustonStrong!


BOTTOM LINE: Recommending the Houston Marathon is as easy as sliding off a greasy log backward. Houston is a crown jewel of the US marathon circuit, being one of the more smartly planned, flawlessly organized and professionally executed marathons you’ll ever have the pleasure of running. With 7,000 marathon finishers and over 11,000 half marathon finishers this year, it’s the tenth-largest marathon in the country. And yet everything flows so smoothly throughout the weekend, from the pre-race expo to the post-race exit from the George R. Brown Convention Center, that you almost won’t mind being herded like cattle into the crowded start corrals on race morning — and especially if race day temperatures hover around freezing like they did this year.

The race itself was a high-energy tour of the nation’s fourth-largest city, with an untold number of HOOPLA (cheer) stations set up along the course, along with a diverse array of musical performers to keep you constantly entertained and keep your mind distracted from the fact you’re running 26.2 miles on one of the hardest surfaces on the planet. The course is largely flat and speedy, though several wickedly positioned uphill jags in the final four miles will look to sap whatever life remains in your concrete-stricken legs. And once you cross the finish and collect your well-deserved medal, actual breakfast food awaits inside the George R. Brown (see “Production” below). Apologies to all you diehard fans of green bananas and stale bagels.

I ran this race differently than I had any of my other 29 marathons, starting from the very back (nearly 54 minutes after the gun) and passing runners to raise money for the Houston Food Bank’s Harvey relief efforts. So my focus throughout the race was less on enjoying myself (though I definitely did) and more on amassing “roadkill” (to use the Ragnar term for runners passed). That said, this struck me as an ideal marathon (or half) for first-timers, with so many raucous spectators and supporters — 250,000, according to the race website — to keep propelling you forward when the Gatorade and energy gels no longer can.

As a mobile supporter who likes to spectate at several points along the course, Katie had a tougher time in Houston than at most other races. Luckily the race provides a handy business card-sized Spectator Guide that folds out like an accordion, so figuring out where you want to see your runner on the course is easy enough. Getting there, on the other hand, can be a logistical nightmare. Katie spent much of the morning directing Lyft or Uber drivers who either didn’t realize the marathon was happening or didn’t know how to circumnavigate road closures to reach her destination. As it turns out, having her own vehicle would have made the morning more manageable and less stressful — something to keep in mind if you’re planning to be a mobile spectator yourself.

Disclaimer: I grew up in Texas and graduated from Rice University, so I already had a strong personal connection to the city. Even objectively, though, Houston is a must-run event for the hardcore marathoner or half marathoner based on the three E’s: efficiency, energy and all-around excellence. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the city’s unity and pride were on full (and vociferous) display throughout the weekend, and I’m psyched to have played a small role in helping a world-class city get its groove back.

PRODUCTION: In the best situation, producing a 20,000+ person event in a major urban center is a significant challenge. Throw in one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history, and you add a level of complexity and uncertainty to the mix that would cripple most race organizations. And yet the Houston Marathon team managed the unforeseen arrival of Hurricane Harvey like the experts they are. And any arguments I might have with the production are more suggestions than gripes.

The 2018 Race Program provided a wealth of interesting and relevant information about race weekend, the runners and the city itself. And honestly I read more of the program in Houston than I did in either Boston or New York. Flooding apparently moved this year’s expo to a smaller hall than previous years within the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB); however, packet pickup was quick and easy, and the expo itself was very manageable and easily navigated within an hour, even with several stops at sponsor booths (gotta check out all the races!).

I stopped at exactly zero aid stations on the course, but I did notice water and Gatorade were provided in different-colored cups (water in plain Dixie cups, Gatorade in branded cups). As trivial as this may sound, visually differentiating the two helps to alleviate in-race confusion, particularly for the tired runner, and it’s one of my litmus tests for whether a race organizer knows their stuff. Because many don’t.

Immediately after the race, finishers were funneled into the GRB. There we collected more swag (see below), enjoyed a McMuffin-style breakfast and ice cream sandwich plus hot and cold drinks while chatting with fellow finishers, and finally reunited with friends and family to wander the “We Are Houston” RunFest set up on the Discovery Green outside the convention center. In my experience this smartly conceived, one-way directionality of post-race traffic flow (exit –> swag pickup –> breakfast –> gear check –> family reunion) on such a massive scale is unique to Houston. And while it arguably makes life more difficult for family members who have to wait at one end of the hall for their runner to reach them, it’s easy to see how creating this “finishers only” space would benefit the runners by reducing both traffic and confusion, particularly in the dining area. Though I can’t imagine this setup is optimal for sponsors who are (literally) left out in the cold in their tents on Discovery Green — aside from HEB which provided breakfast, Skechers was the only sponsor I noticed with presence inside the GRB.

And speaking of Skechers, all official Houston Marathon apparel and merchandise is 50% off at the Skechers booth on race day. So if you’re willing to wait and gamble that your size will still be in stock come Sunday, you can score some pretty sweet deals on everything from water bottles to shoes. I actually train in Skechers and ran the marathon in the Skechers GoRun Ride 6, so I can vouch for the fact the company makes a very comfy running shoe.

The GRB opens on 5:00am on race day to accommodate early-arriving runners, a nice convenience and especially in bone-chilling cold like we had this year. Coming from out of town, we stayed in the downtown area (at the Aloft Houston Downtown) within walking distance of the start line, and so were able to wake up later than most and arrive after the starter’s pistol had already fired. I’m pretty sure that not having an insanely early wakeup call helped me relax and enjoy one of my best pre-race night’s sleep in recent memory.

My only real suggestion for the organizers would be to move the celebratory photo-op signage (“Feel the pride,” “Feel the accomplishment” etc) from the finish chute just inside the GRB — where many dazed and exhausted runners passed them by without so much as a glance — to the family reunion area where they’re much more likely to be appreciated. Oh, and I’d recommend rethinking the on-course announcement at miles 20 and 23 that “Registration for the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Half Marathon opens this afternoon at 3:00pm!” The timing was so absurd that even in my depleted state, I couldn’t help but laugh in the moment. Or maybe that was the point?

Houston Marathon medal with Rice University owl

SWAG: The finisher’s medal is entirely unique and distinctly unTexan, being the creation of local aerosol/graffiti artist Mario E. Figueroa, Jr. aka Gonzo247. And though I wouldn’t have been upset with something in the shape of Texas, as a lover of street art this is a standout addition to my collection. Beyond the medal, runners received not one but two shirts — a Gildan short-sleeve cotton tee at registration with “Run Houston Strong” printed on front and a Skechers short-sleeve performance finisher’s tee after the race, which like the medal features Gonzo’s artwork above the word “FINISHER.” But wait, there’s more! Unfortunately, that “more” came in the form of a glass finisher’s mug that I will never use and which will sit on my shelf at home gathering dust for all eternity.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves (Feb 2018)

RaceRaves rating:

Mike Sohaskey's Houston Marathon review on RaceRaves


FINAL STATS:
Jan 14, 2018 (start time 7:00am)
26.57 miles in Houston, TX (state 19 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:41:56 (first time running the Houston Marathon), 8:21/mile
Finish place: 1,325 overall, 131/614 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 7,001 (4,319 men, 2,682 women)
Splits: 1:49:21 (first half), 1:52:35 (second half)
Number of marathoners passed: 3,820
Race weather: cold & sunny at the start (35°F) and finish (46°F), breezy throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 147 ft ascent, 141 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 11 ft, 73 ft
Dollars raised for the Houston Food Bank: $8,400.56 (= 25,201 meals)

You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.
– Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

View of Rabbit Ears in the distance, mile 24


(If you’ve not yet contributed to my Houston Marathon fundraiser for Hurricane Harvey relief — and this ain’t no ordinary fundraiser — please check out the details here and consider doing so. Every dollar feeds a child, adult or senior for an entire day. Thanks!)

If you think running sounds tough, try running a marathon.
If you think running a marathon sounds tough, try running 50 miles.
If you think running 50 miles sounds tough, try running ‘em on technical terrain at high altitude.
And if you think running 50 miles on technical terrain at high altitude sounds tough, try doing it half-blind.

Start to Mt Werner (mile 6.4) — 3,600ft gain
There had to be an easier way to notch state #17.

The thought crossed my mind more than once as Ken and I doggedly hiked our way up the dirt road toward our first major landmark of the day, the Mt. Werner aid station at mile 6.4. With an elevation gain of ~ 3,600 feet, this first 10K would be the toughest start to any of the 85+ races I’d run. This included the 2010 Pikes Peak Ascent, with its starting elevation of 6,300 feet compared to today’s 6,800 feet. And once we reached the aid station at 10,400 feet, we’d have only 44 miles between us and the inflatable red finish arch emblazoned with the Altra logo.

Yeah, there were definitely easier paths to a finish line, even in a state with 53 peaks over 14,000 feet tall. Then again, “easy” hadn’t been my criteria when I’d let Ken — with little persuading — talk me into joining him for his first 50-miler, conveniently held in his hometown of Steamboat Springs. After all, I’d known him and his wife Jenny since our days of living together at Rice University, and we’d run together at two memorable races before this, the 2012 Moab Trail Half and last November’s Golden Gate Half. And as anyone who reads this blog knows, dangle the right challenge in front of me and I’m an easy target for peer pressure.

Run Rabbit Run elevation profile

Even with paid registration in hand, I hadn’t expected to be here after a tough summer, highlighted by an epic 54 miles at the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. That had been followed by two “just barely” sub-4-hour marathons in Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Missoula, Montana. I’d given everything I had in all three races, and by the time I crossed the finish line in Missoula I wanted nothing more than to bury my running shoes and sleep for three months.

But after a week off from running and a gradual return to my normal routine, I realized that hey, my body actually felt pretty good. Not good enough to hop, skip and jump my way though a forested 50 miles at high altitude, but if I were being perfectly honest with myself, my only goal anyway coming from sea level would be to play it safe and reach the finish line before nightfall, roughly 13.5 hours after we’d started in the dark.

That remained my goal now as we switchbacked our way up the mountain in the early morning chill, my nose dripping into my mouth like a nasal faucet. (Note to evolution: nose right above the mouth? Really?) Ken and I were both in good spirits, though I was understandably anxious given my uncertainty as to how my “sea-level sissy” body would handle the high altitude. For Ken this was home, but for me…. In any case this would be an adventure, and isn’t that what Colorado’s all about?

This being Colorado, Mt. Werner is the physical and economic focus of ski season for Steamboat Springs. Hiking purposefully uphill we passed the Thunderhead Lodge and Four Points Lodge as well as several signs pointing us to various ski runs. I was heartened by the relative ease with which we moved uphill, the increasingly thin air having minimal effect on my breathing and heart rate.

View of Steamboat Springs (Run Rabbit Run, mile 3)

Looking out over Steamboat Springs in mile 3

As if the altitude weren’t enough to make my lungs cower in their pleura, in the week leading up to the race unpredictable smoke caused by local wildfires had threatened to sideline those with asthma or other pulmonary conditions, while giving the rest of us yet another reason to question our sanity. Poor air quality — just what I needed at 10,000 feet. This was shaping up to be one of Mother Nature’s more cruel and absurd jokes.

Luckily by race day the smoke had dissipated, causing me to (literally) breath a sigh of relief.

There are two schools of thought on how to tackle a high-altitude race while living at lower elevation, in my case sea level. The first suggests you arrive at least a couple of weeks before the race, to allow your body time to acclimate to the change in altitude. Which is great if you’re a professional runner or independently wealthy, but for the rest of us who can’t afford the luxury of early arrival, there’s the opposite approach — that is, show up immediately before the race, then get in and get out before your body realizes where it is.

Our flight had touched down in Denver on Friday shortly after noon, 18 hours before we found ourselves shivering with just over 100 other 50-mile hopefuls in the predawn cold outside the Steamboat Ski Resort. The national anthem was highlighted by the young singer’s voice cracking badly on “freeeee,” as though puberty had arrived in mid-note. The gathered crowd offered encouragement and cheered him to the end, but the performance certainly didn’t help to relax my already jumpy nerves.

Run Rabbit Run 50-miler start line

Lights, camera, action!

Then, looking like a swarm of fireflies with our headlamps cutting electric swaths of light though the lingering darkness, we’d taken an immediate uphill trajectory on the gravel path. I’d followed close behind Ken as I focused on my footing under the hypnotic electric glow of the headlamp — it was way too early to take a careless tumble.

A couple of minutes passed before I realized I’d forgotten to start my Garmin. Dammit. On the bright side I’d conserved a bit of battery life, though I’d have to consult Ken’s Garmin data for the complete story.

Gravel had transitioned to the wide dirt fire road on which we now found ourselves making steady progress. As we ascended, Ken explained that the towering aspens all around us were not independent trees; rather, they were members of a clonal colony derived from a single seedling and sharing a common root system. This evolutionary advantage enables colonies of aspens to survive forest fires that might kill other trees. Looking around at the expansive aspen grove, I tried to imagine what must be going on beneath us. Party on top, business down below, I thought wryly.

The saving grace of this climb was its position at the beginning of the race while our legs were still fresh, rather than at the end.

Upward we hiked, the shadows retreating and the day growing brighter with every step. With each turn we gained ever more panoramic views of Steamboat Springs, the town nestled among the evergreens far below us and the air relatively clear despite the recent rash of wildfires.

Run Rabbit Run 50, mile 4

Ken works his way up the mountain in mile 4

The 100-mile runners, who had started their race the previous morning before we’d even boarded our plane in Los Angeles, passed us coming downhill with increasing frequency as we climbed. Their faces revealed a mix of exhaustion, relief and appreciation at the realization that their long hard journey was coming to an end.

The lead woman (and eventual winner) slowly passed us looking like she’d seen a ghost. It was a frightening sight, her eyes glazed over and face literally expressionless, with a companion seemingly propping her up as she shuffled her way down the mountain. I’d later learn she’d been running virtually blind for several miles due to corneal edema apparently caused by the altitude, which had resulted in her crossing the finish line bruised and bloodied from numerous falls and with a likely concussion. The good news? Her iron-willed perseverance earned her the winner’s purse of $12,500 along with a trip to the hospital.

How is she still going? we wondered, amazed and unnerved by her blank stare. Had I known my own demons awaited me on the mountain, I might have called it a day right then.

After mile 5 we transitioned onto the steeper and rockier Storm Peak Challenge Trail, our pace slowing even more as we negotiated the looser dirt and larger rocks underfoot until finally…

We reached the peak at 10,400 feet, thrilled to see the friendly volunteers of the Mt. Werner aid station. We dropped our headlamps in the box provided, and I forged on while Ken paused for sustenance. I was eager to speed things up, stretch my legs and see how they’d perform on more runnable terrain at high altitude. The name of the race, after all, was Run Rabbit Run — not Trek Tortoise Trek.

Spectator at Run Rabbit Run finish line

The altitude can play tricks on your eyes


Mt. Werner to Long Lake (mile 13.2) — 700ft gain, 1,200ft loss
Tenatively I followed the runnable dirt single-track, my legs adjusting to the undulating terrain. Normally at sea level I’d be able to maintain a pace between 11:00 and 12:00 minutes per mile on similar terrain. Up here, though, I had no such expectations. My goal was to sustain a smart, steady pace while not doing anything stupid. Which seemed reasonable.

It was time to settle in and chew up some miles — I had a long way to go and was in no hurry to get there. And as I had at last year’s Ice Age Trail 50, I broke down the course mentally into five 10-mile segments:

Miles 1–10: Get off to a good start and set a positive tone on the toughest part of the course, with its 3,600ft ascent in the first 6.4 miles

Miles 11–20: Settle in, find my rhythm and enjoy the scenery

Miles 21–30: See Katie and Jenny at the Dumont Lake aid station where they would be volunteering, then visit Rabbit Ears and start counting down the miles to the finish

Miles 31–40: Dig deep, stay focused and keep moving forward as boredom and fatigue rear their heads — these would be the real “grind ‘em out” miles

Miles 41–50: Almost home, so try to enjoy and appreciate what amounts to a victory lap — remember, the last 10K is all downhill to the finish!

I chose my footing carefully, my eyes darting continuously over the shadows created by the dappled sunlight filtering through the tree canopy. After a couple of miles Ken caught up to me as I let faster runners pass me on the downhills. He and I had agreed we’d each run at our own pace, and if that meant running together then all the better. I was hoping my slightly faster finish times would offset his living at high altitude, so that we’d be within spitting distance of each other for much if not all of the race.

I’m more of an ocean than a mountains guy, but any breath left over at two miles high was taken away by the pristine alpine scenery. This was Colorado at its finest and the reason we were here: lush forested landscapes bursting with aspen groves, willows and evergreens. Fir, pine and spruce trees watched over us as we moved along the trail, our eyes and ears peeled for animal life. The last thing we wanted was to surprise an elk, moose or bear out foraging for food. If that happened, the thin air would be the least of our worries.

For the most part, the trails at Run Rabbit Run are dusty single-track strewn with prominent rocks and roots. In this way they resemble the less forgiving, technically challenging trails in California more than the softer, pine needle-carpeted tracks in Wisconsin on which I’d run my first 50-miler. At times, flanked by either packed dirt walls or high grasses, the trail narrowed for short stretches so that it was only wide enough to accommodate one foot at a time. Add to that the shadows dancing underfoot, and it’s easy to understand why someone might occasionally misstep and find themselves on the ground (That’s called “foreshadowing”).

Though I knew this second segment of the course to be a net downhill of nearly 600 feet, the key word here is “net” since there was plenty of uphill to work the legs. Rolling hills would be a recurring motif throughout the day — as with most trail races, the shortest distance between two points would never be a straight line.

A hungry neighbor grazes outside Ken and Jenny’s window


Long Lake to Base Camp (mile 18.4) — 550ft gain, 450ft loss
Long Lake would be the first body of water we’d encounter on our journey. Here the aid station was stocked with the usual assortment of sweet & salty goodies, including favorite options such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, banana bites, oranges and watermelon. Liquid options included Coke, ginger ale and water along with overdiluted Tailwind. I carried my own Tailwind in my hydration pack along with several baby food pouches, my usual go-to ultramarathon nutrition.

After about three minutes spent refueling, Ken and I headed out on our way to Base Camp. We chatted where the single-track allowed, pausing at Long Lake for a quick selfie. Along the way we encountered several shallow stream crossings that were easily negotiated by hopping from rock to rock, without the need to get our feet wet.

Mike Sohaskey and Ken Spruell at Long Lake (Run Rabbit Run, mile 14)

Thumbs up for Long Lake, mile 14

Breathing in the crisp alpine air, it was tough to believe that air quality warnings and health advisories had been the order of the day here just 48 hours earlier. And we couldn’t have asked for more ideal weather, with moderate temperatures and partly cloudly skies that prevented the sun from ever gaining a serious foothold.

We were surrounded on all sides by the great outdoors, and I tried to balance the need to make steady progress with my desire to look up and admire the scenery — not easy to do when you’re running on narrow, technical trails. Finally, though, I was starting to feel comfortable, like I was settling in.

The feeling was short-lived. Ken had put about 40 yards between us, and as I glanced up to see him disappear around the next turn, I slammed my left foot into a partially buried rock and pitched forward onto the grassy trail. Fortunately, no blood no foul and no one else had been around to witness my dance moves, so my ego sustained only minimal injury. I hopped up, dusted myself off and continued on my way, my bloodstream now coursing with newly released adrenaline.

Lake Elmo (Run Rabbit Run 50, mile 16)

Lake Elmo, mile 16


Base Camp to Dumont Lake (mile 22.3) — 100ft gain, 550ft loss
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…

My first real indication that the altitude was taking its toll arrived in mile 22. With Ken following close behind I again stubbed my left foot hard and tumbled forward. Instinctively I threw out my left arm to catch myself, the sudden motion sending a bolt of pain shooting through the arm as I landed jarringly on my right side.

Well now, that was embarrassing. The landing on packed dirt was rougher than the grass had been, and gingerly I pulled myself to my feet, cursing under my breath. I assured Ken I was fine and we continued on, my head pounding and my body tired of wasting adrenaline reserves. Though as I’d later discover, that adrenaline was likely the reason I didn’t realize at the time the extent of the damage to my right side. With help from Dr. Google the next day I’d self-diagnose bruised ribs, and for the next week any sudden movement involving my right abdomen would be a painful impossibility. Luckily breathing wouldn’t be a problem, but lying down and sitting up in bed suddenly became a 12-step program.

Back on the trail, I hoped the pain in my arm would subside soon and that the limb would be none the worse for wear — though I hated to think what might happen if I fell again. Fortunately I’d somehow manage to stay upright for the next 28 miles, a minor miracle given what else awaited me.

Dumont Lake aid station (Run Rabbit Run)

With ears a-flutter, Jenny greets Ken at the Dumont Lake aid station

Finally we reached the Dumont Lake aid station where Katie, Jenny and Mandy — our new bad-ass ultrarunner friend who’d graciously hosted us all for an amazing pre-race dinner — greeted us. This would be the largest aid station of the day, and several groups of spectators sat in lawn chairs cheering on runners leaving for and returning from Rabbit Ears. Young kids played in the dirt at their parents’ feet. The scene felt like a company picnic.

Katie checked up on me as I grabbed a bite of peanut butter and jelly, nibbled on a banana and drank some water. Then I slowly removed my pack (superfluous weight) and grabbed a bottle of water in preparation for the hike up to Rabbit Ears and back.

I noticed a pile of playing cards sitting on Katie’s chair and asked about them. “You have to pick up a card from the top of Rabbit Ears and bring it back, as proof you reached the top,” she told me. I was lucky I’d asked this off-the-cuff question; otherwise I’d have had no idea of the rule. And the idea of a second round trip to Rabbit Ears was grossly unappealing.

I wondered how everyone else would know to collect a card — maybe this had been mentioned at the “mandatory” pre-race briefing we’d arrived at late and left early the evening before. In any case it should have been made clear on race day with signage at the Dumont Lake aid station, or at the very least up on Rabbit Ears.

Note to race directors: never assume a runner’s brain or memory will function properly at mile 25, especially at 10,000 feet in the air.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie at Dumont Lake Station (Run Rabbit Run)

All smiles before the trek up to Rabbit Ears


Dumont Lake to Rabbit Ears and back again (mile 27.7) — 1,000ft gain, 1,000ft loss
Water bottles in hand, Ken and I ascended toward Rabbit Ears 1,000 feet above us and 2.5 miles away. Here the dirt trail was wide and inviting, and we power-hiked for the most part while briefly running some of the flatter stretches. In the distance we could see the familiar outline of Rabbit Ears rising prominently on a background of crisp blue sky. This would be the only section of the course that lacked shade, though luckily the benevolent sun offered comforting warmth with intermittent cloud cover.

