Archive for the ‘RACE REPORTS’ Category

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

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

Sometimes, timing is everything.

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

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

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

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

Alas.

Run 3B2G sign at LIttle Rock Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Bridges Marathon course map

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

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

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

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

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

Two Rivers Park Bridge at dawn

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

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

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

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

Santa holding the American flag at 3 Bridges Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

Big Dam Bridge at mile 18 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 12 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 10 turnaround at the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

Halfway arch at 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Running on Big Dam Bridge during 3 Bridges Marathon

Flags a-flyin’ on the Big Dam Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 22 on the Two Rivers Park Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

The home stretch on the Two Rivers Park Bridge

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

That had hurt — literally and figuratively.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Santa Claus at the 3 Bridges Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote from President Clinton's 1993 inaugural address

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

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

Little Rock Central HIgh School

Little Rock Central High School

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

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

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

Finish line selfie at 3 Bridges Marathon

25 down, 25 to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3 Bridges Marathon medal at LIttle Rock State Capitol

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map (Dec 2018)

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot of snow.

Eight inches of snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bustling downtown Boonsboro, site of the JFK 50 start line

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

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

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

Mile 1 through Boonsboro, only 49 to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now imagine 10 miles of this

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

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

No, I was quite happy with my pace.

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

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

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

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

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

A caravan of runners exits the Appalachian Trail down Weverton Cliffs

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

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

Happiness is a warm, dry pair of socks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The miles crept by like the drip, drip, drip of a slowly leaking faucet, so many muddy miles all blending together one after another after another. I tried to focus, to keep my legs churning and the odometer rolling. Mile 23, 24, 25, 26…

There’s never a bad time for a Katie sighting

Finally, in mile 28 at the Antietam Aid Station, another Katie sighting — my reward for reaching the halfway point. Unfortunately my joy was short-lived as, after noshing on a pb&j sandwich and doing a few knee lifts to loosen my battered quads, I took a few deep breaths and continued on my way. Immediately I looked forward to seeing her again at mile 38.

Over the course of the day I was overtaken by a number of runners; only one, though, stood out for the prosthetic running blade he wore below his right knee. As an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technician, Adam Popp had been critically injured in Afghanistan in 2007, losing his leg and sustaining traumatic brain injury. Now here he was chasing his second consecutive JFK 50 finish, a stunning feat — I’d barely survived the Appalachian Trail on my own two legs! — and one he’d accomplish in an amazing 9 hours, 34 minutes, 29 seconds. Talk about grit. Much respect, Adam!

Though the flat, hard-packed Towpath was a high school track compared to the Appalachian Trail, it too had absorbed more than its share of rainfall, and in several stretches every step remained an adventure. My foot would slide forward or sideways or even backwards on the muddy trail, the ground working to siphon my remaining energy through the soles of my shoes. As messy as the Towpath was, though, we runners all owe a debt of gratitude to the selfless volunteers who apparently cleared it of large debris the day before the race. Huge thanks to those valiant souls for making a tough situation a bit more manageable.

Trailing the unbreakable Adam Popp at the Antietam Aid Station, mile 28

The miles clicked by — 32, 33, 34, 35, the Potomac our constant if inscrutable companion. Glancing across at West Virginia, I silently promised that I’d return soon for a proper introduction.

Somewhere along this stretch an enormous tree had fallen across the trall, and I expended more energy than I would have liked climbing over its massive trunk.

Aside from aid station stops, I motored along at a fairly consistent 11+ minute/mile pace. But the aid stations were my lifelines, and none more so than the 38 Special (which I actually reached in mile 40). Here I met Katie one last time and then sat briefly to rest my legs, refuel my body and gather my wits for the final 10+ mile push.

The 38 Special aid station featured Christmas cookies, Santa Claus himself and YES, as promised the red velvet cake heard ‘round the world. Likewise as promised, the mere thought of red velvet cake at that moment made my head and stomach spin with nausea.

The 38 Special Aid Station

That said, all of the aid station volunteers were simply amazing — always upbeat, always helpful, and always responsive with everything from an easy smile to your favorite aid station snack to just about any other extemporaneous request, within reason. The volunteers collectively were a highlight of the day, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to endure the endless monotony of the Towpath without them.

JFK himself once said, ““We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” On race day, the JFK 50 volunteers made a huge difference in every runner’s life.

With what can only be described as grudging acceptance, I forced myself up out of my new favorite chair, told Katie I’d see her at the finish and set out, motivated by my desire to reach the end of the C&O Canal Towpath as quickly as possible — which under the circumstances, would not be quick at all. But as I left the 38 Special in my rearview mirror, I missed what would soon earn its place among our most amusing Maryland moments.

Between crewing & spectating stops, Katie happened upon Antietam National Battlefield

Anticipating my needs and then some, Katie had met me at the 38 Special aid station carrying a duffel packed with gear and supplies. After we parted ways and still carrying the duffel, she tried to shortcut her way back to her car by scrambling down the embankment that separated the course from her vehicle, only to end up losing her balance and toppling in the mud. So even though I was the one who ran 11 miles on the slimy Appalachian Trail and another 26 on the slippy slidey Towpath, guess which of us ended up taking home more souvenir JFK 50 mud at the end of the day?