Up we climbed, the trail getting progressively steeper before culminating in the steepest section of the course, the final ¼ mile to the top. This I’d been expecting from the course elevation profile and from 2016 finisher WonderJess’s own race report. The soft sand in places made steady progress difficult, and with each step forward I’d slide half a step back. It certainly didn’t help my balance that I was carrying my bottle in one hand and my camera in the other, leaving myself no free hand with which to stabilize myself. Thankfully this would be a short-lived challenge, and my quads were up to the task.

Hike to Rabbit Ears (Run Rabbit Run 50, mile 25)

Almost… to the… top… (mile 25)

Reaching the summit and the high point of the course at 10,566 feet, we looked around to see the turnaround point — wait, where was the turnaround point? There were no signs, no indicators, no instructions on where to collect the all-important playing card we’d need to prove our worth upon our return to the Dumont Lake aid station. I glanced around, seeing a group of runners to one side gazing out over the valley far below.

I was about to ask them for guidance when I saw her — a volunteer sporting bunny ears and seated several yards above us on Rabbit Ears. Really? Reluctantly we scrambled upwards in the soft sand to where she sat, perched precariously. There we collected our cards and posed for a quick picture, taking care not to fall back down the slope we’d just climbed. The hopeful voice of a fellow runner yelled up at us from below: “Could you just throw me down a card?” He seemed to be only partially joking.

I slid back down and lingered for a couple more minutes to appreciate the view from the top of the world — after all the work we’d done to get here, damn right I was going to bask in the moment. Then we headed back down the way we’d come, that first ¼ mile of steep downhill being the most precarious of the day. As I sidled down the trail sideways to check my momentum, it reminded me of the almost identical footing we’d encountered at last year’s aptly named Toughest 10K in the USA.

I glanced down at my Garmin as we reached the 26.2-mile mark — 6:43:37, my slowest marathon ever by a long shot.

Rabbit Ears turnaround (Run Rabbit Run 50)

Atop the Rabbit Ears turnaround, the highest point on the course (10,654 ft)

We were making reasonable progress on the way back to Dumont Lake, when about a mile or so from the aid station I suddenly realized my left eye was fogging over. I blinked a few times to try to clear it. No change. I rubbed it gently and blinked again. Nope. I opened my eyes as widely as I could and rolled them in all directions, trying to clear my vision. Nada. I even smacked the back of my head as if to literally knock some sense into myself. Nothing helped. Luckily the trail here was wide and smooth, and I felt confident the veil would lift momentarily.

When we arrived back at the Dumont Lake aid station, however, my eye still hadn’t cleared. Many of the spectators were gone, as were most of the runners. We relinquished our cards, collected our packs, quickly snacked and re-hydrated (sip of Coke, sip of ginger ale, sip of water) and thanked our fluffy-tailed spouses. I told Katie I’d see her at the finish — Jenny, on the other hand, I’d see sooner as she’d agreed to shepherd us the last four miles down the mountain.

Then we headed back toward Base Camp, leaving Rabbit Ears and the toughest climbs of the day in our rearview mirror. Less than 23 miles to go. As we exited the aid station, a young girl cheered us on waving her pompoms. Or maybe the altitude was getting to me…

Dumont Lake to Base Camp (mile 31.6) — 550ft gain, 100ft loss
I moved more slowly on our return trip to Base Camp, my injured arm loosening but my left eye still fogged over. I felt as though I were seeing the world through frosted glass.

Luckily the next two miles covered relatively level ground, but as my eye remained cloudy I started to consider worst-case scenarios. Had the trauma of my two falls, and especially the second with its whiplash-like landing, detached my retina? I recalled the horror of friends who’d had to undergo retinal reattachment surgery, and how it had essentially put their lives on hold for several months. I cringed at the thought, and a sudden wave of appreciation washed over me. Don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, I thought. Luckily I’d yet to see any floaters or sudden flashes of light, so my retina seemed intact. But at this point I couldn’t be sure.

In the meantime, I did what I could to keep Ken within view of my one good eye, and tried to appreciate the sweeping beauty around me — easier said than done, as I was understandably a bit distracted.

With relief we turned onto the wider, more runnable Base Camp Road and, half a mile later, I pulled into the Base Camp aid station just behind Ken and a woman from Boulder with whom he’d been chatting. Suddenly her phone rang — and as any focused runner would do in the middle of a 50-mile trail race at high altitude, she answered it. Apparently she was a property manager renting out a property in the Caribbean, and the renter had refused to leave with Hurricane Irma bearing down on the island. As the renter hunkered down inside the property the wind had blown the roof off, while the fridge door had likewise been blown off its hinges and out the door.

And that, kids, is why you don’t answer your phone during a race.

Base Camp aid station (Run Rabbit Run 50)

Cooling down at the Base Camp aid station

At Base Camp I quickly removed, rinsed and reinserted my contact lens to see if that would defog my vision. No such luck, so apparently it wasn’t a contact issue. A friendly volunteer handed me a large damp towel which I draped over my head appreciatively, the chill reviving my frazzled and weary nerves. Maybe lowering my body temperature would help my vision.

I felt my body cooling as I nibbled on a banana. Ken texted Jenny to arrange our meeting at the 46-mile mark, the point at which non-runners were allowed (per race regulations) to meet their rabbits or tortoises and run with them the rest of the way down the mountain.

“Longview” by Green Day was playing on the sound system behind the aid tables and I sang along, amused by the timely lyrics: I got no motivation, where is my motivation…. One of the volunteers laughed. “Probably not the best song to be playing right now,” she acknowledged and changed it.

Whether the chilled towel or rather Billie Joe and the boys were to thank, my eye finally defogged enough to be useful again. And so with ~80% use of my left eye we continued on our journey toward Long Lake, a newfound spring in my step. Hopefully the clouds had finally lifted on my vision.

As Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

The Rabbit Ears Motel, a Steamboat Springs landmark (photo credit)


Base Camp to Long Lake (mile 36.8) — 450ft gain, 550ft loss
Shortly after leaving Base Camp my Garmin beeped to signal 32 miles down, and I yelled to Ken just ahead of me, congratulating him on the farthest distance he’d ever run (eclipsing the 50K he’d run just two weeks earlier). We exchanged high-fives and he shot ahead, quickly putting 20 yards between us. As I turned to follow him I realized my right eye was now badly fogged over. Are you f@*#ing kidding me?

This truly sucked. With my lack of depth perception I couldn’t run fast at all, much less catch up to Ken who was quickly escaping my view ahead. I was reduced to painstakingly picking my way along the rocky and rooty trail, and whenever I lost patience and tried to speed up I’d inevitably slam my toe into another of nature’s speed bumps and lose my balance, each time managing to catch myself before I fell. With my arm still giving me the cold shoulder, the last thing I wanted was to hit the ground again.

This was an eerie and frustrating feeling, this lack of depth perception. And suddenly I was reminded of how much I take my eyesight for granted. At stream crossings I found myself stopping in my tracks to gauge the position of each stepping stone, before cautiously moving forward. Shadows created by the dappled sun didn’t help my cause as I struggled for equilibrium.

Downhills were particularly tricky with 80% vision in one eye and significantly less in the other. And in some places where the trail narrowed, I even had trouble running a straight line without stepping off the trail. One wrong step and my day could end quickly and painfully, 33 miles farther and 3,000 feet higher than it had begun.


I was running alone, running through a fog and really not even running anymore. And like the scientist I am, I reached a conclusion based on all the facts available to me: this wasn’t fun at all.

Doubt briefly crossed my mind — could I make it another 17 miles with one “good” eye? And could I even count on that one eye, which had already failed me once? What if both eyes fogged over at the same time, here between aid stations? On the bright side, the fact that my eyes had taken turns clouding over meant the odds of having detached one or both retinas were very low. So that cheered me up a bit.

Sadly, the Rocky Mountain scenery was now lost on me. A black bear dressed as Ronald McDonald could have been juggling 3 moose off to one side and I likely wouldn’t have noticed. And looking back at my splits, it’s unclear how I maintained what amounted to a very reasonable pace under the circumstances.

As much as my situation sucked, though, this wasn’t Mars and I wasn’t Mark Watney, and eventually we reached the Long Lake aid station where I exhaled deeply and reminded myself that only a half marathon’s distance remained between us and the finish. The next 13 miles may be slower than I wanted, but assuming both eyes didn’t fog up simultaneously, I could do this. And hadn’t reaching the finish line always been my “A” goal anyway?

Mandy volunteering at Dumont Lake (Run Rabbit Run 50)

Mandy livin’ the high life as a Dumont Lake volunteer – thanks for being your awesome self, Mandy!


Long Lake to Mt Werner (mile 43.6) — 1,200ft gain, 700ft loss
At Long Lake I caught up to Ken and took my time refueling while he texted with Jenny, the two of them working out the logistics of meeting at mile 46 on our way down the mountain. I put a Frito in my mouth and immediately spit it out. Even on the warmest days, and this certainly wasn’t one of them, my body rarely if ever craves salt during a race.

Luckily my right eye seemed to be clearing a bit, enough to regain some semblance of depth perception. This took the edge off, and with eyesight that was decidely below average but above expectations, Ken and I made good progress on our way to the final aid station stop at Mt Werner.

Even with my vision cooperating, this final section atop the mountain truly sucked as the climbing felt nonstop. I sure didn’t remember this much downhill on the way out. Up and up and up we seemed to climb through the forest, only to level out or descend briefly and then climb again. At this point in the race, these slow climbs were more psychologically exhausting than the first six uphill miles had been.

“Oh look, another uphill,” I found myself muttering sarcastically. I was good and ready to reach Werner, and I kept assuring myself we couldn’t possibly climb much higher. The good news was that both eyes were now operating at > 80% clarity, while the soreness in my arm offered a constant reminder to stay focused on my footing, especially on the downs.

Where is that damn aid station? Did they move it? I kept asking myself, craning my neck to look ahead. I felt so sure we should have reached it by now… then again I’d blown by it so fast the first time, maybe it had all been an altitude-induced mirage?

Finally it came into view, like the wise old hermit perched high atop the mountain. I collapsed in a chair with a pouch of barely palatable baby food while an attentive volunteer brought me ginger ale. Meanwhile, Ken texted Jenny to let her know we’d reached Werner and to ensure she’d be waiting for us at at Rainbow Saddle, just below Thunderhead Lodge. Just over six miles to go, omg omg omg…

Run Rabbit Run finish area

The finish area awaits


Mt Werner to finish — 3,600ft loss
After taking nearly six minutes to fully appreciate this last aid station of the day (did I mention we were in no hurry?), we headed back down the mountain to reclaim that initial 3,600 feet of ascent. After all, we’d earned it.

As we started down, I noticed — YEP, the left eye was again fogged over. Luckily we still had plenty of sunlight, and the road home was wide and runnable. So after carefully navigating the Storm Peak Challenge Trail over loose rocks and gravel (and reminding myself to do nothing stupid), I no longer needed the benefit of depth perception. From here on, I could stampede down the mountain like a bull in a china shop.

Storm Peak Challenge Trail (Run Rabbit Run)

Storm Peak Challenge Trail

We passed Thunderhead Lodge where a wedding reception was in full swing. And per our strategery, there was Jenny waiting for us at Rainbow Saddle. Seeing her was a nice psychological boost and she led us down the mountain at a pace that felt right on the cusp of do-able, if not comfortable.

As we descended we continued to pick up speed, the all-consuming urge to get this over with — the race and this blog post — taking control. We were like iron filings being pulled downhill by an increasingly powerful magnet. There would be minimal nature-gazing on the way down — I’d seen all the aspen groves and evergreens I needed to see for one day. The finish line was calling.

Run Rabbit Run, mile 46

🎵 She’ll be comin’ down the mountain when she comes… 🎶 (mile 46)

Plus, the vegetarian in me really wanted to beat the lady in the “Team Beef” tanktop who we’d passed on our way down. Don’t judge…

Miles 48 and 49 were our fastest (and only sub-10) miles of the day as we pounded downhill on what was left of our legs. We then slowed as the course transitioned back to the narrow gravel path — after treading so carefully for the past six hours, I wasn’t about to trip and fall on my face less than a mile from the finish.

As my Garmin’s mile indicator beeped for the 50th time with the finish line nowhere in sight, I glanced down to see that we’d just passed hour 13. Which sounded like a very lucky number to me.

Jenny peeled off to let Ken and me finish the last half mile by ourselves. Five minutes later, as the sun approached the horizon, the two of us passed under the familiar red inflatable arch in a respectable time of 13:07:35. With that Ken was a proud 50-miler finisher, and I immediately embraced him in a congratulatory hug — after all, he’d made it look easy. Then I turned my attention (and affections) to Katie, who had stories of her own to tell from her day spent volunteering at Dumont Lake.

Mike Sohaskey and Ken Spruell finishing Run Rabbit Run 50

After 50 miles, a photo(genic) finish

For my part, I’d completed the most challenging race of my life and colored in Colorado on my 50 States Map. And most importantly my eyes, which like the evening sky remained partially cloudy at the finish, would clear for good soon after the race. Admittedly I haven’t done much research to figure out what happened up there on the mountain, but presumably I experienced a lesser case of the altitude–induced corneal edema that afflicted the women’s winner. And if that’s the case I consider myself lucky, because it could have been much worse.

Vision aside, I wouldn’t escape my Rocky Mountain run unscathed. My injured arm would remain out of sorts for several days, while my painfully bruised ribs would be the real villains, sidelining me from running for the next two weeks — an almost unheard-of sabbatical from the sport. And as I would discover later that night when the fever kicked in, my immune system had been beaten down pretty thoroughly as well. Once I stopped moving and allowed my body to relax, the floodgates of fatigue opened and the effort of the day coupled with the altitude finally took their toll.

Run Rabbit Run finish line shot

🎵 Reunited, and it feels so good… 🎶

Admittedly, a 50-miler at high altitude hadn’t been the easiest way to notch state #17. But at the same time if I’d wanted “easy” I would’ve chosen to spend my Saturday gardening or collecting stamps. No, this was a medal well earned…

Speaking of which — after sharing hugs all around (including one with the bunny-eared race director), I grabbed a chocolate milk and looked for the volunteer(s) handing out finisher medals or belt buckles. It was then my euphoria yielded to dismay, as instead of shiny artistic race bling we were each handed a Run Rabbit Run… beer mug. A nice ceramic beer mug to be sure, but a beer mug nevertheless.

With post-race endorphins coursing through my system I couldn’t be bitter, but I was definitely disappointed. What American adult needs a beer mug? I rarely drink beer, and even then we have too many mugs at home. So now I have as a memento of state #17 an oversized mug that takes up too much of my already limited desk space. I realize the stereotypical trail runner is supposed to embrace the glory of nature and shun medals and trophies of any kind, but then why a mug? It was a puzzling and disappointing reward for 13 hours on the mountain, and especially for a race that boasts “the highest purse of any trail ultra marathon in the world.”

But to turn lemons into lemonade, I now have a reason to return to Colorado to run the Leadville Trail Marathon, a race I’ve been eyeing since 2012 when injury made it the first — and so far only — DNS (Did Not Start) on my running résumé.

As darkness fell like a curtain across the staging area and the last of the 50- and 100-mile finishers trickled in, we said our goodbyes to the Steamboat Ski Resort and took our leave. Pizza awaited, though I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to stomach. Besides, the promise of a hot shower was all the motivation I needed at the moment. And unlike my new mug, the shower wouldn’t disappoint as Ken and Jenny’s hot water heater proved up to the challenge, even if I did move like a robot in need of WD-40.

Then, with great difficulty thanks to my aching arm and bruised ribs, I settled into bed for a long and restless night of feverish wishes and sea-level dreams.

Man, the lengths I’ll go to for that elusive runner’s high.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Run Rabbit Run finish line

BOTTOM LINE: Looking for an epic adventure in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, one that’s (literally) above and beyond the usual ultramarathon? You’ve found it in Run Rabbit Run. Steamboat Springs is a charming, low-key destination town and especially in early September, which is the calm before the storm of ski season. Case in point the weather, which was perfect on race day and which made our 13 hours of essentially fast hiking (with a 15-hour time limit) a lot more pleasant than it otherwise might have been.

Trying to get up and down the mountain before my body wised up to the altitude, I flew into Colorado and arrived in Steamboat Springs the day before the race. Surprisingly I had no difficulty with my breathing at any point during the race — not even on the initial 3,600 foot climb to the summit of Mount Werner. No, the real manifestation of the high altitude was that I moved at a much slower clip than I do at sea level, even taking into account the steady diet of rocks and roots. And having my eyes take turns fogging over certainly didn’t help my progress.

(On that note, a word of warning if you’re considering this race: beware the unlikely possibility of altitude-induced vision problems such as corneal edema, which nearly blinded the eventual winner of the women’s 100-mile race).

Run Rabbit Run is a challenging course, yes. And at times I became frustrated with the seemingly endless climbing and my glacial rate of progress. But Mother Nature offers her rabbits plenty of rewards for all their hard work — this may well be the most picturesque course you’ll ever run. And if a sea-level sissy like me can get ‘er done, so can you.

Mike Sohaskey and Ken Spruell at Run Rabbit Run finish

PRODUCTION: Well done, for the most part. Packet pickup doubled as a pre-race pep talk and an opportunity for the race director to share guidelines, warnings and cautionary tales for race day. We arrived late as he was relating a joke about runners wearing bear bells on the course, the punchline being that bear scat can be distinguished from other animal scat by the fact it has bear bells in it. Comedic interludes aside, the RD also raffled off a bunch of sponsor swag to hold the audience’s interest, which was cool — and my friend Ken and I each scored a lightweight Ultimate Direction running vest, a nice take-home prize.

Race day logistics were smooth overall with a couple of annoying hitches. This year, apparently for the first time, the organizers decided to make runners retrieve a playing card from a volunteer stationed at the top of Rabbit Ears, to confirm they’d made it all the way to the top (mile 25). I wouldn’t have realized this, though, if I hadn’t happened to notice the playing cards sitting on a chair at the Dumont Lake aid station and asked Katie. Nor were there any signs or indicators up on Rabbit Ears as to where the turnaround point was, much less a warning about the cards. So I’m not sure how everyone else learned of the cards, and I wonder if anyone failed to retrieve one. Maybe I missed those instructions at the pre-race meeting, but on race day they should be clearly communicated to any exhausted runner who may be 10,000+ feet above his comfort zone and not thinking straight. And it was oddly unnecessary, at the top of Rabbit Ears, to make each runner scamper up the last 20 feet of loose dirt to where the volunteer sat precariously handing out cards — she could just as easily have waited below to enable a more agile turnaround.

A huge shout-out to the amazing volunteers who all day long were friendly, attentive and competent. And rumor has it there was a nice post-race spread; unfortunately the sun was setting and a chill was descending by the time we finished, so we were eager to get back to our friends’ place, get cleaned up and grab dinner.

Run Rabbit Run mug + Rabbit Ears view

A toast to Rabbit Ears, visible in the distance

SWAG: Aside from my vision failing me at times, the swag was my only real disappointment of the day. Yes, I understand this is a trail race and trail runners are supposed to eschew medals and material possessions. But for a race of this length and difficulty — and one that boasts the “highest purse of any trail ultra marathon in the world” — I’d expect a finisher’s buckle (apparently the 100-milers received one) or at least a medal, something I can proudly display on my wall alongside my other blingy shiny souvenirs. Instead, our reward for 13+ hours of running, hiking and stumbling was a ceramic beer mug to accompany the short-sleeve cotton race tee we’d received at registration (no more shirts, please…). What non-college-age adult needs another f#*@ing mug? I felt like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” sitting in his bathroom frantically decoding with his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder pin, only to discover he’s been duped by corporate America. “A crummy commercial? Son of a bitch!”

Many thanks to Jess T. for her awesome pre-race advice and excellent blog post that I’d recommend to anyone thinking of tackling Run Rabbit Run!

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map (after Run Rabbit Run)

RaceRaves rating:

Run Rabbit Run review summary for RaceRaves

FINAL STATS:
Sept 9, 2017 (start time 6:00am)
50.63 miles in Routt National Forest in Steamboat Springs, CO (state 17 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 13:07:35 (first time running the Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler), 15:33 min/mile
Finish place: 96 overall, 25/30 in M40–49
Number of finishers: 117 (78 men, 39 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy at the start (temp 46°F), warm and cloudy at the finish (70°F), partly sunny throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect, from Ken): 7,963 ft ascent, 7,966 ft descent

I kept going.
– Kayleigh Williamson, the first runner with Down Syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon (2017)

View of Clark Fork River

Behold! The Clark Fork River

Runners whose goal it is to race in all 50 states often find themselves living a tale of two –ities: opportunity and serendipity. This summer, the Treasure State weighed in with a golden opportunity I couldn’t refuse.

One of my favorite places in the country, Montana offers several attractive possibilities for the 50 states runner. These include the Madison Marathon, which at a starting elevation of 9,250 feet is the highest road marathon in the country; the Governor’s Cup, which follows a gentle downhill course that finishes in the capital city and gold rush town of Helena; and the Missoula Marathon, which takes place in the small-town home of the University of Montana and is among the highest-rated events on RaceRaves.com.

So my choice of Montana marathons wouldn’t be easy — until it was. As luck would have it, Katie’s family (with our input) chose Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming as the destination for this summer’s family vacation. And as timing would have it, our visit to the parks would end the day before the Missoula Marathon in neighboring Montana.

If that weren’t enough to seal the deal, Tony Banovich, the Race Director in Missoula, had generously invited us to join them for their marathon in early July. And so as soon as family getaway plans were finalized, we jumped at Tony’s offer to join him and his Run Wild Missoula team in Big Sky Country.

Missoula Marathon welcome sign in Missoula airport

With our family vacation ending on Saturday, the day before the race, we departed Grand Teton National Park that morning en route to Missoula some 400 miles away. Eight hours later, we pulled into town too late to make the pre-race expo but still in time to pick up my packet at the tiny local airport (a much-appreciated option; see “Production” below). Then it was time to begin in earnest the all-important business of weather watching and forecast fixating.

Marathon weekend found Missoula in the midst of a heat wave that would have made Beelzebub sweat. The temperature on race day was expected to reach the high 90s, the silver lining being a starting temp in the mid 60s that would rise gradually and peak in the late afternoon, once all runners were safely off the course. Regular pre-race emails from Tony and his team had assured us the show would go on as planned, while explaining what they’d be doing to prepare for the potentially dangerous heat (e.g. shortening the course time limit from 7½ to 6½ hours).

So all things considered, my concerns about racing the mercury to the finish line were minimal. Luckily, with a week of high-temperature and high-altitude hiking already in my legs, I had no plans for anything other than a relaxed, leisurely marathon.

As it turns out, I had no idea just how relaxed.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Grand Teton

Grand Teton, the reason we missed the pre-race expo

From fireworks in Frenchtown…
The mind always knows when it’s race day.

I woke up in the darkness, roughly a minute before my iPhone alarm did the same. Thirty minutes later we were in the car on the near-deserted highway for the 15-minute drive to Frenchtown, where the marathon would begin just after sunrise. Parking was easy peasy, with most runners riding the shuttle bus to the start.

Strolling toward the start line we were lucky to catch Race Director Tony B, who was predictably seeing to last-minute details. He was fighting a cold but seemed relaxed (more so than me) and excited to see all his hard work come to fruition. He wouldn’t be disappointed.

Fireworks briefly filled the dusky gray sky with light and sound, providing a cool distraction as I waited in the last-minute porta-potty line. Rural and low-key, and particularly so early in the morning, Frenchtown feels like a one-horse town. This was shaping up to be my kind of race, and I reached the start line in a more relaxed frame of mind than I’d arrived.

Missoula Marathon 2017 start line

Awaiting the go-ahead to run wild

The singing of the National Anthem (for which everyone stood, yes) was followed by the wheelchair start which was followed by the rest of us, a small stampede of runners directed toward downtown Missoula 26.2 miles away.

No sooner had I elevated my heart rate and found my stride than I heard the question come from directly behind me. “Are you Mike?” I glanced back to see Colorado native Eric O. pull alongside me. Eric had been the enthusiastic winner of a free race entry in our 2016 RaceRaves Missoula Marathon reviews giveaway, and today he was joining his daughter who was running her first half marathon. We ran together for a couple of miles, chatting about his first Boston Marathon earlier this year and his positive experiences at past Missoula Marathons.

Then I wished him luck and held myself in check as he gradually pulled away behind the 3:40 pace group. I was determined not to do anything reckless here today, with my only goal being a sub-4 hour finish to keep my streak of sub-4 road marathons alive (despite a close call at Victoria Falls). That meant showing the discipline to keep my early pace controlled and comfortable (~8:30/mile), to avoid imploding in the second half.

Or so I thought.

Missoula Marathon 2017 mile 4

Eric O. (in tie-dyed tee) pulls away in mile 4

The first 9.5 miles of Missoula was among the most pleasant stretches in my marathon memory. After a couple of gentle turns in the first mile, we ran with an eye toward the horizon on a well-maintained, recently blacktopped road flanked by open countryside and overseen by a distant wall of mountains on our right. Past horse stables, an industrial paper & packaging plant and even a donkey farm we ran, the miles ticking off with relative ease thanks to the scenery and still-cool temperatures. And though the rising sun would flex its muscle soon enough, the early morning cloud cover certainly helped as I didn’t have to don my sunglasses until mile 9.

With plenty of fresh air and elbow room, Big Sky Country was definitely living up to its name. And though mentally I wasn’t in the best place to be tackling a marathon after a week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

All the small details of the race were handled beautifully and with the runners in mind. For instance, each aid station was advertised in advance by unmistakable placards, with each station offering Powerade in front and water in the back, a sequence clearly articulated by the excellent volunteers. This struck me as Baton Rouge with better scenery.

Mike Sohaskey - mile 9 of Missoula Marathon 2017

Two thumbs up at mile 9

“Please don’t collapse — it’s our day off!” urged the placard at one of the nurses stations we passed. Gotta love health workers with a sense of humor, and hopefully they got to enjoy their day off without interruption.

In mile 10, a sharp right turn led us west away from Mullan Rd toward the Clark Fork River, the first of two rivers intersected by the marathon course. Open countryside stretched out on all sides, the mountains now looming large ahead of us as we made our first river crossing of the day via the two-lane roadbed of the Kona Bridge. Much to my chagrin, a small group of well-meaning spectators sat with music cranked up on the other side of the bridge — I’d been reveling in the tranquil stillness of our surroundings, and the dissonance hit my ears like a sonic boom.

Mother Nature would provide all the external distraction and entertainment I’d need on this day. Luckily amplified interludes were few and far between, though I was able to muster a moment of music appreciation at mile 13. There we were greeted by Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” a favorite of clever spectators at the midway point of marathon courses across the country (WHOAAAAA, we’re halfway there…).

Kona Bridge - mile 11 of Missoula Marathon 2017

A river runs under it: Kona Bridge, mile 11

… to a near-miss in Missoula
The lone hill of note on the course — “Halfway Hill” we’ll call it — awaited just after the midway point. At its base a cowboy on horseback waved and greeted us. “Where you coming from?” he asked good-naturedly. Halfway Hill ascended for about half a mile through soaring evergreens and featured a false summit where an aid station awaited. Slowly I climbed, maintaining a jog while chatting with a fellow from Kansas City.

From there the course rolled for about 1½ miles before making its final descent near the mile 16 marker. Unfortunately there were no photographers on this scenic wooded downhill as there had been the year before. Accelerating downhill toward an upcoming aid station, I decided this was a good time to force down consume my first Stinger gel of the day, since water was imminent. Swallowing the first mouthful, “BAD IDEA” sirens went off in my head as a wave of nausea immediately washed over me. I don’t recall the last time I felt nauseous during a race, maybe never. Even worse, this feeling would stick with me for the next two miles and signal the beginning of a very looooong ten miles to the finish.

Mile 14 of Missoula Marathon

Heading up Halfway Hill, mile 14

Despite my nausea and early fatigue, mile 17 was one of the most entertaining of the day. It started with my second Katie sighting, followed by a fellow playing the piano on the lawn of someone’s backyard (and in full dress tails Big Sur-style, I do believe). Soon after that a young girl (maybe 4 years old) in ballerina outfit turned cartwheels and cheered as we approached. And finally we crossed the Bitterroot River at perhaps the most photogenic spot on the course, Maclay Bridge, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Disappointed not to see an official photographer positioned on the far side of the bridge this year, and honestly looking for any excuse to slow down, I paused to snap a shot of my own.

Maclay Bridge - Mile 17 of Missoula Marathon

Maclay Bridge, mile 17

All three mile 17 moments (Katie not included) were charming pick-me-ups and spot-on examples of what makes Missoula a special race and a special place.

By mile 18 my inexplicable nausea had passed for the most part, but my body was clearly done. Whether or not “adrenal fatigue” is a legit medical condition, I visualized my adrenal glands as shriveled-up raisins with nothing left to give. My legs felt encased in concrete, and increasingly I was able to walk faster than I could run. This was a tough situation, similar to — though more brutal than — what I’d faced in Boston in 2016.

As the course entered the residential neighborhoods of Missoula and transitioned onto narrow tree-lined streets, sprinklers became plentiful. Many were strong enough only to wet my upper legs, and though the heat remained largely a non-factor at this point, these cooling interludes were much appreciated.

Case in point, the single best hydration moment of the day came courtesy of two young girls standing by with loaded Super Soakers at the ready. One girl met my eyes as I approached with an inquiring “OK to shoot?” expression on her face. Without a word I raised my hand in the universal gesture of “Bring it on,” and was immediately hit by a blast of cold water that felt incredible and instantly revived my spirits, if not my legs.

For once I didn’t mind intermittent walking because my #1 goal here in state #16 was to enjoy my scenic foot tour of Missoula. And even in my depleted state I was doing just that. How could I not, what with the town’s pleasant neighborhoods, cute homes boasting immaculately manicured lawns and spectators that were supportive in every way?

Missoula residents misting marathon runners

The residents of Missoula never mist a chance to take care of their runners

At the same time I’m a proudly competitive guy, and as I shuffled onward my mind kept nagging at me, the dangling carrot of the sub-4-hour marathon urging me onward. Did I still have a chance? Had I banked enough time in the first half to overcome this second half implosion? Where was the 4-hour pace group? When would they pass me? And would I care when they did? Of course I would, but would I be able to do anything about it?

This final possibility was the most disconcerting, and it brought to mind the helpless feeling I’d had in Eugene when the 3:25 pace group had blown by me in mile 23.

Each time I saw Katie in the second half (at miles 17, 20, 21 and 24), I seized on the opportunity to slow to a fast walk alongside her. First time I’ve ever done that, and with each slowdown I felt like I was adding an hour to my finish time. She’d hand me the coconut water we’d brought, and I’d drink as much as I could stomach while trying to rally my exhausted body.

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift” read the race placard posted around mile 20, a quote from the legendary Steve Prefontaine. That was followed by “The challenge ahead of you is never as great as the strength within you” — a bit corny to be sure, but under the circumstances both relevant and uplifting. Much more so than the least creative spectator sign of the day, which in an apparently failed attempt at snarky humor simply read “Motivational sign.”

For a short stretch I ran alongside an overly sweaty fellow who looked like he’d just climbed out of a swimming pool. He mumbled some words of encouragement at me and I grunted back a weak “You too” before again slowing to a walk. He pushed ahead at a jog, though not a particularly speedy one since I passed him soon after.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Missoula Marathon

“Thumbs up” is marathoner-speak for “I’m still alive” (mile 21)

Each time I slowed to a walk I’d feel a momentary wave of lightheadness, with chills passing through my legs. And here it wasn’t even hot yet, oy. I’d walk briskly until my equilibrium returned for the most part and then I’d pick up the pace again, feeling more composed. And I listened for the telltale cheers that might indicate the 4-hour pace group coming up fast behind me. Given that I was now leaving a charred trail of 10-minute miles in my wake, it was only a matter of time.

After mile 20 I’d use each mile marker as a goalpost and an excuse to walk. I even slowed to a walk at the mile 25 marker, so little energy did I have to finish this thing, much less finish strong. As though anticipating my arrival, an official race sign posted just past the mile 25 marker promised “One more mile in the pain cave.” As marathons go, this particular pain cave was deeper and darker than any I’d ever been in. Then roughly half a mile later, “You’ve come this far, you might as well finish.”

Missoula Marathon finish line

(Photo: Gameface Media)

I was liking these signs more and more.

I reached the mile 26 marker running on fumes and with my wits half intact, so it took me a moment to register the fellow wearing an orange tee who fell in beside me at an easy jog. “How you feeling?” asked Race Director Tony B with a furrowed brow and sympathetic smile. “Better now, “ I acknowledged, my spirits lifted by the mile 26 marker and by his friendly presence.

Tony does what he does because helping others achieve their goals and realize their dreams is his passion, a truth that becomes self-evident both in talking with him and in every detail of his race. And he’s fortunate to be able to pursue that passion in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Getting to know Tony and other amazing folks in the running industry has been one of the most rewarding benefits to building and growing RaceRaves these past three years.

Now he jogged alongside me for a short distance before pointing at the upcoming Higgins Avenue Bridge. “You’ve got one last uphill hump, then it’s all downhill to the finish,” he reassured me and with that, he left me to finish on my own. Feeling his eyes (true or not) still on my back, I put every last ounce of energy I had into cresting that bridge, where I let momentum carry me down toward one of the most magnificent finish arches I’d ever witnessed, the late morning sun now showcasing the marathon logo atop the arch.

A picture-perfect finish to a race that, aside from nearly killing me, did everything right.

Turns out Tony’s last-minute motivation was exactly what this doctor ordered. Given my grotesque “positive split” — i.e. a second half slower than the first half — I had no business finishing in 3:59:18, but that’s exactly what my Garmin read as I crossed the finish line completely spent. After Victoria Falls, Missoula was the second straight sub-4 victory I’d snatched from the jaws of defeat. Wobbling forward in the finish chute, I turned seconds later to see the 4-hour pacers crossing the line right on time as pacers tend to do — alone.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Missoula Marathon

Ain’t nothin’ so fine as a finish line

When the going gets tough, keep going
Jubilant relief swept through me as a friendly volunteer hung the hefty bronze finisher’s medal around my neck. Then I collapsed on the curb and gave Katie (waiting outside the finish chute) a “We did it” fist pump. A medical attendant came by to check on me, and with a weak smile I assured her I’d done this before and I’d be just fine. Montana and state #16 completed? Check. In less than four hours? Check. All things considered, and despite my body’s protests to the contrary, it had been a very good day.

Slowly and deliberately we made our way to the post-race festival in Caras Park, where I snapped a finisher photo and took advantage of the massage tent, the latter at an additional charge. Predictably my stomach wasn’t in the mood for solid food, and wasn’t willing even to give the Big Sky Brewing tent a chance. Dejected, I refueled with a strawberry lemonade from a local vendor before heading back to the finish line to watch RaceRaves member and fellow Marathon Maniac Tim (who’d made the drive from South Dakota) finish his own race. With the clock approaching high noon, temperatures were creeping toward the 90s as the last few finishers crossed the Higgins Avenue Bridge.

Then, roughly 18 hours after we’d arrived, it was time to bid Missoula a fond farewell. We hustled back to our hotel for a quick shower, before hitting the road to nearby St. Regis for a visit with friends and an afternoon float on the Clark Fork River. Katie and I both regretted the brevity of our stay — we weren’t even able to check out the University of Montana campus — but unfortunately it couldn’t be helped this time. And on the bright side, we now have a compelling reason to return. Missoula is one of the few destinations on my 50 states quest so far that I honestly hope to revisit. Besides, I feel like the I owe the course a rematch on fresher legs.

Mike Sohaskey & Tim Mullican at Missoula Marathon

Celebrating with RaceRaves member and 50 states finisher Tim M. at the post-race festival

Because as much as I’d hoped to live in my own reality distortion field, the truth is that an incredible summer spent traveling and racing in the heat of South Africa and Zimbabwe, and then hiking in the heat and elevation of Northwest Wyoming, had finally taken its toll. Clearly I’m no Mike Wardian, the 43-year-old freak of nature who this past August conquered the country’s most difficult marathon on Pikes Peak a few hours after notching 100 high-altitude miles at the iconic Leadville Trail 100 Run. Completing either race is enough to wreck most normal runners, but Wardian isn’t normal — he finished both races in a combined record time that’s unlikely to be broken any time soon. Coincidentally, Wardian was scheduled to speak at this year’s expo in Missoula, an appearance we missed due to our late arrival. If only we’d made it on time, I might have benefitted from his secondhand bad-assedness.

 

In any case, Missoula crystallized in my mind the most important lesson any runner can learn, and the two words that so often determine success or failure in any walk of life: Keep going. Never give up and never give in. One foot in front of the other, always forward until you cross that finish line. Because you never know.

Keep going. Easy to promise yourself from the comfort of your sofa, much tougher to do when your finely tuned engine is leaking oil in the heat with six miles to go. If I’d walked a few more seconds here or there rather than pushing forward at every opportunity, I‘d have finished in just over four hours and spent the next 34 states woulda- coulda- shoulda-ing. Because once the race is over and you regain your senses, it’s easy to rationalize how you could have done better.

Keep going. Anyone can be a runner when they’re feeling good and running with the wind; the challenge comes when the going gets tough, then tougher, then toughest. What will you do when the deck is stacked against you? Will you fold? Or will you go all in, show your best poker face and push your chips to the center of the table? No matter the conditions, no matter the distance, mental toughness is the wild card each and every time that starter’s pistol fires. Just ask Kayleigh Williamson, who this year because the first runner with Down Syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon in a time of 6:22:56.

At any rate, any runner who’s tried it will tell you: this is how the 50 states quest works. Running a marathon (or longer) in every freaking state often plays out as a tale of two –ities, opportunity and serendipity. State #16 was the best of times, it was the worst of times — Big Sky beauty and hospitality coupled with my worst road marathon time to date. But hard times or not, our visit to the Treasure State exceeded even my great expectations.

Because I enjoyed the dickens out of Missoula.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Missoula Marathon finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: It’s no hyperbole to say Missoula is the perfect small-town marathon. But you don’t need me to tell you that – it’s one of the most highly rated events on RaceRaves (currently an amazing 4.9 shoes out of 5, based on 140 reviews). Tony Banovich and his team let the peaceful rural beauty of the point-to-point course and the friendliness of the locals speak for themselves, and both speak loudly. As you might guess, you won’t get mile after mile of blasting music or screaming spectators (thankfully), but you will get a wildly rewarding marathon experience that, Halfway Hill and potential July heat aside, makes you wish you could bottle Big Sky Country and take it with you. And lucky you if you live here.

Unlike other expensive events that “entertain” their runners on race day with blaring music, colorful distractions and contrived bells and whistles, Missoula feels entirely authentic. And delightful touches like a piano player on a front lawn at mile 17 only add to its charm. Missoula is a spot-on race to include in your summer vacation plans, with Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park to the southwest and Glacier National Park to the north. Though if you do opt for a racecation, do your legs a favor and run the race first — several days spent hiking in the Big Sky heat and at Big Sky altitude beforehand will wear you down, and the ultimate victim will be your legs on race day. Somewhere around mile 18. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Huckleberries in the wild

PRODUCTION: In a word, elk-cellent. The Run Wild Missoula team are clearly pros — from the regular prerace email updates (particularly important when the weather forecast threatens triple digits), to enabling expo latecomers to pick up their bib numbers hassle-free at the Missoula airport, to the low-key start-line fireworks in Frenchtown, to the well-labeled aid stations, to the motivational signs posted along the course in the later miles (when I very much wanted to call it a day), to the awesome post-race spread and Big Sky Brewing tent.

Case in point, I didn’t realize until Saturday afternoon — entirely my fault — that I wasn’t going to be able to reach the expo before it closed, so I sent an email asking if I might be able to pick up my bib number at the airport that evening. Soon after, I received a very friendly and personalized “Welcome to Missoula!” email that went on to say, “We are happy to provide you with the opportunity to pick up your packet late!” The whole process was quick and easy, with Missoula Marathon banners greeting us at the airport. I’ve never received better customer service from a race.

(That said, I would suggest extending expo hours until 6:00pm, since a 4:00pm closing time for a one-day expo seems a bit early.)

Seeing all the sprinklers, hoses and squirt guns mobilized for our benefit, it felt like the entire town of Missoula had prepared and shown up for its hometown race. The town clearly takes pride in its marathon, and as a visiting runner there’s no better feeling. Because you can’t fake that — coming from Los Angeles, I know the disappointment of having an A+ race play to apathetic locals. Like Louisiana in January, this is a race organized first and foremost with the runners in mind. Race Director Tony B. seemed very relaxed (despite fighting a cold) when we saw him moments before the race, which is unusual for an RD, and I was reminded of what Peyton Manning once said: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” Clearly Tony and his team know what they’re doing.

(And if you decide to run Missoula based on anything I’ve said, tell ‘em Mike and Katie from RaceRaves sent you!)

2017 Missoula Marathon medal
SWAG: I’m not that guy who proudly displays his bib numbers, but the Missoula bib stands out since it’s shaped like the state of Montana — another of the small but cool details at which this race excels. But while I’m not a bib guy, I’m definitely a medal guy, and this year’s Missoula medal is a classic reminder of a first-class event. Suspended from an eye-catching orange ribbon, it’s a hefty piece of bronze hardware emblazoned with the race logo — not always a good thing for races, unless your logo happens to feature a silhouette of an elk with shoes dangling from its antlers on a backdrop of mountains. Then you show it off whenever you can. Likewise the race tee is a keeper that promises to become a regular in my rotation, white with attractive orange lettering and stitching.

Free finish-line photos were provided to all runners courtesy of Gameface Media, though unlike last year no photographer was positioned on the opposite side of Maclay Bridge, maybe the best vantage point for photos along the course. And Referee Photo was set up at the post-race festival to print glossy hard copies of your triumphant finisher’s photo at no charge. First time I’ve encountered that, and one more “surprise and delight” moment in a weekend full of them.

Updated 50 states map:


RaceRaves rating:


FINAL STATS:
July 9, 2017 (start time 6:00am)
26.18 miles from Frenchtown to Missoula, MT (state 16 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:59:17 (first time running the Missoula Marathon), 9:08/mile
Finish place: 248 overall, 23/53 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 867 (456 men, 411 women)
Race weather: cool, partly cloudy at the start (temp 64°F), warm & sunny (74°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 372 ft ascent, 221 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 3,045ft, 3,261ft

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.
– African proverb

Mike Sohaskey at Victoria Falls
Every marathon hangs on a moment of truth. That defining instant when you realize the outcome of your race hinges on what happens next. Never sure when it will arrive, you know it when it does. At that crucial moment, will you blink first? Or will you hold your ground, dig deep and find a way to maintain focus, to tune out the dissonant voices in your head, to will yourself through the fatigue and discomfort and across the finish?

I hate to blink first. Most athletes do. Yet sometimes it’s a necessary evil, a survival skill—and this time I was eager to do so. Because never before had my moment of truth blinked back…



Victoria Falls Marathon course map
I have no idea what to expect, I realized as I cycled through my pre-race warmup absent-mindedly in a last-minute attempt to awaken my dormant legs.

Since crossing the Comrades Marathon finish line in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa two weeks earlier—hands-down the highlight of my running career to date—I hadn’t run a single step. Walked plenty, run none. We’d spent the past two weeks playing tourist first in South Africa and now in Zimbabwe, and understandably I’d had little time or interest in reacclimating my legs to running. They’d earned the rest.

Besides, runners typically “taper” before a big race. For a standard 12- to 16-week training cycle, this means that starting four weeks before race day when training mileage is at its peak, a runner will reduce their mileage gradually over the next three weeks culminating in race day. The purpose of the taper is to strike a delicate balance that ensures the legs are rested when they reach the start line, while maintaining the physiological benefits of training. Rest, not rust.

So looking at the glass as half full, my past two weeks had been a steep taper for Victoria Falls. Well, almost. Adding to my low expectations for myself was the reckless amount of walking we’d done the day before to view the Falls themselves, first on the Zimbabwe side of the border and then across the bridge on the Zambia side. The risk was well worth the reward—as the only waterfall in the world with a width exceeding one kilometer and a height exceeding 100 meters, Victoria Falls is a magnificent, overwhelming force of Nature. But again, as a blatant middle finger to the marathon gods, I knew I’d end up paying for my indiscretion on race day. C’est la vie.

Bottom line, I had no idea what to expect from my legs and body. Would they be stubbornly lethargic? Reasonably well-rested? Completely drained? Oddly energized? Or maybe all of the above? My money was squarely on the latter.

Much like in Durban two weeks earlier, the prevailing darker skin tones and pungent waft of body odor in the small start corral reminded me I wasn’t in America anymore. But whereas Comrades had reminded me of the Boston Marathon in its scale, this felt more like small-town America, more like last year’s Hatfield McCoy Marathon in Kentucky where a hastily chalked line in the parking lot of the local Food City had served as the start line.

Fewer than 300 runners would be tackling the 26.2-mile journey around the tourist capital of Zimbabwe. Another 1,100 would be lining up for the half marathon scheduled to start 30 minutes later, and a popular 7.5-km “fun run” would round out the day’s events. The occasional red-and-white official Comrades cap could be seen in the close-packed crowd, so at least I wasn’t alone in my questionable decision-making.

I gave Katie a farewell peck on the forehead and wished good luck to Gloria and Jihua, two Bay Area runners we’d met the day before. Then I positioned myself squarely in the middle of the pack behind the baby blue start arch, hoping to protect myself from my own stupidity and prevent my going out too fast.

Victoria Falls Marathon start line

See that one white head sticking up above the crowd in back?

Legends of the Falls (Start–mile 14)
Start time arrived with little fanfare and no national anthem. With a final countdown we were off and headed directly toward the border and the town’s breathtaking namesake.

Crossing the bridge from Zimbabwe into Zambia on this initial out-and-back, it struck me that this would be my first truly international marathon, i.e. a marathon run in more than one country. Whereas many races include the word “international” in their name, most mean it in the sense of hosting runners from around the world, rather than in the literal sense of crossing borders. So this would be the first time I’d set foot in two countries over the course of a race.

(Back home both the Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank Marathon and the Niagara Falls International Marathon—coincidentally run on the same day in October this year—cross the U.S./Canadian border, with the NFIM starting in the U.S. and finishing in Canada.)

Admittedly, the only real disappointment of the Victoria Falls Marathon is that you can’t see Victoria Falls from the course. This is unavoidable, however, and not the fault of the organizers, since as a World Heritage Site and the primary source of revenue for the town, the main Falls are hidden from view and so not readily visible from the road. Nonetheless, as though flexing its muscle for its guests, the Falls greeted us with a gentle mist as we crossed the bridge and approached the border post into Zambia.

From the bridge the Zambezi River, which separates Zimbabwe and Zambia, could be seen swirling far below. The spray from the Falls hung tantalizingly in the air, hinting at the raw power just out of view around the bend. Scenery-wise, this out-and-back segment between nations would be the highlight of the day.

View of the Zambezi River from the Zambezi Bridge

The Zambezi River and “Boiling Pot” seen from the Zambezi Bridge

Traveler’s Tip: If you plan to visit Victoria Falls, your best bet is to purchase a KAZA UniVisa for $50 which allows much easier travel between Zimbabwe and Zambia, as well as day trips to Botswana (e.g. to visit Chobe National Park) through the Kazangula border. Katie and I each purchased a KAZA UniVisa upon arrival at the Zimbabwe airport. Entrance to the Falls themselves will cost you $30 on the (more developed) Zimbabwe side and $20 on the Zambia side. Both are worth the price of admission, particularly in the late fall/early winter (April–June) when water levels are at their peak. Later in the year when water levels fall, I’d stick to the Zimbabwe side. No matter when you go, be prepared (outside the park) to be approached by determined “artists” looking to sell you copper bracelets, wooden knick-knacks and other souvenirs.

No sooner had we crossed the bridge than we reached the turnaround point (manned by armed guards) and headed back the way we’d come, our total distance run in Zambia amounting to barely one of the race’s 42 km. As memorable as this border crossing had been, clearly the folks in charge needed us off the bridge quickly so they could reopen it to traffic.

Crossing the Zambezi Bridge, mile 2

Good news greeted me along this first out-and-back—a lingering pain in the soft tissue on the top of my foot, an acute bruising sensation which had arisen after Comrades and which had flared up sporadically in the interventing two weeks (including this morning), subsided early in the race. Oddly— though maybe not so oddly if you’re a runner who understands the niggling aches and pains that come and go—that would be the last I’d hear from the top of my foot. It’s almost as if it had simply—missed running?

With the most scenic stretch behind us, the next 35 km would essentially amount to two loops through the more rural sections of town. Here the terrain remained fairly consistent: a variably dusty two-lane asphalt road with transitional stretches of dirt and sand. The morning remained pleasantly cool as the winter sun rose overhead, and with abundant cloud cover to thwart its rays, I wouldn’t have to don my sunglasses until around mile 7.

Traveler’s Tip: If you’re planning to run the Victoria Falls Marathon (assuming it’s still in June or July when you read this), bring your sunscreen but feel free to leave the mosquito repellent at home. Despite packing two types of repellent we failed to see a single mosquito during our stay in Africa, including 3+ days on safari plus another few days visiting one of the continent’s largest sources of water. Truth is, winter isn’t the mosquito’s breeding season. And while most travel guides will tell you the risk for malaria during the winter months (June–Sept) is low, based on our own experience in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, it’s effectively zero.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 3 of Victoria Falls Marathon
The best thing about the two out-and-back sections in the first half of the race was having the chance to see the lead pack pass in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, by the second half the leaders were too far ahead for me to catch a glimpse on the out-and-back.

Long stretches of open road were punctuated by the occasional tourist lodge, nature sanctuary or crocodile farm. One property advertised vulture feedings at 10:30am. The out-and-back section from miles 5.5–10.5 (and likewise miles 17–22) bordered Zambezi National Park, and though on this day the only wildlife along this stretch would be the huffing and puffing two-legged variety, the occasional armed guard stationed along the course testified to Nature’s presence and power in the region.

As uneasy as it made me feel to imagine a majestic animal being shot so I could run a marathon, at the same time I recognized this as a fact of life here in Zimbabwe, where wild and tame coexist in such close proximity. And maybe this is simply me rationalizing, but I got the strong sense that the rifles brandished by the guards would be used only as a (very) last resort.

The most extended uphill of the day (which again, we’d tackle twice) began at the tail end of this 5-mile out-and-back stretch. A steady, nondescript climb roughly two miles in length, I was relieved to encounter it for the first time early in the day, while the clouds persisted and the sun was not yet high in the sky.

We wouldn’t be so lucky on the second loop.

Miles 6 and 17 of the Victoria Falls Marathon

Climbing in mile 6 (and 17)

Starting at the hour mark, I downed a GU or Stinger gel—I find the latter easier to swallow on the run—every five miles or so, enough to provide the occasional burst of energy without upsetting my stomach in the rising heat. Like Comrades the aid stations offered water sachets (pouches) rather than cups, and after 87 km of practice in South Africa my teeth were sharpened and ready.

As originally devised, our travel plan had been to spend the duration of our African visit in South Africa. We’d added Victoria Falls only after a native Zimbabwean had mentioned it in passing at the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon expo in May. Somehow the conversation had turned to Comrades and he’d recommended that, while in Africa, we also check out the Victoria Falls Marathon that same month. Once planted, that seed had quickly germinated in the well-tilled soil of our brains—who knew when we’d have another chance to visit?—and within two weeks we’d changed our plans to include Victoria Falls.

This was, of course, before I had 87 km in my legs. A second marathon in Africa had seemed so carpe diem at the time. And if I’m being honest, Vic Falls offered an enticing backup for my African marathon, just in case Comrades didn’t go according to plan.

Known to the indigenous Tonga people as Mosi-oa-Tunya or “The Smoke That Thunders,” Victoria Falls has been named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and is a popular tourist destination. And though I feel like we experienced Zimbabwe in much the same way a foreigner visiting Las Vegas experiences the United States, the Falls is a national treasure and for good reason.

Entrance to Victoria Falls park Zimbabwe side
And speaking of national treasure, Zimbabwe needs all it can get because it’s clearly not a wealthy nation. The economy of Zimbabwe shrank dramatically at the turn of the century, resulting in widespread poverty and an unemployment rate as high as 95%. Hyperinflation led to the country suspending its own currency in 2009, and Zimbabwe paper money such as the 100-billion-dollar (as in $100,000,000,000) bill is now hawked around town as a souvenir.

Likewise, roving “artists” relentlessly peddle copper bracelets and wooden figurines in search of naïve tourists—and clearly a white man and Chinese woman look the part—willing to buy their wares at bargain prices. On our pre-race stroll across the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia and back, we were approached by a steady stream of self-proclaimed artists looking to chat us up about Obama or Trump while hoping to offer us a deal we couldn’t refuse.

Amazingly the same man—93-year-old Robert Mugabe—has ruled the country since first taking office in 1980 with the announcement that Rhodesia would be renamed as Zimbabwe. During his tenure he has been praised as a revolutionary hero by some and criticized as a corrupt dictator by others (sound familiar?); the truth, as with most complex characters, lies somewhere in the middle.

Quickie Quiz: Anyone know the capital city of Zimbabwe or the nation’s most widely spoken language?

A: Harare is the capital with a population of 1.5 million, while an estimated 70% of the population speaks Shona.

Zimbabwe flag
Miles 12–14 featured a gentle downhill that passed back through the blue start arch, signaling the start of the second loop. Here Katie awaited at the most convenient access point on the course. I waved, let her know I was feeling good, and switched gears again as the road turned back uphill over familiar ground.

Multi-loop courses aren’t my favorite—I always prefer a good point-to-point—and so with no new scenery to look forward to and no strict time goal to keep me dialed in mentally, I found my interest in running 26.2 miles flagging. I needed a distraction, some sort of pick-me-up to motivate me through the next 12+ miles.

Turns out “pick-me-up” was a poor choice of words. But as motivation goes, I may never top what happened next.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Back to the start, mile 14

Close encounters of the African kind (mile 15–finish)
I’d glanced up to my left at the billboard advertising an authentic African-themed dinner experience, when suddenly I heard the cracking of tree branches to my right. Instinctively I turned toward the sound and there, staring back at me and about to enter the road, was a solitary elephant. Not the largest elephant I’d seen in our travels, but as the heaviest land mammal on the planet, an African elephant of any size is large enough to ruin me.

And this was no zoo.

I slowed immediately, not wanting to startle him but not about to take my eyes off him either. He seemed to have the same idea. Luckily there were no other runners within 50 yards of us. I looked at him, he looked at me, we looked at each other. Then he let out a brusque snort, apparently surprised and not particularly amused to see a biped blocking his path. Why did the elephant cross the road? his steely eyes seemed to ask from beneath heavy gray eyelids. Get the hell out of my way and I’ll show you!

I could already picture the next day’s headline:

Darwin Award 2017: Slow-footed American startles unamused elephant
“I’d give 100 billion dollars to have him back,” says weepy spouse

During this exchange both time and I slowed to a crawl, though neither stopped. My brain, typically in standby mode during marathons, snagged momentarily—after all, we’d been instructed that the least attractive option when confronted with a pissed-off elephant was to run away. That said, I was already running away. And so I made the split-second decision to keep doing what I was doing and not break stride. I hoped this would have the dual benefit of a) not frightening him with any sudden movements and b) indicating by my retreat that I was no threat, and that I had no intention of thwarting his progress.

Encountering elephant at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Best. Spectator. Ever.

And so I kept running as he remained still, eyeing me warily from the side of the road. As soon as I’d put roughly 20 yards between us (pretty sure I held my breath for the first ten), I quickly turned back and snapped a photo—‘cuz what good is getting trampled by an elephant while on vacation if no one believes you? All without spooking the animal or soiling myself.

I guess I just have a way with wildlife.

Then I picked up my pace and accelerated up the hill, toward a group of spectators and volunteers who were all staring down in my direction and pointing back the way I’d come.

Behind me I heard my new acquaintance trumpet loudly, presumably to let the other curious bipeds know that like it or not, he was damn well going to cross the road. His road.

(I note this unsettling incident which occurred one month after our visit to Vic Falls—a tragic and horrific story which starkly demonstrates the raw, unpredictable power of these animals. My heart goes out to the family of the unfortunate guide.)

Pre-race instructions for Victoria Falls Marathon

Instructions posted at the pre-race expo

Predictably I rode a bit of an adrenaline surge for the next few minutes—so much so that despite having 14 miles in my legs, despite slowing for the elephant and despite stopping to capture a couple photos of baboons frolicking alongside the course and in the trees, I still managed my fastest and only sub-8:00 mile of the day in 7:53.

No wonder the world’s fastest runners hail from Africa.

The course was not closed to traffic and occasionally a car or truck would pass, flattening half-filled water sachets with a {POP} and stirring up dust in its wake. As the sun rose in the sky and the day grew hotter, a noseful of warm orange dust wasn’t exactly a refreshing surprise. But this was Zimbabwe after all and besides, if you’re planning to run a marathon and do it comfortably, you should probably find a different sport.

As the African sun burned away the remaining cloud cover, the déjà vu of our surroundings didn’t bother me as much as the mounting heat and steady diet of rolling hills. Whereas every uphill in the first half of the course seemed to have a corresponding downhill, the second half—like a life well lived—definitely had more ups than downs.

Miles 9 and 20 of Victoria Falls Marathon

The turnaround point at mile 9 (and 20)

The highlight of the last out-and-back stretch (miles 17–22) was a group of small children watching from the side of the road, some quiet and others more enthusiastic. As I’d done at Comrades, I slowed and bent down to share high-fives with them as I passed. Their bright eyes and excited smiles lifted my spirits and were nearly as motivating as an anxious elephant.

“Thank you!” I responded reflexively over my shoulder and then, realizing they may not speak English, followed that quickly with a thumbs-up sign. The chorus of giggling behind me was more beautiful than the Falls themselves. Because laughter really is its own natural wonder of the world. And anywhere on the planet—no matter one’s nationality, ethnicity, skin color, language, socioeconomic status, shoe size or popsicle preference—a five-year-old is a five-year-old. No hatred, no judgment, no bottled-up feelings of rage or resentment at a world that doesn’t understand them and which they can’t control. Only wide-eyed joy, unconditional love and the giddy appreciation that comes with living each and every moment without regret and in a world of unlimited possibility.

Buoyed by these tiny spectators I pressed on, and was able to see new Bay Area friend Gloria pass in the opposite direction, looking tired but strong a few minutes ahead of me. Her husband Jihua remained some distance behind, though just how far I didn’t know.

Three times along the course an ambulance approached with siren wailing, and three times it blew past me without stopping. Dodged another one, I thought on each occasion.

By mile 22 I was struggling bigly, and it became abundantly clear that Comrades is the gift that keeps on giving. Two weeks of travel in a foreign land apparently hadn’t been enough to clear those 87 km from my legs.

Grazing wart hogs at mile 22 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Grazing wart hogs in dappled lighting, mile 22

I was momentarily distracted from my discomfort by a pack of wart hogs, which I inadvertently surprised as they stood grazing on a sun-dappled patch of green grass. The skittish animals retreated a short distance before realizing I was no threat and returning to their meal, while keeping a safe distance between us juuuuust to be sure.

Soon after the wart hog sighting I stopped briefly to shake out and stretch my overworked legs and hips. And soon after that, on another gradual climb with the sun directly ahead and beating me in the face, my cadence became so slow and labored that I was forced to slow to a hike along with two other runners. Reaching the top of the hill I continued to power-walk for a short distance, too exhausted to run immediately but refusing to concede a second more than was absolutely necessary.

This scenario repeated three or four more times, as each time the combination of heat and hills (no matter how gentle the grade) stopped me in my tracks, along with every other runner around me. By this point there were very few runners around me who were still, well, running. As it turns out, seeing other runners walking is itself tiring, and has the psychological effect of making it harder to pick up the pace yourself. At the same time, I’m pleased to report that only one runner passed me the entire second half of the race, and that happened in the final km.

At the next aid station I grabbed an orange slice, sucking out the juice like I’d discovered the elixir of life. One orange at a time, one mile at a time, one step at a time.

Rainbow at Victoria Falls
The number of aid stations—and the number of volunteers manning those aid stations—seemed to shrink in the later miles. As it had in the heat at Comrades, water again grew unappealing late in the race, a bizarre notion considering the human body is roughly 60% water. Which tells you just how stressful running 26.2 miles in the heat can be.

It didn’t help that the water here was less consistently cold than it had been at Comrades.

By mile 24 I had no idea whether a sub-4-hour finish was still within reach, but if so it was quickly slipping away. After two straight 11+ minute miles, how many more could I log and still have a shot at sub-4? To be honest, though, this wasn’t my primary concern as everything now felt like it was working against me: the heat, the hills, the final 10K of a marathon, the many hours spent on foot the day before viewing the Falls from both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides. And of course there was the little issue of the 87 km I’d run two weeks earlier…

No, at this point I needed to focus all my energy on simply finishing this race while enjoying the final two miles of my Africa experience as much as possible. Easy to say when you’re sitting at home writing a blog post, tougher to do in the moment when you’re suffering mightily.

Victoria Falls Marathon elevation chart

Those two sharp downward spikes are Garmin error on the bridge

Just after the 40km marker I caught up to a fellow wearing a familiar cap. “Looking good, Comrades runner!” I encouraged him as I passed, to which he responded, “Man, this is killing me!” Clearly the Ultimate Human Race was still extracting its pound of flesh from us all.

The “2 KM TO THE FINISH —>” sign was followed by a sharp right turn and more consternation at seeing the road ahead of us leading uphill yet again. I’d been hoping we might finish the second half of the race the same way we’d closed out the first, with a speedy descent that carried us through the finish line.

On the contrary, there would be no more downhills, no more joyful children, no more snorting elephants to keep me motivated and moving, only raw will and determination to get… this… thing… done.

The density of runners increased as the marathon and half marathon courses merged one last time. Everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion now, and essentially they were—these remaining half marathoners were now approaching the 3½ hour mark, so they were in no hurry to reach the finish.

Mike Sohaskey at Victoria Falls Marathon finish

Entering the finish chute

One final right turn led us onto the grounds of the Victoria Falls Primary School where finishers and spectators milled about as race officials tried to prevent them from strolling into the path of oncoming runners. My sole focus now was on finding the finish line, and I used the last of my energy reserves to weave around these folks and onto the grass track where I saw the blue finish arch—nowhere.

Where was that fucking arch?

Clearly it was close—I heard the music blasting and saw the crowds of happy finishers celebrating on the grass as I circled the cricket field slowly, like a hungry but exhausted shark. Glancing back I saw the finish arch at last, positioned at the end of a spiral path leading me back the way I’d just come. This was definitely the 0.2 of the 26.2 miles and an appropriately sadistic finish to an unforgettable challenge.

The sponsor flags seemed to salute me as I passed, the finish chute feeling like a red carpet as I dragged my spent body across the line. As relieved as I was to be done, I was equally ecstatic at what came next. Glancing down at my Garmin I saw an unofficial finish time of 3:58:19 staring back at me (official time 3:58:12). Somehow I’d done it—I’d kept my streak of sub-4 road marathons intact, in the process accomplishing my one and only real goal of the day.

And I have an agitated pachyderm to thank for it.

Mike Sohaskey with Victoria Falls Marathon sign
Out of Africa
With my second African finish in the books I gratefully accepted my finisher’s medal and tanktop, both still in their protective plastic bags. And maybe it’s just me, but being handed a medal that’s still in its baggie after running 26.2 miles is always a letdown—I much prefer the pomp and circumstance of having a volunteer hang it around my neck, or at least hand it to me by the ribbon so it feels more like an award than an afterthought.

At that moment I never wanted to run again—I was S-P-E-N-T. Not quite vomit-in-the-bushes, I-may-never-get-comfortable-again spent like at Comrades, but spent enough that the thought of running another step left me woozy. I threw my arms around Katie (as much for support as in celebration) and staggered toward a shaded tent. There I collapsed in a chair and, like a newborn wearing mittens, worked haplessly to open a pouch of chocolate milk. As usual, my post-race stomach wanted only to be left alone.

Exhilaration and body odor filled the air, the winter sun continuing its assault on the packed cricket field. Moments later I heard my name announced over the PA, presumably a delayed congrats for having finished a tough but gratifying race.

Mike Sohaskey - I love Vic Falls
The music played on as the announcer continued to congratulate finishers, including one fun run finisher who was greeted with “Congrats on taking so long to join us!” The field was a sea of red and blue, and it was cool to see so many happy finishers all sporting their race apparel in unison. The mayor of Victoria Falls said a few scripted words, a representative from Econet (the title sponsor) reinforced the company’s commitment to the marathon as it continues to grow, and our new friend Gloria accepted her award for finishing in tenth place among female finishers. Then we hobbled out to the dirt parking lot where, after some confusion, we succeeded in flagging down a shuttle to transport us back to the Kingdom Hotel where a lazy afternoon awaited.

And with that it was time to bid Zimbabwe and Africa farewell, but not before we promised to meet again soon. We’d only scratched the surface of what this vast and amazing continent has to offer.

Victoria Falls may not be the largest, or the sexiest, or the most hyped marathon in Africa. But unlike many American marathons, it continues to grow each year and for good reason. No other race on the planet promises immediate proximity to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a potential close encounter of the two-tusked kind. If you’re a Seven Continents hopeful or a traveling runner of any kind, I’d recommend you take a good long look at Vic Falls when planning your African adventure.

And if not? Well tusk, tusk on you.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Victoria Falls Marathon finish line

Traveler’s Tip: If you have a choice, do yourself a favor and avoid intercontinental travel the day after a marathon. Your immune system will already be compromised from the effort, and the physical toll exacted by the race + many hours of cramped quarters and recycled air = an illness waiting to happen. Case in point, fellow SoCal runner Gil ended up in bed for two days with a nasty flu after flying back the day after his impressive 8:40:02 finish at Comrades. And though I was lucky to avoid the same fate, flying from Zimbabwe to Los Angeles the day after the Vic Falls Marathon wasn’t an experience I’d be eager to share.

BOTTOM LINE: Victoria Falls may not be the largest, or the sexiest, or the most hyped marathon in Africa. But unlike many American marathons, it continues to grow each year and for good reason. No other race on the planet promises immediate proximity to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a potential close encounter of the two-tusked kind. If you’re a Seven Continents hopeful or a traveling runner of any kind, I’d recommend you take a good long look at Vic Falls when planning your African adventure.

Other than the initial out-and-back across the bridge alongside the Falls, you won’t have the benefit of head-turning landscapes. The dusty two-loop course lacks compelling scenery, a fact made more conspicuous by having to run it twice. And even in winter, you should plan for a warm day—you can always be pleasantly surprised if cooler temperatures prevail. This is Africa, after all.

And yes, an African elephant (the largest land mammal on the planet) did wander onto the course next to me in mile 14, an encounter that seemed to surprise us both. I’m proud to say I managed to give him clearance and still snap a photo, all without spooking him or soiling myself.

Not the sign you want to see on your 3rd floor elevator after a marathon

PRODUCTION: The organizers do a first-class job of hosting their third-world marathon. The Kingdom Hotel where we and many other runners stayed is a 3-minute walk from the start line, always a huge advantage. Likewise the outdoor expo held at the Kingdom Hotel was pleasantly small and easily navigated. At the expo we were able to sign up for shuttle service from the finish line back to the hotel on race day. And though shuttle service at the finish line at Vic Falls Primary School was a bit disorganized, the brief inconvenience was nothing that a bit of patience didn’t resolve.

The course could have used another aid station or two in the closing miles, and maybe a few more buckets of ice in which to store the water sachets. And there weren’t a whole lot of spectators, but then again that’s not really the expectation in a tourist town like Victoria Falls. Besides, I’m pretty sure my ears were still ringing from all the cheering at Comrades, so a low-key but well-supported race was just what this doctor ordered.

Victoria Falls Marathon Expo at Kingdom Hotel

The pre-race expo at the Kingdom Hotel

The course wasn’t closed to traffic, but on sparsely traveled two-lane roads this was never a concern, aside from the clouds of dust kicked up by passing vehicles. Though seeing discarded water sachets being blown into the underbrush by passing trucks was disheartening, and I hope the organizers and volunteers were able to find and collect them before the wildlife did.

SWAG: First time ever I received a finisher’s tanktop (rather than t-shirt), and an attractive one it is—eye-catching red and blue with the race logo emblazoned on front. And it was cool to see everyone wearing theirs at the finish line festival. I’m not a huge “suns out, guns out” guy with my runner’s physique, but I’m sure I’ll find ample use for it in the SoCal heat. The finisher’s medal is also nice, though small and understated, and depicts three (male?) runners with the Falls in the background. And despite its diminutive size, it’s still the largest of my African medals!

Victoria Falls Marathon medal
RaceRaves rating:


FINAL STATS:
June 18, 2017 (start time 6:45am)
26.19 miles in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Finish time & pace: 3:58:12 (first time running the Victoria Falls Marathon), 9:06 min/mile
Finish place: 92 overall, 26/60 in the “Veteran” category
Number of finishers: 276 (201 men, 75 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy at the start (temp 59°F), warm & sunny at the finish (mid-70s)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,421 ft ascent, 1,194 ft descent

Red arrow indicates my elephant encounter and fastest mile

 

 

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.
– Nelson Mandela

Done_Comrades 2017

Continued from Act 1, which you can read HERE.

Inchanga to Cato Ridge
Rory hadn’t been kidding.

He’d warned me that I’d see it coming. That before I reached it, I’d see the steady stream of runners, like ants on an escalator, switchbacking up, up, up before mercifully disappearing out of sight around the bend. And he’d warned me that this sobering sight, with 47 km in my legs, would be psychologically akin to having my heart ripped from my chest and held high in front of me, Indiana Jones-style.

The moment reminded me of that scene in Breaking Bad when Walter Heisenberg demands of his fellow meth dealer, “SAY MY NAME.”

Inchanga.

It’s the only one of the Big Five whose name alone suggests trouble. And unlike the first three, each of which exacted its pound of flesh, Inchanga isn’t happy with physical retribution—it has to play mind games with its victims too, like a cat batting around a trapped mouse. As it turns out, I was lucky to have glimpsed only the section I did, because unlike Cowies or Fields or Botha’s, the climb up Inchanga seemed to last forever, one blind curve after another. I know it’s not the longest of the Big Five (that’s Fields), and I know it’s not the steepest (that’s Botha’s), but damn if it’s not the most punishing.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? asked the backseat driver in my brain.

I was so preoccupied with my own misery that I forgot to keep an eye out for Bruce Fordyce, who had told us he’d be (and apparently he was) cheering on runners near the top of Inchanga. A 9-time winner of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, offering support to slow-footed newbies like me. At what other sporting event will you find that?

Mile 30 down Inchanga

View from the other side of Inchanga, 39 km to go

But Bruce has always been different. In 1981, with South Africa under an international sporting boycott and the race losing some of its luster, he won Comrades for the first time while wearing a black armband to protest the 20th anniversary celebrations of the apartheid government. He’s since called his show of defiance “one of the proudest moments in my life”.

Not surprisingly, Inchanga saddled me with my first 12-minute mile of the day, not counting my mile spent with Katie and Rory. The monster not only ate into my time, but more importantly as it turns out, tackling it with the sun high in a cloudless sky took more out of me than I knew. All hope of my stomach handling solid food for the rest of the race was gone, and I spent the next 3 km of downhill running trying to regroup.

By the time we summited the next short climb I was dragging, another chewed-up-and-spit-out victim of Inchanga’s wrath. So the timing was perfect to pass the Ethembeni School for the Physically Disabled and Visually Impaired.

At the expo two days earlier we’d stopped by the Ethembeni booth, made a donation and chatted with the headmaster who’d been manning the booth. And he’d given me a beaded bracelet created by the students to show their support for the runners. The bracelet, he explained, comprised 87 beads grouped by color (black, blue, white and yellow), one bead for each km of the Comrades route. Not only that, but the number of beads in each colored grouping represented the number of km between each cutoff point along the course, with larger black beads separating the different groups to signify each cutoff point, as well as the start/finish line. A clever and meaningful design.

Ethembeni bracelet_cutoffs

My race-day inspiration from the Ethembeni School

I wore the bracelet now, and seeing the earnest, smiling faces lining the street with tiny hands extended, I felt a surge of adrenaline and swerved to my right, determined not to miss a single high-five. The Ethembeni School was a highlight of my day and a crucial pick-me-up just when I needed it the most. Suck it up healthy guy, stop walking and get going.

The spectators along the course kept me moving forward as well. Comrades spectators are insanely supportive, and not just in a clap-politely-as-the-runners-go-by sort of way. I’ve never run a race where the spectators ask, in all seriousness, “What can I get you? What do you need?” And though I never took anyone up on their offer, I got the sense that some folks, if I’d asked, would have dragged a mattress out of their house and cooked lunch for me while I slept.

It’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand: 92 years strong, Comrades is inextricably woven into the fabric of the nation. South Africans embrace their national race with a passion, a pride and an intelligence I haven’t seen anywhere else, with the possible exception of Boston.

And speaking of intelligence, I was starting to doubt mine. We were now out in the countryside (i.e. No Man’s Land) between urban centers, the winter sun beating down on us, my stomach rejecting all my nutritional advances and the walk breaks getting longer and more frequent.

I was now snagging two water sachets at each aid station—one I’d sip from and then pour down my back while holding onto the other like a security blanket. I appreciated the sachets because they were easy to carry after opening, without spilling. Between the heat and the jostling, though, the water in the sachets warmed up to an unappealing temperature in no time.

Ironically but not surprisingly, the short stretch through Harrison Flats really wasn’t. The name is curious, since “Harrison Hills” has such a nice ring to it and would feel right at home along the Comrades course. I had to assume whoever named it had a wicked sense of humor. Or maybe “flat” is a relative term, with Inchanga on one side and Polly Shortts on the other?

32 km to go.

Cruising along

There’s daylight under that there foot! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Cato Ridge: When the going gets tough…
My second Katie and Rory sighting couldn’t have come at a better time. With 25 km to go I dropped my hydration pack on the curb and collapsed alongside it for a couple of minutes, sipping some water and gathering my wits. It was good to escape the maelstrom, if only for a moment. The pack had become an albatross, with food I couldn’t eat and Tailwind I couldn’t drink. Plus, my core muscles were tight from carrying it and taking too many shallow breaths. It was time for us to part ways.

A sub-9 bus passed as I sat on the curb, watching the steady stream of runners flow past. Which perked me up, even though I knew a Bill Rowan (sub-9) finish was off the board. As much respect as I have for those who run Comrades, I’m even more in awe of those who pace Comrades. As if there weren’t enough stress in finishing your own race (and there is), as a pacer you have to finish 87 km within a certain time, while leading other runners who are putting their race in your hands (and feet). Talk about pressure.

9-hour Comrades bus

A 9-hour bus (see the yellow “SUB-9:00” sign?) rolls toward the finish in Pietermaritzburg

“You can walk it in from here and still collect a medal, mate,” Rory reassured me. Which actually was reassuring, though also motivating since I had no intention of walking it in. Sub-10 remained my goal, though I knew the next 25 km would be my slowest of the day.

I took a couple of deep breaths, told Katie and Rory I’d see them at the finish, and rejoined the flow as spectators on both sides of the road screamed their approval. Immediately I enjoyed the benefits of discarding the pack: my core relaxed, and the water I poured down my back cooled me more efficiently as my shirt was able to move in the breeze. And as with the first time I’d seen them I enjoyed a surge of energy, clocking my first sub-10-minute mile in over an hour.

Let’s just call what came next the “Beatdown in Camperdown”. Luckily the smell of the local chicken farm wasn’t as strong as I’d anticipated, and in fact wasn’t nearly as off-putting as the secondhand smoke from the occasional outdoor grill along the course, the thick haze hanging in the air and impossible to avoid.

Based on Norrie Williamson’s course analysis, these should have been the “CRUISE” miles of the up run—the relatively level stretch during which strategic runners, having tackled the first half of the race conservatively, now shift into cruise control, run comfortably and make up time. This sunny outlook, however, fails to take into account the real sunniness: the cumulative effects of the African sun (even a winter sun) on a cloudless day. With temperatures reaching into the 80s, heat exposure and a recalcitrant stomach replaced uphill climbing as the primary culprits of my mounting fatigue.

7 mantras of Comrades up run

Norrie Williamson‘s 7 stages of the Comrades up run, from the pre-race expo

“NO WALKING BY MY HOUSE” read one fellow’s handmade sign, arguably the highlight of Camperdown. I saw few memorable spectator signs at Comrades, though admittedly my brain was in standby mode for about the last 40K. I do remember the sign promising that “ZUMA FLATTENED POLLYS” (referring to South African President Jacob Zuma and the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts). And the woman with the “YOU = AWESOME” sign seemed to be everywhere; I saw her at least three times on the course.

Shuffling along slowly but surely with 23 km to go, I heard a familiar voice behind me: “Hey there, stranger.” I glanced back as fellow Stanford alum John from Anchorage pulled up alongside me. John and I had run the densely packed Durban Parkrun as a shakeout session the morning before, chatting comfortably and taking our time. As happy as I was to see him now, though, this wasn’t good news. John had qualified for Boston with a marathon time in the low 3-hour range, and he’d set a goal of a sub-8:30 finish for Comrades.

Turns out Comrades is no Parkrun. Apparently John had started strong and run smoothly up until the-hill-that-must-not-be-named (ok, Inchanga), where his calves had seized up. Since that point he’d been reduced to walking much of the course, with frequent stops at the medical tents for a roadside massage. We ran and walked together for a couple of km, and I was hoping we’d be able to hang with each other to the finish.

But it wasn’t to be. At one point I turned to say something and… John had disappeared. I glanced behind me but, not seeing him, I assumed he’d stopped for more treatment. Silently I wished him a speedy recovery and pushed forward, one slow-footed step at a time.

Mike_John 65 km

Joined by comrade John from Anchorage (right), 23 km to go (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

John was by no means alone. As the miles piled up, the medical tents kept increasingly busy. Cramping and exhausted runners stopped for treatment, some settling for having their legs sprayed with a topical analgesic to numb the pain. My buddy Gil saw one runner asleep under a tree. For these folks the goal was to reach the finish line in Pietermaritzburg, by any means necessary.

Luckily, as tired as I was, I wasn’t cramping and I wasn’t hurting physically. And unless I have a bone sticking out of my leg, I want to be able to feel everything that’s going on in my body during a race. So I bypassed the menthol mist clouds and kept pushing forward.

The stretch from Inchanga to Polly Shortts felt interminable, like a blog post with no end in sight. Had some prankster moved the km markers farther apart? Every km now felt like a mile and every uphill required some degree of walking, which I tried to avoid on the downhills.

I now followed the same pattern at every aid station: two waters and either a cup of Coke or a sachet of Energade. Sometimes I’d try both in a desperate attempt to appease my stubborn body. Like a junkie craving his next fix, I was chasing the sugar dragon from one Coke to the next, one Energade to the next, trying to find some form of easy fuel to keep me going. And never with much success.

Luckily I’d been training my body for several months to run well on its own fat stores as fuel, so this wasn’t a “sugar or bust” situation. But it sure would have helped. Meanwhile, I carried an unopened water sachet with me between aid stations, as though fearful I might burst into flames at any moment. Rarely did I drink it—it was almost instantly warm, after all—but instead dropped it into the ice bin at the next aid station.

And about those aid stations: without a doubt, the volunteers at Comrades are some of the best in the world. The demands on these folks are unrelenting, with a job description that includes standing out in the heat for hours at a time, a steady stream of insatiable zombies bearing down on them with arms outstretched and hands open in anticipation. And yet every volunteer carried out their assignment masterfully, with grace, aplomb and always an encouraging or helpful word. All damn day, without even a medal to show for their efforts.

The Ultimate Human Race owes its success and reputation, in large part, to the ultimate race volunteers.

With my mind searching vainly for its happy place, I thought about Coach Lindsey Parry’s suggested mantras for this stage of the race: “Tired but strong.” “Uncomfortable but strong.” “Challenged but strong.” In each case, he was half right.

21 km to go.

Camperdown traffic

Parked cars line the exit ramp in Camperdown

Catching the bus: Gunning for Polly Shortts
Passing the “21 km to go” sign, I felt my first sense of relief that yes, the end was in sight. A half marathon was a very runnable distance, never mind the fact I had nearly 25% of the course still to run. A long 25%.

“Cold cream soda!” offered an aid station volunteer. Still in search of a friendly sugar kick I accepted his offer, willing to overlook the fact that the liquid was bright green. One sip later, I knew I’d made a poor decision.

Likewise with water. This is tough to imagine if you’re not a runner—and maybe even for most runners—but thanks to the heat, my body had reached the point where even water had somehow lost its appeal. Not unless it was ice-cold and cascading down my back.

By the time we reached the course’s highest point at Umlaas Rd (2,700 ft, 17 km to go), I was racking up 11-minute miles like mosquito bites in the jungle. The landscape on either side of us remained decidedly rural, the countryside rudely interrupted by the occasional transformer tower. Here the fifth cutoff mat awaited, another small step toward victory in our inextricable march toward Pietermaritzburg.

Spider-Man

Comrades tests the hero in all of us

Crossing under the N3 for the final time, I saw a sign that in my frazzled state made me want to laugh and cry in the same breath. “← N3 Durban” it read, pointing back in the direction we’d come. Not right now, thank you.

Somewhere in the hot, nondescript and seemingly interminable stretch between Inchanga and Polly Shortts, the muscles around my heart began to tighten. I guessed this was due to my taking short, gasping breaths rather than deep productive ones, and I slowed my pace even more to try to regulate my breathing and ease the discomfort. I’ll run through myriad aches and pains without complaint—most runners will—but the one organ that’s off-limits is the heart. Any discomfort in or around my chest, and I start listening to my body bigly.

The tightness around my chest reduced me to a power shuffle, though fortunately the discomfort would fade after several slow, deep breaths. From there the tightness would come and go the rest of the way, slowing me to a fast walk with each appearance. It’s possible I could have powered through it, but why risk it? I had no intention of doing anything stupid (says the guy running 87 km in 80+ degree heat) to jeopardize my reaching the finish.

Would now be a good time to mention I run to stay healthy?

Polly Shortts may be the last of the Big Five, but try telling that to its protective sister, Little Pollys. At nearly 2 km in length Little Pollys is decidedly shorter than its big sister, and yet 76 km into the race it definitely leaves an impression. Luckily I knew it was coming and so had primed myself mentally, even as I was breaking down physically.

Little Pollys is the perfect example of one of the up run’s nasty unsung hills. Like any ultramarathon, Comrades will punish you psychologically if you let it. On the other hand, take the time to study the course and appreciate the potential landmines beyond just the Big Five, and you’ll win half the battle before you ever leave Durban. Knowledge is power. Respect the hills, don’t fear the hills.

Cruising through Ashburton with about 10 km to go, the 10-hour bus caught and passed me. It was an impressive size, a creature of almost military precision, its leader regularly barking out start and stop commands to his attentive tribe. At that point I had a painful decision to make, and I made it quickly. It wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable, and it would require me to empty the tank and then some—but ten hours was the limit of what I was willing to concede. It was time to dig deep and do whatever needed to be done to stay ahead of the 10-hour hopefuls. Seizing the opportunity I leapfrogged the group on their next walk break, extending my lead as we approached the last celebrity obstacle between us and glory: Polly Shortts.

10 km to go.

Mthembu wins

Bongmusa Mthembu wins the 2017 Comrades Marathon (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Polly Shortts to Scottsville Racecourse (finish)
PinkDrive, an organization similar to Planned Parenthood in the U.S., had set up their inflatable pink arch and high-energy aid station at the base of Polly Shortts, providing runners with much-needed hydration and momentum for the final big climb of the day.

Sticking to my script I grabbed water and Energade sachets—for liquid courage, if nothing else. Then I launched myself up Pollys, intending to follow Rory’s advice to run four cat’s eyes and walk two. Unfortunately many of the cat’s eyes were missing, and so I was forced to improvise on the steep grade, running where I could and walking where I couldn’t. All the while I remained keenly aware of the 10-hour bus in my rearview mirror.

Polly’s may be steep, she may be the last serious speed bump on the way to Pietermaritzburg, but for runners who attack her smartly she comes too late to inflict a fatal blow. Like a Venus flytrap, however, she lies in wait for slower victims, devouring those who fail to reach her summit—and the course’s final cutoff point—within 11 hours and ten minutes.

Rescue Bus 62 km

Luckily I steered clear of the famous (and infamous) rescue bus, which awaits runners who miss a cutoff

Late in the race even the spectators seemed to grow quiet, as though unsure how to respond to the zombie death march they were witnessing. Running an entire km at a time felt like a major victory. Each time I stopped to walk I would feel my bladder control waning and think That’s it, I’m not going to be able to start running again. And yet somehow each time I was able to pick up my feet and pick up the pace, while gradually extending my lead over the 10-hour bus.

I’d stopped Garmin-gazing hours before, and the bus was my only clue that a 10-hour finish was still within reach. As long as it was on pace…

One oversight I didn’t understand was the lack of aid stations after the 83 km mark. I really could’ve used at least one more, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Those last 4 km were infinite enough without constantly scanning for the next aid station that never appeared.

Damn, was I glad these were km and not mile markers.

One last overpass and we entered the residential neighborhoods of Scottsville. One fellow offered us a beer while another stood in the road, his garden hose trained on passing runners. I veered toward the latter, the cold water hitting me squarely in the face for an invigorating pick-me-up that would propel me to the finish.

Passing the “1 km to go” sign I flipped the mental switch tiredly into “victory lap” mode, knowing much of that final km would be run inside the stadium. Sure enough, moments later I glanced up to see the Scottsville Racecourse welcoming me home, its shaded entrance tunnel like the gaping, defanged mouth of the beast I’d come to vanquish. I entered the stadium like a conquering hero returning home from battle—though not before the course played its final sadistic hand, a quick downhill-then-uphill jag into the stadium and onto the grass track.

Slowly I followed the curve of the track, conflicting emotions gripping my head and heart. As much as my mind wanted to bask in the moment and savor its once-in-a-lifetime significance, my body was good and ready to be done. Where’s the finish arch? Two turns later, it finally came into view in all its bright red glor—.

I sensed it almost instantly, a wave of WTF? washing over me. Something about the scene wasn’t right. A moment later I realized what was up: the arch was too small; there was too much open space beyond it. And the runners ahead of me weren’t stopping.

Camille Herron winner2

Women’s champ Camille Herron of Oklahoma accepts a giant check for her giant effort

Turns out this Trojan Horse of a finish arch was actually a spectator bridge set up to allow finishers after the race to cross over from one side of the stadium to the other. And I wasn’t the only one to mistake it for the real thing. Apparently Camille Herron, the women’s winner, stopped running and started celebrating after crossing under the bridge, nearly giving race officials and horrified spectators a collective heart attack before a fellow runner urged her on to the finish. Herron’s near miss evoked memories of last year’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, where women’s champion Amy Cragg and men’s third-place finisher Jared Ward each stopped short of the finish before recovering in time to avoid an historic blunder.

Luckily I didn’t have much time to ponder the indecency of this deception. One final turn and there it was, directly ahead of me and as vivid, as beautiful as anything I’d ever seen. What immediately caught my eye were the four words I’d been chasing for nearly ten hours: COMRADES MARATHON FINISH 2017.

Finishing time

Sub-10 hours!

The green finish arch stood larger than life, dressed for the occasion in green & white balloons and ready to accept me into the Comrades family. Me. Hardly the heroic paradigm for a Mad Max movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel, by no means an elite athlete or desert warrior, and endowed with unbronzeable skin that efficiently converts the sun’s rays into an unsightly sunburn. I was on the verge of joining Bart Yasso and so many others as one of the few, the proud—the freaks!

Spectator-filled bleachers lined each side of the home stretch, and tiredly I shot a thumbs-up in the air as I heard a female voice—though not Katie, whose own voice was still recovering from strep throat—yell my name. I assumed in the moment this was directed at me, since unlike the U.S. every third male in South Africa isn’t named “Mike.” And I’d discover later the voice belonged to Anchorage John’s wife Rochene, who’d been tracking my progress all day.

I wish I could remember my thoughts as I pumped my fists and crossed under the finish arch in a triumphant 9:52:55. Wish I had something poetic and profound to share, shimmering words that would punctuate the most amazing day I’ve ever spent on a race course. Honestly, though, with my mind and body running on fumes, I’m pretty sure my analysis in that shining moment went something like, Me done big race.

I crossed the finish line and stopped—I can stop! And just stand here! And there I stood for a moment, luxuriating in my lack of forward progress. I tried to gather my thoughts, only to find my brain deliciously devoid of gatherable thoughts. Then I shuffled forward through the finish chute, basking in the moment, clinging to it as though it were a newborn child.

0 km to go.

Finish line exhaustion

Some pictures are worth more than 1,000 words (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Izokuthoba: It will humble you
Volunteers presented me with a Comrades logo patch, yellow rose and bronze finisher’s medal, the latter in recognition of a sub-11-hour finish.

The Comrades medal is arguably the most coveted in all of racing; ironically it may also be the smallest, at roughly the size of an American quarter. But as someone who’s been around the block galaxy a few times once said, “Size matters not”. It’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And if I were to clear out my wall at home to make room for just one medal, Comrades would be it. Though admittedly, if push came to shove, I may just weld my Boston and Comrades medals together and hang them as one.

All rose no thorn

“YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose!” (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I emerged from the finish chute to see Katie and Rory waiting, faces beaming as though they’d both run the last 87 km with me. And for all intents and purposes they had. Because no one conquers Comrades alone. Without Rory’s selfless generosity and Katie’s unwavering support, my first Comrades would not have been the apex of my running career.

Immediately I dropped to one knee and presented Katie with the rose, thanking her for sticking by my side through another unforgettable adventure. Little did she realize this seemingly heartfelt gesture was my worn-out way of asking her to hold the flower for me while I rested.

The three of us exchanged hugs and I proudly showed off what Bruce Fordyce calls the “limp of pride,” slowly following Katie and Rory to the field o’ finishers. The scene resembled a MASH unit with exhausted bodies reclining, slumped over and sprawled out across the grass. Wow, that looks comfy, I thought with real envy as EMTs carried away on flexible stretchers the spent bodies of fellow finishers, most of them looking tired but comfortable. On any other day that would be a ride I’d avoid, but today…

Recovery time

Clearly the heat had taken its toll, with post-race accounts of debilitating leg cramps, gastrointestinal distress and finish-line collapses requiring IV intervention. Roughly 2.6% of the field (~440 runners) were treated in the medical tent, most for dehydration. According to one fellow finisher who ended up in the hospital for a post-race IV (and who highly recommended it), the attending physicians there treated 17 Comrades finishers as Code Reds, meaning life-or-death situations. Luckily the story has a happy ending, as all finishers eventually left the hospital under their own power. The official medical statistics for the day can be found HERE.

I lay on my back in the cool grass, ankles sticky with dried Energade, blankly staring up at something I’d not seen all day: clouds. Suddenly the sickening stench of cigarette smoke inflamed my nostrils, and bitterly I glanced over to see a non-runner puffing away nearby, seemingly oblivious to what he was doing and where he was doing it. Had I been able to move, I might have recommended he go find a more appropriate place to showcase his nicotine addiction, say maybe an emphysema clinic.

I lay there, trying to get comfortable but with little success. This had happened before, most notably after the 2012 Mt Diablo 50K and 2013 Harding Hustle 50K, both run in scorching heat. My body was so drained and so exhausted that no matter what position I tried—standing, sitting, kneeling, slouching or splayed out on the grass—I couldn’t get comfortable. In hindsight I probably would’ve benefitted from an IV, but barring that I just kept reminding myself, Every minute is another minute closer to being comfortable.

“Fucking Inchanga,” I muttered up at Rory through clenched eyes, playfully acknowledging the validity of his warning. He laughed, pleased to admit another member into the eternal brotherhood of Comrades runners humbled by one mighty hill.

Mike_Katie_Rory_Victory

A wave of nausea passed over me and I leaned forward, fertilizing a row of bushes with what little liquid remained in my stomach. As feisty as my stomach can be, it hadn’t turned itself inside-out after a race since the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010. Immediately I felt better. “Drink up and stay hydrated,” advised another finisher who’d witnessed this unfortunate exchange. I did what I could to heed his advice; my body, however, still refused to cooperate.

That night at dinner I’d discover, to my chagrin, that even my upper palate hurt—you know, that soft tissue in the roof of your mouth that contributes nothing to forward motion? You know you’ve reached a low point when your palate hurts. I could only assume the bruising sensation had something to do with the pressurized jet of cold water and Energade that had been hitting it all day long. Unless someone has a better explanation, which I’d love to hear.

As I lay motionless in the grass like a garden hose, Katie headed toward the international tent to find something for me to drink. There she bumped into John and Rochene. In response to her queries about his well-being, John simply smiled and patted her shoulder. He was too exhausted to speak and too immobilized by his locked-up calves to move. Despite persistent cramping he’d stayed the course and finished in a very respectable 10:26:48, impressive considering the battle he’d waged in the second half of the race. I spoke with a lot of runners after the race whose “A” goals, like mine and John’s, were defeated by the heat and hills (being a first-timer who lives 10,000 miles away didn’t help, either).

And speaking of goals: next time (yes, I said it) I’ll run higher-mileage weeks to train for Comrades. This year, leading up to the Eugene Marathon in May, I’d focused on speed rather than endurance, and had averaged fewer than 40 miles per week in March and April as a result. I wasn’t concerned because I’d intentionally built a strong aerobic base in 2016, but more miles at a slower pace would have been a more race-appropriate training plan.

Finally it was time—I had to move. I wasn’t about to miss the spectacle that is the Comrades 12-hour cutoff. The final moments of the race are broadcast across the country as the entire nation tunes in to watch the human drama unfold. Gingerly I climbed the bleachers, “We Will Rock You” by Queen blasting from the loudspeakers and the uncaring clock ticking up toward 12 hours. Exhausted runners streamed through the finish line now, the crowds resembling a Walmart on Black Friday. A 12-hour bus led its charges home triumphantly.

I don’t recall where I read it, but apparently half of all Comrades finishers cross the line in the final hour.

With the sun having set and the light fading rapidly, so too were the chances of those still out on the course. Europe replaced Queen with “The Final Countdown” as the last few hopefuls circled the stadium in a desperate struggle to reach the finish. The moment was electric, and I felt my whole body—already exhausted from my own struggle—tense up with nervous anticipation. This felt like the Roman Coliseum, and I half expected the PA announcer to bellow, “RELEASE THE LIONS!”

Except that this was more compelling theater. Frantically the hoarse, disembodied voice counted down the closing seconds until, at 12 hours sharp, hope collided with reality and a living, breathing wall of volunteers swung into place, blocking the finish line and denying access to horrified runners just meters from the finish.

 

And just like that, the 2017 Comrades Marathon was over. All at once, it felt like someone had let the air out of the stadium.

When the dust settled, 13,852 of the 17,031 starters (81% male, 19% female) reached the finish line within the 12-hour time limit, an 81% success rate. Bongmusa Mthembu of South Africa crossed the finish line first in a time of 5:35:34, while Camille Herron of Oklahoma won the women’s division in 6:27:35, becoming the first American champion—man or woman—since Ann Trason in 1997. Three weeks later, Ryan Sandes would turn the tables by becoming the first South African to win America’s most prestigious ultramarathon, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

But as Norrie Williamson points out, the real heroes of this race aren’t the front-runners or middle-of-the-packers—they’re the 11- and 12-hour warriors who find themselves at a disadvantage before they even cross the start line, and for whom “Every step forward” isn’t advice so much as it is necessity.

The singular charisma of Comrades is evident in the number of runners with more than 10, more than 20, more than 30 finishes. Gil, a fellow SoCal who earned a Bill Rowan medal this year in his first Comrades, is already making plans to return—and not just next year, but for eight more years after that until he earns his own green number. Sure, his may be the most expensive green number in history by the time he’s done… but that’s the seduction of Comrades.

And it’s not just the most successful runners who fall under its spell. At the pre-race reception for international athletes I met one fellow from the UK who’d run Comrades seven times, despite only completing the race three times and never finishing an up run. Yet there he was, gamely preparing for his fourth shot at the up run because, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

South Africa, with a population roughly equivalent to California and New York state combined, attracts over 20,000 registrants for its signature event. Which makes me wonder whether an event like Comrades could work here in the states. Surprisingly, there’s nothing like it in the U.S.—sure we have huge marathons like Chicago and New York City, but most of our ultramarathons are run on trails. And our largest 50-miler, the JFK 50 Mile, had a paltry 753 finishers last year. Granted Comrades has 92 years of history on its side, and the JFK 50 (founded 42 years after Comrades) intentionally limits the size of its field to 1,250 entrants. But still—1,250 is a far cry from 20,000.

Many Americans know someone who’s qualified for and/or run the Boston Marathon. Boston is an event that’s held in high regard here, as only the best of the best run it. For South Africans, though, Comrades is a way of life. Across the country, the easiest way to start a conversation is to wear your Comrades gear, or mention that you’ve run the race. Everyone seems connected to the event in some way—either they’ve run it themselves, or have a family member who’s run it, or know someone who’s gotten it done. And everyone has a story to tell. If I ever decide to write a book but feel too lazy to come up with a topic, I can always gather 50 South Africans in a room, turn on the recorder and say “Comrades. GO.” I guarantee what comes out of it will be compelling.

By pure serendipity we had the opportunity to meet another South African legend, controversial sports physiologist, prolific author and Comrades guru Dr. Tim Noakes, on our flight to Cape Town later that week. Dr. Noakes and his wife Marilyn were extremely affable when I introduced myself, and we bonded quickly over my scientific background and first Comrades finish. I was a bit starstruck—after all, his Bible-like tome The Lore of Running occupies a prominent position on our bookshelf at home. And Tim Noakes, along with Bruce Fordyce and golfer Gary Player, is a member of the Holy Trinity of South African sport. So fortuitously bumping into Dr. Noakes was the perfect way to punctuate our first visit to South Africa.

Tim Noakes_Mike

Meeting Tim Noakes in the Cape Town airport

As a recreational runner, there’s no title I’ll wear more proudly than “Comrades finisher”. Something very special happens between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a personal transformation invisible to the naked eye, and you won’t cross that finish line the same person who started the race. Comrades will challenge you. It will humble you. It will take all you’ve got. It will build you up and break you down, only to build you back up again. It will teach you lessons about yourself that you may or may not want to learn. It’s a raw, uncensored, powerful experience. It’s the Ultimate Human Race. And there’s nothing else like it in the world.

So if you’re a runner, ask yourself: Do I have the mettle to earn this medal? If the answer is yes, then the most rewarding race experience of your life awaits in South Africa. At what other race does crossing the finish line qualify you for a place on its Wall of Honour?

Admittedly, I’m now eyeing the back-to-back medal that second-time finishers receive for running the up and down runs in consecutive years. After all, I may be feeling good about myself, but I’m still subject to the immutable laws of nature.

And what goes up, must come down.

Us_Comrades finish

Celebrating the bronze


Survive & Thrive: Eight tips for conquering the Comrades Marathon up run

1) Self-discipline is the key—don’t start too fast. If you find yourself running comfortably in the first few km, you’re probably going too fast.

2) Nothing new on race day—this goes for gear and nutrition. One possible exception is the official Comrades cap you’ll receive at the expo, though I opted against that too.

3) Dial in your nutrition early, before the day heats up and your stomach goes rogue.

4) Don’t underestimate the heat—Much will be made of the 2,500 ft of net climbing in the first half, and for good reason… but don’t discount the beatdown awaiting you courtesy of heat & sun exposure in the second half. International runners, this means you.

5) Focus on your breathing—when the going gets tough, deep breaths with a regular “inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 4 steps” cadence can help you relax and regain a sense of control.

6) Every step forward—if your primary focus is to finish within 12 hours, every step you take should bring you one step closer to the finish. And don’t stop moving at aid stations.

7) Expect the unexpected—e.g. John’s nasty battle with calf cramps—and be ready to adapt.

8) Stay positive—when you’ve got nothing left to give, give a smile (I read that on the sidewalk at the Eugene Marathon).

Comrades Marathon resources I leaned on (in addition to Rory):

  • Lindsey Parry’s podcast “RUN with Coach Parry”—especially its archives—is a treasure trove of expertise and insights from the official Comrades coach; older episodes are less than ten minutes each, so you can listen to several at a time. Coach Parry also has some very good content on YouTube.
  • Norrie Williamson, 19-time finisher and official course measurer, recently relaunched his website; the current content is a bit outdated, but his Comrades calculator will give you a reliable sense for your projected finish time based on training mileage and recent performances.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them yet, both volumes of his “Fordyce Diaries”—Conquering the Up as well as Tackling a Down Run—are available as e-books exclusively on the site. If anyone can teach you to conquer Comrades, it’s the man who won it nine times!
  • Our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades and for our post-race travels in South Africa.
Bruce_Mike_Katie

Meeting 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce at the reception for international runners

BOTTOM LINE: Comrades is like no other running event in the world. It’s an audacious nickname to be sure, but the event lives up to its billing as “The Ultimate Human Race.” I’ve used the phrase “once in a lifetime” twice to describe races: once for the Antarctica Marathon and now for my first Comrades experience. And it’s that experience that keeps its finishers coming back 10, 20, 30, in some cases 40 times. I’d love to return to Boston someday, but I feel compelled to return to Comrades. This race will challenge you, it will inspire you, it will humble you. But most of all, it will change you.

They say you never forget your first. And now I get it.

The name says it all (though not the “Marathon” part, since the race itself is over 50 miles): you don’t run Comrades for the t-shirt and medal, though those are sweet perks. You run for the camaraderie and the community. You run to celebrate the spirit of brotherhood and humanity that unite us all—what the Zulu culture calls ubuntu. You run because there are no strangers between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, only friends you haven’t met yet. And you run to be part of something much bigger than yourself—17,000+ runners from 73 countries, all in pursuit of a common goal, all speaking a common language. The language of Comrades.

Mike Sohaskey with Comrades Marathon course sign

Comrades route closure placard, signed by Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn

Unless you’re among the last-minute finishers or hooked up to an IV in the medical tent, the Comrades experience doesn’t end once you cross the finish line. Watching from the bleachers at the Scottsville Racecourse as the final few finishers struggled to beat the countdown to the 12-hour cutoff was one of the most gripping human dramas I’ve ever witnessed.

For prospective Comrades runners, if you have questions about any aspect of the race I’m sure Rory would be happy to answer them. He’s a fantastic ambassador and a wealth of information on all things Comrades, having crossed the finish line 12 times and earned a green number. Plus, he’s an incredibly generous and genuinely nice guy who knows pretty much everyone involved with the race.

PRODUCTION: Race production was flawless, as evidenced by the start corrals with 17,000 runners all crossing the line within eight minutes. And Comrades wouldn’t be the best race in the world without the best volunteers in the world. From packet pickup to on-course support to the unenviable job of forming a human wall at the 12-hour cutoff, the volunteers are as critical to the success of the race as the runners themselves. The difference being, they don’t take home a medal for their efforts.

The pre-race expo is so large, it even has its own food court. Rows upon rows of exhibitors, retailers, lounges, improvised stages and even massage stations filled the Durban Exhibition Centre. I’d recommend hitting the expo on Thursday or Friday to avoid the Saturday crush, since you don’t want to be on your feet any longer than necessary the day before the race. Separate lounge areas exist for newbies (“novices”), international runners and Green Number Club members to pull up a chair, grab a snack and chat with fellow runners while escaping the crowds. And international runners enjoy another underrated perk at the expo: a dedicated packet pickup line, which saved huge time by allowing me to bypass the Disneyland-length line of South African runners waiting to pick up their own packets. Seriously, the line looked like the wait for Space Mountain. International runners at Comrades are definitely treated like first-class citizens.

Comrades registration lines

The expo packet pickup lines for South Africans (top) and internationals (bottom)

Speaking of which, Thursday evening also featured a highly recommended reception for international runners at a local hotel. The reception was well worth attending, as we met runners from around the globe as well as 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn, the 1982 women’s winner and current Comrades Marathon Association Vice-Chair. Yet another benefit to being an international runner!

If you have a limited amount of time at the expo, I’d recommend you attend the back-to-back presentations at the Old Mutual tent by Lindsey Parry (the official Comrades coach) and Norrie Williamson (19-time finisher and official course measurer). Each man shares valuable expertise, insights and guidance to help you prepare for race day, along with pace bands that are either free (in Williamson’s case) or which can be purchased for a nominal fee (in Parry’s case, which turned out to be a smart call since Williamson’s bands were quickly snatched up by the “If it’s free, gimme three!” crowd). Coach Parry’s pace bands are temporary tattoos you can affix to your forearm, as I did on race day to track my progress.

SWAG: The smallest medal in road racing may also be the most coveted. With 92 years of history behind it, there’s a singular power and beauty to the quarter-sized medallion on its simple black-and-yellow ribbon. As I said above, it’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And when you’re the best in the world, you don’t need to change for anyone. I could go on to gush about the cool race t-shirt and wicking runner’s cap, but that’s hardly going to sway your decision on whether to run the Ultimate Human Race.

Comrades bronze medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
June 4, 2017 (start time 5:30am, sunrise 6:45am)
54.5 miles (87.7 km, officially 86.73 km) from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (Continent #4)
Finish time & pace: 9:52:55 (first time running Comrades), 10:53/mile
Finish place: 4,191 overall, 1,427/4,273 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 13,852 (11,151 men, 2,699 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 52°F), hot & sunny (low 80s) throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 5,732 ft ascent, 3,712 ft descent

Comrades 2017 splits

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2017 Comrades Marathon expo

I felt it in my stomach, powerful and resonant, its sonic boom awakening the pre-race butterflies like a sudden gust of wind.

I felt it on my skin, the chill of goosebumps cascading like dominos along my arms and down the back of my neck.

I felt it in my head, the last vestiges of denial evaporating like sweat in the pre-dawn darkness. This is happening.

Nothing drives home the reality of Comrades like “Shosholoza”.

I’d heard South Africa’s “second national anthem” before. Watched start line videos like my own below, trying to appreciate how the Ndebele mining song’s vocal harmonies would sound—and feel—on race day. And honestly, I thought I’d prepared myself for the moment.

I thought wrong. “Shosholoza” hit me like the oncoming steam train whose sound it evokes. I held my iPhone aloft, capturing the surreal scene, a panoply of emotions dancing across the 17,000 faces lost in their last-second thoughts or softly singing along. The air in the start corral strained under a pungent mix of body odor and human electricity, the latter more than enough if called upon to power the harsh floodlights illuminating the start line.

Despite the cool morning, I was sweating—unusual for me, but then again I’d started sweating the moment I’d woken up around 2:00am, pulse rate elevated and nerves firing like I’d taken a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart, Pulp Fiction-style. I’d started chugging water immediately to try to counteract my body’s overactive sweat glands. There are few ideas worse than crossing the start line at Comrades already dehydrated.

The sea of faces was much darker and more masculine than I was accustomed to from American races—not surprising for a South African race with over 93% African representation. (Fun fact: Ethiopia, home to many of the world’s elite distance runners, sent only one runner to this year’s race). This was my first time in Africa, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to christen my 4th continent than by accepting the challenge of the Ultimate Human Race.

All of us stood in quiet deference as “Shosholoza” expanded to fill the silence around City Hall. All 17,031 of us, citizens of 73 nations speaking who-knows-how-many languages. All of us united in our common goal and in our common desire to see one another achieve that goal.

All of us Comrades.

2017 Comrades Marathon Start line VIP view

Start-line perspective from the VIP seats: that’s Rory front & center with glasses

Case in point, a simple but meaningful gesture: moments before, the race announcer had instructed all of us in the start corral to turn to the individuals on our left and on our right, shake their hand and wish them good luck. It was a heartening display of sportsmanship, one that reminded us we’d be competing for much more than a finisher’s medal over the next 12 hours.

Ironically, no race in the world gets its name more right or more wrong than the Comrades Marathon. First run in 1921, the event was the brainchild of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, who wanted to create a unique test of physical endurance to commemorate his fellow South African soldiers killed in the war and to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. Clapham envisioned a grueling physical and mental challenge, yet at the same time one accessible to any well-trained recreational athlete. Now in its 92nd year, the race has succeeded beyond its founder’s wildest dreams.

On the other hand, Clapham apparently wasn’t a stickler for details, at least when it came to naming his event. This distinction may seem trivial to non-runners, but a “marathon” by definition is 26.2 miles (42.2 km), much like a day is 24 hours or a ton is 2,000 pounds. Comrades, by contrast, is the world’s largest ultramarathon and over double the distance of a standard marathon. The course changes slightly each year, with this year’s course leading its runners nearly 54 miles (87 km) from the coastal city of Durban to the capital city of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Pietermaritzburg.

So calling Comrades a “marathon” is a bit like calling Godzilla a “lizard.”

Durban view from Southern Sun Elangeni (for Comrades Marathon)

View of the Durban coastline from our hotel room at the Southern Sun Elangeni

My earliest recollection of the race was a 2010 Runner’s World feature on running icon Bart Yasso, who after a debilitating battle with Lyme Disease chose Comrades as his last official race. Trying to wrap my mind around the concept, I came away from the RW article with a Mad Max-meets-Cormac McCarthy sense of Comrades as an event for elite athletes and uber-fit desert warriors whose bronzed skin could convert the sun’s heat directly into raw physical energy. Ninety km in less than 12 hours? Who were these freaks?? I wasn’t immediately smitten because, well, Comrades was clearly way beyond my abilities—I’d yet to even run a marathon at that point. But the article stayed with me.

Fast forward to March 2013. Katie and I stand on the deck of the Russian research vessel the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, both of us speechless as we soak in our first view of Antarctica. A tall, good-looking fellow in a heavy jacket and pajama pants strolls up alongside us, sharing in our wonderment. The three of us get to talking—he has an awesome accent which adds to his charisma—and we learn he’s from South Africa.

The conversation naturally turns to running (we’re there to run the Antarctica Marathon, after all), and Rory regales us with entertaining tales of his favorite race back home, the absurdly challenging Comrades Marathon. I’m familiar with the race, though do I know anyone who’s actually run it? I’m not sure. In any case, it’s clear from the fire in his eyes and his animated tone that Comrades is Rory’s pride and joy—so much so that he’s completed the race a mind-boggling 12 times. Ten finishes was enough to earn him what’s known as a Comrades “green number,” which is now his to keep and which he can even bequeath to his three sons in his will.

Meeting someone who’d not only attempted Comrades but who’d completed it, and who’d not only completed it but done so 12 times, lubricated the gears in my brain and brought them spinning to life. For the first time the idea of Comrades—of someone like me running Comrades—started to make sense.

Fast forward to 2016. We’d stayed in contact with Rory, broken bread together during one of his business trips to Los Angeles, and learned he’d been head of security for President Nelson Mandela before starting his own private security firm in South Africa, with clients around the world. Meanwhile, the seed he’d planted in my brain that day on the Vavilov had blossomed into an uncontrollable weed. I’d committed to fly more than halfway around the world to run the longest foot race of my life. And Rory, upon hearing the news, had generously offered to host us during our stay. Of course we’d jumped at his offer.

I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

2017 Comrades Marathon motto – Zinikele

Zinikele: Give it all you’ve got
“Shosholoza” followed the South African national anthem and segued seamlessly into the timeless piano of “Chariots of Fire.” More goosebumps. The restless crowd around me remained still; the butterflies in my stomach did not. I distracted myself by recalling the “Count-Down” instructions from the 1961 race, which we’d received with our souvenir magazine. These included:

4.50 a.m.: Have your last cigarette.
5.15 a.m.: Amble along to the start.
5.54 a.m.: Make sure you join in with a hearty cheer for the Mayor.
5:59 a.m.: Be good boys and smile nicely for the Press, they are some of the best friends we have got.

Like some blog posts, a little “Chariots of Fire” goes a long way, and two minutes later Vangelis’ heroic score was quickly getting on my overwrought nerves. Okay okay I’m inspired already, how many times does this repeat?

View of Corral B at start of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Bird’s-eye view of Corral B (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Just as I started to think Vangelis himself had taken over the controls, the music faded. A brief hush was followed by the amplified sounds of a rooster crowing—actually, not a rooster, but the recorded tones of Max Trimborn, who at the Comrades start line in 1948 nervously let loose with his rendition of a crowing rooster (such is the anticipation of running 90 km). By popular demand, Max continued the tradition until his death in 1985, and to this day his recorded rooster crow starts every Comrades Marathon.

Like the first notes of a rock concert, which release the hounds of adrenaline and bring the crowd to its feet, Max’s cock-a-doodle-doo elicited pent-up cheers from the restless throngs. And the ensuing crack of a gunshot, fired promptly at 5:30am, opened the floodgates for the tidal wave of runners to pour through, red and white confetti raining down on the heads of the speedy runners in corral A.

 

Hurry up and wait, I thought as we pressed together, shuffling en masse toward the start line. There was a method to this madness: Comrades requires a qualifying time—for the marathon distance this is sub-5 hours—and runners are seeded in one of eight alphabetical start corrals according to that qualifying time, faster runners at the front (starting with corral “A”) and slower runners at the back (ending with corral “H”). I’d earned a solid corral C seeding with my 3:31 finish at January’s Louisiana Marathon.

As we crossed the start mat I glanced down at my Garmin: 1:58. Off to a good start, just two minutes lost.

Comrades is both cruel and unusual in many respects. One is the timing of the event. In most races, your official time starts not when the starter’s pistol fires (known as “gun time”) but rather when a timing chip on your bib number or shoe sends a signal that you’ve physically crossed the start line (known as “chip time”). Chip time is what matters, not gun time. In this way, slower runners who start closer to the back are not penalized the extra time it takes them to reach the start line.

Not so at Comrades. The race has a strict 12-hour time limit (a 13:20/mile pace this year); everyone’s time starts with the opening gunshot and ends when they cross the finish line mat. Add to that the race’s seeding system, which starts faster runners toward the front and slower runners toward the back, and you create a tense situation in which those runners who most need the extra time—the slower runners in corrals G & H—have already lost valuable minutes by the time they reach the start line.

Luckily the start corrals flow as smoothly as any in racing, inspired in part by the fear of gun time. It typically takes no more than eight minutes for everyone to cross the start line.

Comrades 2017 had begun, and we were all on the clock. We passed the VIP tent where, thanks to Rory’s connections, he and Katie stood watching the start with Comrades officials and celebrities, including 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce. I thought of the race’s one-word slogan: Zinikele, a Zulu word meaning “Give it all you’ve got”. I intended to do just that.

87 km to go. T-minus 12 hours to euphoria or heartbreak.

Zinikele_GoogleTranslate

Google-ese translation of “Zinikele” — not the best slogan for when the going gets tough.

Farewell to Durban
Once clear of the start line, the stampede of runners surged forward through urban Durban, its downtown district nondescript in the early morning darkness. I split my focus between the other runners and the asphalt in front of me, taking care not to step on the back of someone’s foot and end my day before it had begun.

A fellow to my right dropped his water bottle, the unfortunate container barely striking the asphalt before someone inadvertently kicked it, sending it careening off another runner’s ankle like a pinball and skittering out of view underfoot. The rapid-fire sequence reminded me of the puck drop in a hockey face-off.

The compressed crowds worked to my advantage by preventing me from going out too fast, a huge no-no in a race like Comrades. In fact, it’s the one piece of advice you’ll hear repeated most often around the expo and throughout race weekend. I’d listened to enough podcasts and pre-race advice to have the concept of patience drilled into me. So I knew there’d be no shot of me flying out of the chute with my hair on fire.

Respect the distance, don’t fear the distance.

The KISS (Keep It Slow, Stupid) rule is solid strategy for almost any ultramarathon, but particularly for this year’s Comrades Marathon. Why? Because another cruel and unusual aspect of this race is the course.

Unlike other races which typically use the same route every year, in alternate years the Comrades course reverses direction between Durban at sea level and Pietermaritzburg at an elevation of 2,100ft. So whereas this year’s race started in Durban and ended in Pietermaritzburg, next year the opposite will be true. For obvious reasons, the route from Durban to Pietermaritzburg with its 2,100ft of net elevation gain is labeled the “up” run, while the opposite direction is known (cleverly enough) as the “down” run.

2017 Comrades Marathon up run elevation profile

Course elevation profile for the 2017 Comrades up run

Many Comrades coaches and veterans will tell you that the first 42 km of the “up” run is the toughest road marathon you’ll ever run—and that your immediate reward for conquering those 42 km is another marathon and change to the finish. This is a grueling concept both mentally and physically, and I understood that while my performance in the first 37 km wouldn’t necessarily make my race, it could very easily break it.

“Essentially, the ‘up’ run is all about self-control,” writes he who would know best, 9-time champion Bruce Fordyce. “And this control has to be exercised in the first half.”

I’d chosen the “up” run based on Rory’s advice. Apparently, as exhausting as the steady climb from Durban to Pietermaritzburg can be, the uphill struggle is far preferable to the discomfort of descending those same hills with 50 km already in your legs. Downhill running damages the leg muscles like nothing else, and requires a whole different type of training than uphill running. So by reversing the direction of the route, the Comrades organizers essentially create a whole new race.

And speaking of hills—while big-game hunters dream lustily of Africa’s Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino), Comrades runners have nightmares of a different Big Five. These are the five most notorious hills along the route, and they eschew muscular monikers like “Heartbreak Hill” and “Widowmaker” in favor of more dignified, understated names: Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts. And yet despite their innocuous names, each of the Big Five makes Boston’s Newton Hills look like zits on a lion’s back.

Comrades veterans will tell you that while the hills themselves are bad enough, it’s their placement along the course that will have you talking to yourself. Three of the Big Five (Cowies Hill, Fields Hill and Botha’s Hill) await in the first 37 km of the “up” route, with Inchanga positioned just after the halfway point and Polly Shortts just before the 80 km mark, the last real climb before the finish.

Bruce Fordyse-Katie-Rory Steyn Comrades Marathon VIP seating

Bruce Fordyce, Katie and Rory enjoy the VIP seats

But as intimidating as the prospect of tackling them on race day can be, it’s important to appreciate that the Big Five aren’t the only hills on the Comrades course—and in some cases they’re not even the worst. As I’d quickly learn, just because it doesn’t have a name doesn’t mean it can’t kick your ass. Comrades is like death by a thousand cuts, with a few machete blows thrown in for good measure. And for many runners, the line between success and failure is razor-thin.

Given the course’s unusual length (54 miles) and the oversized reputation of the Big Five, it didn’t feel natural to divide the route mentally into five 10-milers as I had at last year’s Ice Age Trail 50; rather, I couldn’t help but break it down in my head as six stretches of variable distance separated by each of the Big Five.

We left the city streets of Durban via the on-ramp to the N3 highway and soon after began our first test of the day, the steady climb toward the Tollgate Bridge. Here I remembered Comrades coach and official course measurer Norrie Williamson’s advice from the expo two days earlier. He’d called Tollgate the first “reality check” of the day, telling us that over 80% of runners will start too fast and destroy their best time by Tollgate.

And I could see why. The climb up to Tollgate is gentle enough to be deceiving, yet steep enough to do real damage to the reckless runner. With early adrenaline on your side, it would be all too easy to find yourself powering up the gentle climb toward Tollgate’s double arches. And by the time you realize you’ve made a mistake, it’s too late.

83 km to go.

Tollgate to Cowies Hill
Walk once before the sun rises, Rory had advised. And so I took 30 seconds to slow down on my way up to Tollgate, my mind protesting this early white flag. We walking already? Really, tough guy?

Pacing groups at Comrades are known as “buses”, and I hoped to stick close to the 9-hour bus throughout the race. Glancing to my left I saw the 10:30 bus pass me and realized that, if anything, I may have started out too cautiously. Which was fine with me—I had 80+ km to make up the difference. Energy wasted now was energy I wouldn’t have later. Once that muscle glycogen burns, it’s gone and you’re not getting it back.

On my forearms were tattooed two pace charts, which I’d purchased at the expo from Comrades coach Lindsey Parry: one outlining a 9-hour finish (my “A” goal) and the other a 10-hour finish (my “B” goal). Needless to say, my “C” goal was to get across the finish line in less than 12 hours, and by any means necessary. Flying 17,000 miles just to earn a DNF (Did Not Finish) was not an option.

“I reached my 10,000 steps!” shouted a voice in the darkness to my right.

2017 Comrades Marathon 9- and 10-hr pacing bands

The “A” goal (left) and the “B” goal (right)

I accelerated slightly to put the 10:30 bus behind me and sipped at the Tailwind (sports drink) in my hydration pack. I’d elected to wear the pack for at least the first half of the race, in part so I’d have a steady supply of Tailwind to sip on, but also to carry the baby food pouches and PB&J sandwiches I’d prepared the night before.

I could always drop the pack with Katie and Rory along the course, but I was reluctant to disregard the most battle-tested piece of racing advice: nothing new on race day. Nougat bars and biscuits hadn’t struck me as appealing aid station fare, and my own menu of snacks had served me well at the Ice Age Trail 50. So I wasn’t about to reinvent the wheel—though as it turned out, I’d end up having to fix a flat tire or two along the way.

C’est la vie. It’s the ultrarunner’s mantra: Expect the unexpected. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And it’s up to you to make it right.

Just past Tollgate we reached the first of what would be 46 aid stations. I’d heard it said that the Comrades aid stations are so long, you can look up from the end of one and see the beginning of the next. Turns out this is fake news—there’s plenty of space between aid stations, particularly later in the race when you need them most.

Which brings us to the water sachets. I know some folks—particularly Americans who aren’t used to them—deem the drink sachets to be another cruel and unusual element of Comrades. But I actually preferred them. The sachets are small plastic pouches filled with water or Energade (the South African equivalent of Gatorade), and you use your teeth to tear open the sachet to access the liquid. After one or two tries at biting open a water sachet on the run, you’ll be a pro.

In the early miles, the sachets provided not just hydration but also entertainment. Seeing newbies bite open a sachet awkwardly only to take a full spray of water in the face, I couldn’t help but laugh. And the occasional {POP} of someone stepping on an unopened sachet in the darkness was like the occasional firework. I stepped on a couple myself, dousing my ankles in water and Energade.

Congrats on 45 Comrades Marathons sign

WOW, congrats indeed Louis! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Exiting the wide highway surface of the N3, we downsized to the more narrow, two-lane M13 (Jan Smuts Highway). I was happy to trade in excess elbow room for a more tree-lined stretch of road, though I’d been warned about the “cat’s eyes” (reflectors) between lanes, which are easy to trip over in the dark.

My pre-race hydration began to take its toll, and I ducked into a porta-potty on the side of the road, emerging less than a minute later to see the 9-hour bus pass me by, leading a large group of runners. Huh? Apparently I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out my pacing in the early going.

We made our way through Westville as the sun peeked above the horizon, transitioning onto the Old Main Road that connects Durban and Pietemaritzburg. Palm trees lined the road, and coming from SoCal I felt right at home. In general, South Africa is a very easy country to travel in as an American—most of its people speak English, the street signs are in English and the weather (particularly in the winter) is temperate.

“Hey there Michael, where you coming from?” asked a voice behind me in a South African accent—or was I now the one with the accent? It took me two heartbeats to catch up to the question and realize it was directed at me, my blue bib number on front and back announcing me as an international runner with exactly zero zilch zip nil nada Comrades finishes.

“California,” I responded. “United States,” I followed up quickly, not wanting to come across as that ugly American who expects all the world’s citizens to know where California is. I chatted with my new friend—a South African native and 6-time finisher—for a few seconds, and he and I wished each other luck on the journey to Pietermaritzburg.

Even the bib numbers at Comrades are fraught with meaning. White bibs identify South Africans, blue bibs international runners. Not only that, but yellow bibs identify Comrades veterans who have completed the race nine times and are competing for their green number. And green bibs, of course, are for those who have already achieved that feat. The bibs also list your start corral and the number of Comrades medals you’ve earned.

In a race as grueling as Comrades, you take motivation anywhere you can get it. And all along the course as the going got tough, I found strong motivation in the runners with 10+ or 20+ finishes on their bibs, chugging along purposefully. If they can do this 20 times, I can damn well do it once.

The best thing that can be said about the first 15 km of the up run is that, barring the occasional undulation, the climb is so gradual and consistent that after a while you hardly notice your own steady battle against gravity.

73 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey's bib for 2017 Comrades Marathon

Cowies Hill to Fields Hill
At last we reached the base of Cowies Hill. With the sun rising and the first of the Big Five stretching ahead of me, I felt like Comrades had officially begun. Passing the road sign announcing Cowies, I glanced up to see a steady stream of runners flowing up the hill. I forced myself to power walk for another minute as I snapped a photo. Then I pushed forward, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

After so much time spent hyping up the Big Five in my mind, I was disappointed to discover that its first three members arrive with very little fanfare. The first 37 km of the up run are such a steady ascent, I’m honestly not sure I would have realized we were on Cowies if I hadn’t seen the sign and heard the chatter around me. Cowies will definitely make you work, don’t get me wrong, but it may be more memorable for its subsequent downhill than for the steepness of its ascent.

Base of Cowies Hill at 2017 Comrades Marathon

Powering up Cowies Hill

Powering up Cowies we entered Pinetown, where throngs of spectators stood on both sides of the road, cheering loudly. One of the many amazing and unforgettable aspects of Comrades is the support of the locals—untold numbers of supporters line the course, and I was reminded of Patriots Day in Boston.

A group of strong-voiced young women sang “Shosholoza” a cappella, providing motivation and their own hand-clap accompaniment as we passed.

Cowies is neither the steepest nor the longest of the Big Five, and the mile+ ascent was challenging but doable. Then we were headed back downhill, with sweeping views of Pinetown to our left before the course again leveled out and resumed its ascent.

Shortly after Cowies we passed the first of the six cutoffs along the course—these are designated points that all runners must pass by a certain time, otherwise they’re pulled from the course and disqualified. And I pondered which would be worse: being pulled at the first cutoff of the day, or being pulled at the last.

Channeling my inner toddler, I downed my second baby food pouch of the morning. On longer runs, baby food is easier to digest than sugary gels, since it’s real food. I’d planned on a schedule of one pouch every five miles (8 km), supplemented with Tailwind every mile plus peanut butter & jelly. In this way, I hoped to avoid the aid stations for as long as possible.

Let’s hear it for wishful thinking.

The stretch through the commercial sector of Pinetown, with its businesses and car dealerships, was fairly uneventful. A generous but deluded spectator offered runners his jug of whiskey, the fellow next to me responding in a gentlemanly South African accent: “Ah, fuck you mate.”

Runners in Toyota Zone at 2017 Comrades Marathon

You never run alone at Comrades (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Continuing on the Old Main Road, the commercial, industrial and residential scenery struck me as wholly familiar: Pinetown could easily be blue-collar America.

Then it was back onto the M13 where the longest of the Big Five awaited. An official race km marker announced Fields Hill ahead, and I almost felt like a patient waiting for the doctor. Fields Hills will see you now, sir.

Fields Hill is the longest of the Big Five, and I honestly couldn’t tell you where it ends. Nor apparently can the organizers—look at the official Comrades elevation map above, and you’ll see an arrow pointing into the middle of a steady ascent with the label “Top of Fields Hill”. I do know I was running and power-walking up that sumabitch for too long—though again, I had such great expectations for the Big Five that it really didn’t feel so bad once I got on it.

Here I followed another sound piece of advice from Comrades coaches Parry and Williamson: I tried to keep my effort (rather than my pace) steady as we wound our way up and around the hill toward the summit.

I was also distracted by the fact that I’d expected to see Katie and Rory at the base of Fields Hill, around the 20 km mark where we’d planned to meet. Once we began our ascent I continued to keep an eye out for them, with no success. Finally I pulled out my phone and texted Katie on the fly. “61 km to go! Where are you?” Then a few minutes later, “60 km to go! Phone’s going off.” No overages on the international data plan, please.

I speak of “km to go” because the distance markers are yet another cruel and unusual aspect of Comrades. The markers are big and red and easy to see from far away, all of which I appreciated. But rather than celebrating how far you’ve come, the distance markers at Comrades confirm how much farther you still have to go. Psychologically, it’s daunting to be reminded of distances like 80 km and 70 km so early in the race. And it was only once I passed the “21 km” (= a half marathon) sign late in the day that I started to feel like that light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t another train.

No Katie and no Rory meant no familiar faces. More importantly, though, it meant I’d need to ration my remaining food, since I wasn’t sure if/when I’d see them next. Right around the midway point in Drummond I hoped, and yet I couldn’t be sure. One more baby food pouch plus a peanut butter & jelly sandwich should be enough to last me at least another 20 km… right?

63 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running strong at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

I was one of the few runners wearing a pack (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Fields Hill to Botha’s Hill
By the time we reached Kloof, the sun was starting to flex its muscle in a cloudless sky. The day was shaping up to be warmer than forecast, a consistent breeze providing some respite from the heat. A relatively level stretch followed Fields Hill and led us through shaded, tree-lined neighborhoods. With the mounting heat and frequent palm trees, I got a sense of running in either Hawaii or Florida.

One thing I noticed as the km ticked off: none of the runners around me had wires dangling from their ears. Some of these folks would be out here lost in their own thoughts for nearly 12 hours, and yet none of them wore earbuds. Because Comrades demands (and deserves) every ounce of mental and physical focus you’ve got, and experiencing it from under earbuds would be like attending your own wedding while hopped up on pain meds.

59km marker at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

(photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Checking the pace bands on each forearm, I realized I was slightly ahead of schedule for a 9-hour finish, despite taking things slow to this point. I continued to churn out ten-minute miles through Gillitts and Hillcrest, the latter disappointing me with its abundance of hills and lack of crests.

Even if you knew nothing about the race itself, you’d still notice a common theme along the Comrades route: many of the towns and landmarks have “hill” in their name. Crazy coincidence, that.

My focus now was on getting to the 37 km mark, where the course leveled out. And all that stood between me and that goal was Botha’s Hill.

Like Cowies and Fields, Botha’s arrived with little fanfare. But it was steep and winding and nearly 3 km long, not to mention it had the sun on its side. Once again steady effort plus a bit of power-walking carried me to the top, where the shade of tree cover awaited us. So too did the well-dressed boys of Kearsney College, a private boarding school founded (like Comrades itself) in 1921 and located at the top of Botha’s Hill. Maybe it was my mindset coming off the hill, but none of Kearsney’s finest seemed particularly psyched on a hot day to be greeting a bunch of sweaty runners while dressed in a suit and tie.

And with that I’d reached the 37 km mark, the toughest miles of the Comrades up run in my rearview mirror. My rush of accomplishment, though, quickly yielded to sobering reality. Pietermaritzburg was still 50 km away. And the sun was still climbing in the sky.

50 km to go.

Mile 25 view of Alverstone at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

View overlooking Alverstone, 47 km to go

Botha’s Hill to Drummond
With the majority of the climbing behind us, the course continued to roll for the next couple of miles before treating us to our first extended downhill, the largely unshaded descent into Drummond. Here I was psyched to see Katie and Rory for the first time. I’d polished off my last baby food pouch several miles earlier and had tried a bite of my peanut butter & jelly. Bad idea—the consistency was like paste, and even with plenty of water to wash it down, my body had instantly rejected the idea.

Rory flagged me down, and I pulled over to catch my breath and refill my hydration pack before reluctantly moving on. With the heat intensifying I could tell my body was circling the wagons, approaching its Tailwind limit and with no appetite for either baby food or peanut butter. Even so, I decided to carry my pack until at least the 25 km-to-go mark, when I’d see them again.

My brief pitstop invigorated me, and I rode a surge of energy downhill into Drummond. Approaching the up run’s de facto halfway point, we passed two key landmarks on the Comrades course: the Wall of Honour and Arthur’s Seat.

Rory Steyn and Mike Sohaskey at Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour

Getting inspired by Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Wall of Honour

If you’re planning to run Comrades, take some time before or after the race to visit the Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour (you’ll likely be too rushed and too tired to appreciate it on race day). Erected along the side of the road just before Drummond, The Wall is a collection of plaques set in individual stones and decorated with the names of past finishers, along with their bib numbers. Yellow plaques signify runners with between one and nine finishes, while green plaques identify those who have earned green numbers. Best of all, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy a plaque to be displayed on the Wall.

The Wall of Honour is a remarkable and ever-changing tribute to human endurance and to 92 years of Comrades finishers. And we were fortunate to have a host in Rory who drove us out to the Wall the night before the race, so we could take the time to appreciate it without having to commit to the official pre-race course tour.

Speaking of the course tour—the notion of spending several hours aboard a bouncy school bus, a captive audience for 87 km worth of ups and downs, sounded about as appealing as running the route with my laces tied together. I was intimidated enough by the hills without seeing them ahead of time, and I was more than happy to experience the entire course for the first time on race day.

Just past the Wall of Honour on the uphill is a small sign that, if you’re running with your head down or lost in thought, you could easily miss. The sign reads “Arthur’s Seat” and points left across the street. Carved out of the rock embankment along the road is a shallow recess where 5-time Comrades champion Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his runs. Legend has it that Comrades runners who greet Arthur and place flowers on his seat during the race will enjoy a strong second half.

“Good morning, Arthur” I greeted the former champ tiredly, tapping the rock face along with other runners and snapping a picture before continuing on my way. Superstition or not, this wasn’t the time to be taking chances.

Paying homage to Arthur's Seat at Comrades Marathon

Runners say “good morning” at Arthur’s Seat

I continued to chat intermittently with fellow runners, most of them from South Africa. With more than a marathon in our legs, none of the conversations were particularly deep, but I enjoyed meeting both veterans and first-timers as well as congratulating several 9-time finishers on their impending green numbers.

Glancing down at my pace tattoo, I saw I needed to reach Drummond in 4 hours, 35 minutes to stay on pace for a 9-hour finish. I glanced at my watch as we passed the third cutoff point: 4:28. So far, so good—not too fast, not too slow.

My 9-hour goal wasn’t an arbitrary one. Because another unique (and some might attest, cruel and unusual) aspect of Comrades is the finisher’s medal. The first thing you’ll notice is that the medal is likely the smallest you’ll ever receive, at roughly the size of a quarter. At the same time not all the medals are created equal, with different medals being awarded based on finish time.

The first ten finishers are awarded a Gold medal. Runners who finish out of the top ten but in less than six hours receive the Wally Hayward medal (silver center with gold ring), named after the 5-time Comrades winner who, in 1989 at age 80, also became the race’s oldest finisher in a time of 10:58:03.

Runners who finish in greater than six hours but less than 7:30 earn a silver medal, while runners who finish in greater than 7:30 but less than nine hours—my “A” goal—earn the Bill Rowan medal (a silver center with a bronze ring), named for the first winner of the Comrades Marathon who finished the race in 8 hours, 59 minutes.

A sizable gap separates the final two classes of medal recipients. Runners finishing in greater than nine but less than 11 hours receive a bronze medal, while the Vic Clapham medal (copper) goes to survivors who cross the finish line before the 12-hour cutoff.

Mike Sohaskey at Drummond halfway point of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Halfway home in Drummond—we look like synchronized runners (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

As if running 87 km weren’t enough to test your limits, competing to earn a particular medal (in my case, the Bill Rowan) adds to both the excitement and stress of the race—excitement for those who set realistic goals, stress for those who try to do too much. And heartbreak is all too frequent. Rory had recounted the story of his 2003 down run, when he’d missed his Bill Rowan by 12 seconds and had watched in horror as the puff of smoke from the 9-hour gun went off meters away from him.

According to Coach Norrie Williamson’s Comrades calculator, nine hours was a realistic goal based on my recent finish times. Given the travel and the heat, though, I knew Bill Rowan was a best-case scenario. Had the race been held in Southern California, that would have been a different story. But since I’m much better at running the ups than the downs, I figured I owed it to myself to give it a shot in this, an up year.

Cruising through Drummond, there was no missing the halfway point—it was rocking, the scene decked out in purple and gold with an inflatable arch, banners lining the course, music pumping, spectators screaming and an announcer greeting runners like we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. The raw energy was overwhelming but a definite pick-me-up. And I wish I’d had more time to appreciate it. There was some relief in knowing we were halfway home, but with still more than a marathon to go the relief was short-lived.

Then we were on our way again. “Welcome to the Valley of 1,000 Hills!” someone shouted. There it was again, another landmark with the word “hill” in it. And hadn’t we run that many already?

If I’d known about the one hill that awaited us, though, I might have opted for the other 1,000 instead.

42 km to go.

Concluded in Act 2

2017 Comrades Marathon New Balance shoes

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.
– Robert Frost

What does a popular trail race in Northern California have in common with the New York City Marathon—besides a start and finish line?

Looking around the small grass-and-dirt staging area adjacent to El Dorado County Fire District Station 72, you’d have been hard pressed to come up with the answer. The Way Too Cool (WTC) 50K is annually—and it’s not close—the biggest and most exciting show in town for the residents of Cool, CA, a sleepy community of ~4,100 in the Sierra foothills. In contrast, while the New York City Marathon is a big deal to runners, it’s hardly a blip on the radar to its sleepless host city of 8.5 million.

Not only that, but the hundreds of Camelbak-carrying runners waiting to descend on the Auburn State Recreation Area looked much more relaxed than the tens of thousands of type-A road marathoners who fill the streets of New York every November. Not surprising, given the amount of time and effort required to reach each start line: WTC’s easy car ride and (at most) five-minute walk was a far cry from NYC’s epic “by foot/by subway/by ferry/by bus/by foot” route I’d followed just to reach the start line in Staten Island—a journey that had taken nearly as long as running the next 26.2 miles to Central Park.

With no Brazen Racing event scheduled the same weekend, their regulars convened in Cool

And unlike the raucous crowds that line the streets of the five boroughs, the spectators on hand here in Cool would be largely limited to any locals that may be watching from the trees and foliage, most of them too preoccupied with the start of their mating season to worry about a bunch of heavy-footed humans running away from—what, exactly?

But like New York City is to so many road runners, Way Too Cool is to many trail runners a “must run” race. And just as New York is the largest marathon in North America, so too is WTC its biggest ultramarathon.

That may be where the similarity ends, though, because unlike NYC’s historic 51,000+ finishers, Way Too Cool saw a whopping—brace yourself—818 runners cross triumphantly under its green finish arch in 2016. And that was 9% more than the next largest ultra, the JFK 50 Mile.

Start – mile 8: A speedy start
Only one number mattered, though, as the start line announcer’s countdown and “GO!!!” directive sent the first wave of runners charging down the narrow paved road: 31.1 miles. The distance between us and the finish line.

Cool temperatures and mostly cloudly skies meant perfect running weather, with the rain that had threatened all week long now looking increasingly like tomorrow’s concern. Northern California had already seen more than its share of winter rain, and though the week leading up to the race had stayed dry, the trails still promised to be a sloppy, soggy adventure. Luckily for us, messy footing is a happy alternative to running in the rain.

The first mile+ of the course is a gentle downhill on asphalt to help the legs loosen up and lull you into thinking “Hey, maybe I can run a sub-5:00 50K today”. Before too much false hope could set in, though, a left turn onto the dirt took us down a damp and rocky slope where my progress slowed immediately. Rocky downhills are my least favorite terrain, and I felt like a water buffalo cautiously working my way downhill as my fellow runners flew by me with smooth, confident strides. Better safe than sorry this early in the race—I really didn’t want to land awkwardly, pitch forward face first and end my day before it had even begun.

The eight-mile “warmup” loop at WTC teasingly takes you back to the start and under the green finish arch before sending you on your way for the next 23 miles. This was a fast loop with only minor elevation changes, and unlike most of the trail races I’ve run, everyone here seemed to be running to stay ahead of the person pushing them from behind. With the pack bunched up in the early miles and moving like a fast-flowing stream, I felt pressure to keep up and not be the bottleneck. This made for a faster start than I would have run on my own, but rather than pull back on the throttle I decided to go with the flow, knowing the herd would thin out and my pace would slow after this first loop. Besides, running fast is fun, and I was having fun.

We reached the first stream crossing early in this loop, soaking our feet and getting that initial dunking out of the way quickly. There’d be—I’m guesstimating here—10-15 actual stream crossings along the course, places where I’d have no choice but to wade through shin-high (or deeper) water. Not to mention countless other instances where the path of least resistance required me to hurdle small streams or slog through soft mud. In many places, the trail had been obliterated and replaced by a muddy swamp of sunken footprints.

Returning to the staging area at mile 8, I saw Katie for the first and only time and briefly checked into the aid station for a quick sip of water and a bite of banana. One of the best things about ultras is the food at the aid stations, and WTC was no exception: offerings included bananas, pretzels, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, boiled potatoes, M&Ms and Rice Krispie treats as well as “energy” (i.e. sugary) options like Clif Bloks and various GU flavors. Not to be outdone, the drink menu featured water, Coke, Sprite, GU Roctane and even warm chicken broth.

As I learned at the Ice Age Trail 50 last May, one of the keys to ultra success is getting in and out of each aid station—inviting though they may be—as quickly as possible, because time spent noshing and stretching at aid stations adds up in a hurry.
> Average pace (miles 1–8): 9:46/mile

Looping back thru the staging area in mile 8

Miles 9 – 14: A river runs through it
WTC may be the nation’s largest ultramarathon, but it’s a far cry from the world’s largest. That distinction belongs to South Africa’s finest, the 90-km (56-mile) Comrades Marathon which each year accepts 20,000 entries from around the world. In fact, I’d signed up for WTC in part as a well-timed training run for Comrades, which I’ll be running this June.

Headed north away from the staging area, the herd thinned and I decided to let any determined faster runners behind me forge ahead. While the first loop had been a nice way to knock out a few miles and get the blood flowing, my idea of an enjoyable 50K wasn’t going to be acting as someone else’s hare for the day.

Mile 10

For the next two miles the dirt, grass and mud trail followed a gradual downhill trajectory into the WTC “bowl”, crossing Hwy 49 before meeting up with the gravel Western States Trail for a smooth six miles along the American River. This for me was the scenic highlight of the course—being able to focus my attention on the tranquil river rather than the technical singletrack was a nice change of pace, one that allowed me to relax and bask in the beauty of my surroundings. And my legs responded, clocking an 8:35 mile 12 before the trail headed uphill away from the river and I wisely dialed down the pace again.

Owing to the cool temperatures I’d opted to wear my hydration pack minus the hydration, simply as a means of carrying my own nutrition including the baby food pouches that had served me so well at Ice Age. Every so often I’d pop a Clif Blok in my mouth while running, just to keep my blood sugar levels up. And despite still feeling fully charged at the mile 14 aid station, I took the time to down another bite of banana and a packet of GU before charging on. Blood glucose, check!
> Average pace (miles 9–14): 9:37/mile

Middle Fork of the American River

Miles 15 – 21: Up and out of the Bowl
Road marathoners quickly learn that while mile 13.1 may be the actual midway point of the race, mile 16 or even 18 represents its practical (i.e. psychological) midpoint. Not so with ultras, at least not for me—as soon as I hit the midway point at WTC (mile 15.5), I quietly celebrated my “halfway to home” status and started counting down to the finish.

In mile 16 we traversed yet another type of terrain: a river bar, a gray and brown field of water-polished rocks of all sizes, reminiscent of the moraines in Alaska and Montana left behind by the slow movement of glaciers over time. More than any other race I’ve run, WTC scores an A+ for the diversity of its terrain. Over the course of 30+ miles we encountered asphalt, dirt, red dirt, mud, short grass, tall grass, gravel, dead leaves, roots, pine needles, toppled trees, foot bridges, water crossings—you name it, we probably ran on (or through) it. A kick-ass choice for my first trail run of 2017.

Starting at around mile 17, the course took a severe upward turn and the pace slowed significantly as we climbed out of the Bowl. Miles 17–20 were an uphill struggle, penance for the easy descent that had led us down into the Bowl.

I shadowed one seemingly tireless woman in these middle miles, both of us clearly determined to run as much of the uphill as possible. Passing a fellow runner catching his breath on the side of the trail with his hands on his waist, she glanced over at him and said, with what sounded like a smile in her voice (I could be wrong), “Tired?” With that one word, and without pausing, she blew by him with me in close pursuit.

River bar, mile 16

Reaching one particularly high creek crossing, I momentarily lost sight of the orange visor and dark ponytail before spying a flash of movement just downstream. I turned to see my rabbit crossing a wooden plank spanning the creek with the help of a rubber garden hose tied between two trees on either side of the water. I followed, grateful for not having to wade through cold, waist-deep water.

The pattern continued unabated: slop through mud, wade through water, slop through mud, wade through water. I could only imagine the sheer joy of navigating this course during the steady downpour of 2016.

On the bright side, the swampy conditions meant the locals were out in force, and their croaking resonated at several points along the course. We were, after all, intruding on their mating season—hence the frog theme of the race. Their throaty calls evoked childhood memories of warm spring nights in Texas, and distracted from my mounting fatigue.

By the time I reached the mile 21 aid station, I’d lost my rabbit—or rather, she’d lost me. I drowned my sorrows in a packet of baby food and another bite of banana, threw back a few sips of caffeinated energy drink and set my sights on Goat Hill.
> Average pace (miles 15–21): 11:34/mile

Miles 22 – 26: Gunning for Goat Hill
Miles 22–26 of any 50K are sort of the dead zone.

Despite the psychological boost of knowing you have single-digit miles to go, you still have an appreciable distance to cover, plus you’ve yet to reach the marathon milestone at mile 26. And depending on the terrain, your quads and knees are probably starting to stiffen up, making it increasingly tough to speed up and negotiate technical footing. Especially when you’re constantly wading through shin-high water or trying not to sacrifice your shoes to the mud gods.

And speaking of technical footing: as the miles wear on, the mental focus and vigilance needed to constantly be scanning three steps ahead for rocks, roots etc. start to take their toll. As the body tires, the mind wanders and the odds of a misstep grow with every footfall.

Mile 23

So yeah, 21–26 may be my least favorite miles of any 50K—they’re challenging mentally and they’re challenging physically. And in the case of WTC, I’d been warned that at the end of this relaxed, gently rolling stretch awaited Goat Hill.

Welcome to the Way Too Cool 10K, I thought as my Garmin beeped to signal mile 25.

Way Too Cool wasn’t a target race for me—rather, it was a timely opportunity to run some beautiful trails with some excellent friends, at a time when I had no other races on the docket. So there’d been no taper for this, no gradual decrease in training mileage to ensure my legs were at their well-rested bestest. Nope, WTC in effect would be a slightly longer version of my usual weekend long run. Plus, we’d returned from a work conference in Florida earlier in the week, just in time to hop a plane to the Bay Area. So sleep hadn’t been a priority, either. And now, as I chugged through the woods on cruise control, the bill came due for my pre-race nonchalance as a wave of fatigue washed over me.

The good news: the mile 26 aid station now lay less than ¾ of a mile ahead. The less good news: in that intervening ¾ of a mile stood Goat Hill. Someone would later tell me the course’s most intimidating hill had been extended this year, making it longer than usual. In any case, Goat Hill was a tragedy in three acts—where I’d been expecting one brief but nasty ascent, instead I got triple my money’s worth. Brief stretches of level ground—just long enough to make you think you’d reached the top—twice transitioned into another short but steep incline. On the bright side, there was no sense in even trying to run this, so I opted for the tried-and-true hands-on-quads strategy to power-hike my way uphill.

“Passing… on… the… right,” I laughed as I slowly trudged past another runner who’d stopped to catch his breath.

But like all good things, all bad hills must end, and finally I emerged at the top to find the mile 26 aid station awaiting. This, I thought, would be an awesome place for the finish line of the Way Too Cool Marathon.
> Average pace (miles 22–26): 12:34/mile; 18:45 for mile 26

Goat Hill, part one

Mile 27 – finish: Are we there yet?
One more baby food pouch, one more bite of banana and one more sip of energy drink later, I did a few knee raises to loosen my quads and hip flexors, took a deep breath and pointed myself down the trail toward home.

I soon realized there’d be no relief in these last five miles. A series of wet, rocky downhills followed as the trail seemed to get even more technical. Not wanting to do anything stupid (well, stupider than running 31 miles), and with my quads and knees feeling increasingly like stone pillars, I switched gears to “slow and steady” mode. 26+ miles into a long and enjoyable training run, this was no time to go hero on the course and do something stupid.

My only real time goal for the day was simple, and hardly a stretch: anything better than my current 50K PR of 6:33:45, set four years earlier at the Harding Hustle where temperatures reached 100°F. That effort in turn had eclipsed my first 50K finish time of 7:39:51 at the 2012 Brazen Diablo Trails Challenge (my first-ever blog post)—there too temperatures had peaked in the 90s, and I’d nearly left a kidney on the course owing to overheating and dehydration. Talk about rookie mistakes and learning the hard way…

One of the course’s many DIY shoe washing stations

I figured with today’s cool temperatures I’d have a legit shot of breaking six hours, thus giving me one seven-hour 50K, one six-hour 50K and one five-hour 50K on my résumé. Hard to argue with that rate of improvement.

Right now, though, as I trudged along feeling more tortoise than hare, I sure didn’t feel like a man in pursuit of a sub-six finish. Gently flowing rivulets that I would have vaulted in stride earlier in the day became three-step exercises in pause-plant-leap.

Ever helpful, my Garmin chirped to indicate the end of mile 28. Easy peazy, I told myself. Welcome to the Way Too Cool 5K. Suddenly, three miles felt like an absurdly long way.

Crossing Hwy 49 once again, I flashed a weak smile at the folks directing traffic just ahead of the final aid station, which I passed without stopping. Not now, no more time to waste, not with the finish line so close.

“Half a mile to go!” a couple shouted as I passed. “You’re everyone’s best friend!” I responded. Several spectators in the last mile commented on the fact that I was still smiling. I’d heard that in Louisiana too… and why wouldn’t I be smiling? With everything that’s going on in the world right now, how lucky am I to be able to run 31 miles just for fun? It’s something I’ll never, ever, never never take for granted.

At the same time I was confused. Half a mile to go? My Garmin hadn’t even reached 30 miles, so this was probably another case of spectator overzealousness, something I’ve seen more times than I can count—like the fellow at mile 20 of a marathon who shouts “ALMOST THERE!!!”. And yet now that the seed was planted, I felt one last burst of energy kick in, propelling me onward.

Luckily in this case, the spectator was right. As the inflatable green finish arch came into view once again, I glanced down at my wrist and was amazed to see a time of just over 5h30m. As much as I’d slowed after my speedy pace in the early miles, I thought for sure I’d be pushing six hours. Even if the course had been a full 31.1 miles, I still would have had plenty of buffer to break six hours.

With a final turn and a wave at Katie, I hopped one last patch of mud and crossed under the arch with a shiny new 50K personal best of 5:35:39. Yes the course had been roughly a mile short (according to my GPS and many others on Strava), but I figured that was a fair tradeoff for all the stream crossings and mud I’d lugged on the soles of my shoes for the past 5½ hours.

Two friends I’d met through Brazen Racing, Patricia and Yoly, were the first smiling faces I saw on crossing the finish—Patricia hung the finisher medal around my neck while Yoly greeted me with her usual huge smile. Way Too Cool mission accomplished!
> Average pace (miles 27–30.1): 13:29/mile

I briefly chatted with Yoly and some fellow finishers before reuniting with Katie, who once again had somehow found enjoyment in hanging out in the middle of nowhere while I ran in circles for nearly six hours. We diffused over to the vendor tents where a nice post-race spread awaited, including warm soup to warm my innards. As I stood sipping at the soup I missed another Brazen buddy, Mike B., finish strong with his own PR of 6:05:xx. Dammit, I’d had no idea he was that close behind me.

Mike and I shared congrats and then made our way toward the Sufferfest Brewing beer tent. There we met more friends before Katie and I eventually found our way to the most important tent of all, where volunteers stood handing out the race’s signature frog cupcakes. I still remember my brother and sister-in-law, after running WTC back in 2012, showing up at our place in Berkeley with a gift of frog cupcakes, the dashboard of their car smeared green where one rogue cupcake had tried unsuccessfully to make its escape.

And with that, our work here in Cool was done. Saying our farewells, we made the long three-minute walk back to the car before putting the Sierra Foothills in our rearview mirror. For now. Hopefully I still have many memorable road and trail races ahead of me—throughout the state, across the country and around the world. But will I ever find a more welcoming yet challenging race on a more diverse and beautiful course than Way Too Cool?

Frog-et about it.

Way Too Happy finishers (photo Yoly P.)

BOTTOM LINE: Way Too Cool earns its name, from the awesome scenery to the race day temperatures to the chilly water that awaits at every stream crossing. As the largest trail race in the country, it’s a bucket list event for serious dirtbags. And you may never find a more scenic and diverse course than the network of trails you’ll follow on your 30+ mile journey along the Middle Fork of the American River Canyon and through the Auburn State Recreation Area.

The North Face Endurance Challenge, my benchmark for trail races in California, is a much different course than WTC—its jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge notwithstanding, the trails and scenery at TNFEC are less varied than at WTC.

The reasonably challenging course (4,000 ft of elevation gain/loss) is predominantly single-track with no two-way traffic, so slower runners need never worry about the possibility of colliding with speedier oncoming elite and sub-elite runners. There’s even significant overlap (roughly 12 miles) with the iconic Western States 100 Trail. Along the way you’ll have the occasional croaking of the locals (it’s frog mating season in Cool) to relax your mind and remind you that you’re far away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of urbania. Plus, in early March you can be confident of cooler race day temps—the real variable when it comes to the weather is how wet you’ll get.

The icing on the cake at WTC is… well, the icing on the cake. Cupcake that is, since you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the race’s signature frog cupcakes at the finish line festival. What better way to quickly normalize blood sugar levels?

Yeah, I know you’re green with envy right now

PRODUCTION: Smooth sailing with no real complaints. Pre-race packet pickup gave us an opportunity to support the local Auburn Running Company, which feels like a shrine of sorts to the iconic Western States 100 Endurance Run.

Race day itself flowed seamlessly: the course was well marked with ribbons, leaving no chance for a wrong turn even after my mind switched over to auto-pilot mode in the later miles. And the finish-line festival offered one of the more interesting assortment of vendor tents, with the presenting sponsor Clif Bar joined by GU, Camelbak, Dickey’s BBQ, Red Bull, Sufferfest Brewing, Salomon, Rock Tape, KaiaFit, Squirrel’s Nut Butter (great to prevent chafing!) and Monsters of Massage.

Aside from the number of stream crossings, the only real issue for most runners will be the sparsity of aid stations, which were few and far between at miles 8, 14, 19, 26 and (I think) 29. Thanks to the cooler temps I didn’t need to carry my own hydration, but I did bring my own baby food pouches just in case I felt my blood sugar dropping.

A note about parking: At our pre-race dinner the night before (at La Fornaretta, a comfy Italian restaurant in nearby Newcastle), there was anxious discussion about how early folks—including several WTC veterans—were planning to arrive the next morning to secure a good parking spot. Many folks planned to show up over two hours early and nap in their cars, just so they’d be assured of a parking spot as close to the start line as possible. Not willing to forego that much sleep but wanting to play it safe, Katie and I decided to show up just over an hour before the start (way early for us)—and we ended up parking easily in the empty “overflow” lot of the local Holiday Market, no more than a five-minute walk from the start line. Other cars continued to park near us for the next hour or so as we sat waiting. In other words, parking is easy no matter what time you get there. Cool is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town so there’s no traffic, even on race day. Many runners park directly adjacent to the fire station (start line) on St. Florian Ct, which the race organizers close to traffic an hour or so before the race, But there’s no need to park that close unless maybe you’re expecting heavy rain and want immediate access to your car after the race. And you’ll benefit much more from the two+ hours of extra sleep than from the primo parking spot.

SWAG: Not much to recommend here. Honestly, the shirt was awful—a thin, poorly fitting Greenlayer tee that went immediately into the donation pile. Luckily the finisher medal was better, small and simply designed with the race name and frog logo (apparently the medal is the same every year, the only difference being ribbon color). The swag was the only aspect of the race that wasn’t way too cool, though trail races get the benefit of the doubt since trail runners tend not to be swagophiles like the typical road runner. If only cupcakes counted as swag…

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
March 4, 2017 (start time 8:00am)
30.14 miles in Cool, CA
Finish time & pace: 5:35:39 (first time running Way Too Cool, 3rd 50K overall), 11:08/mile
Finish place: 201 overall, 52/159 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 700 (419 men, 281 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy (start temp 46°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,029 ft ascent, 4,023 ft descent