Katie’s clearly one tough mudder.

By this time, my brain was anticipating mile 42 with the same single-minded zeal it normally reserves for finish lines. And at long last my diligence was rewarded as I crossed the final muddy timing mat of the day to signal the end of the C&O Canal Towpath. But the Towpath wouldn’t have been the Towpath without one last swath of sticky mud to circumvent as if to say, “Thanks for coming, sorry you can’t stay.” If Mother Nature could talk, I’m guessing the Towpath would have a sardonic sense of humor.

And I was so over it.

“We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much, to disdain the future now.”
Tentatively I tested my legs on the reliably unyielding asphalt as a volunteer wrapped a reflective armband around my biceps, an indication sunset wasn’t that far away. Then, as if to remind us all that the world’s not flat, the course jagged immediately uphill for a slow ¾ mile before leveling out on its final approach toward Williamsport.

Staying to the left at all times while traffic zoomed by a safe distance to our right, the last eight miles led us for the most part along rolling country roads. And if not for my eagerness to be done, I would have genuinely savored the wide-open expanses of rustic Northern Maryland.

Mile 44, with nothing but open sky and open roads ahead

Few of my fellow runners seemed to be in a hurry, the exception being a swiftly moving woman who, after leapfrogging me a couple of times, passed one final time while telling me, “Don’t worry, you’ll catch me soon.” With that, she turned on the afterburners and disappeared into the distance. Needless to say, I didn’t see her again.

For the first time mile markers appeared along the side of the road, more slowly than I would have liked but reminiscent of Comrades in that these counted down the distance to go rather than counting up the distance already run. This was a nice touch and especially once we passed five miles to go.

Abbreviated stops at the final two aid stations gave my legs just enough oomph for one last push. The Saturday sounds of college football on the radio greeted us at the mile 45 aid station, where friendly volunteers chatted excitedly as a mediocre University of Maryland football team gave a highly ranked Ohio State squad all it could handle. And at the mile 48 aid station I stopped just long enough for a few quick knee lifts and to text Katie my location — I wanted her to know my timing, since I was hoping she’d opted to wait inside the warm school adjacent to the finish line.

Mile 50 of the JFK 50, aka The End

I knew I’d reached the home stretch when I crested East Sunset Ave and saw the widely spaced orange pylons lining the center of the road. With every step I focused all my energy on reaching the next pylon, the booming voice of the PA announcer guiding me home until finally the long-awaited black-and-red finish arch came into view. Throwing out my arms to hug the sky, I high-fived the welcoming spirits of our 35th president and his strong-willed brother as I stopped the clock on my own Kennedy March in an official time of 10:24:33.

As challenging as the past 10½ hours had been, I couldn’t imagine walking a mile — much less 50 — on the Appalachian Trail in RFK’s leather oxford dress shoes.

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky (photo: H3 Photography)

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”
With gratitude beyond words I accepted my silver finisher’s medal and threw my arms around Katie for an extended embrace, before turning back to the finish to await our friend Meg’s arrival. Luckily we didn’t have long to wait as she crossed the line still looking strong in just seconds over her 10½ hour time goal, an impressive finish in her first 50-miler and especially given the conditions.

Then we all retreated to the Springfield Middle School cafeteria to warm up, change clothes and hopefully find something my stomach could digest. The setting sun reminded me that I’d just spent the entire day, sun up to sundown, running across Washington County.

Unlike previous 50-milers, this time I was able to find post-race comfort in sitting (progress!). And so I sat, for a long time letting the heat of the bustling cafeteria together with my own triumphant glow warm me. As a vegetarian the warmth was better than the post-race food, though dietary preferences aside the culinary options were well above average and included chili (served as a chili cheese dog or Sloppy Joe), pizza and — what else? — red velvet cake.

Meg and I compared notes and medals, the latter of which came in both gold and silver varieties. Not coincidentally, my own silver medal looks very much like a Kennedy half dollar.

Meeting 50 Stater Meg for the first time was a highlight… congrats and well done, Meg!

Jared Hazen of Flagstaff, Arizona had been the first runner across the finish line in a mind-boggling time of 5:34:21, the second-fastest time in the event’s 56-year history. And though I’m the first to admit I’m not an elite athlete, still it boggles my mind to think any human could have run that course nearly five hours faster than I had. To give you a better sense for the impact of the course conditions, I finished in 297th place overall, whereas the 297th place finisher one year earlier had clocked a time of 10:01:10, over 23 minutes speedier.

And in a stark example of ultrarunning’s cruel streak, the course’s most loyal supporter would ultimately become its most heartbreaking casualty. Kim Byron, 63, fell short in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. It’s safe to say we’ll all be rooting for Kim next year.

So in the end, I’d failed to eclipse my 50+ mile personal record set at the 56-mile Comrades Marathon five months earlier. Heck, never mind the PR — I hadn’t even broken ten hours. But on the bright side (because there’s always a bright side), I’d done enough nutrition-wise along the way to fuel me consistently throughout the race, without any of the issues I’d experienced at Comrades.

My real enemy on this day hadn’t been my stomach for a change, but rather my quads. Thanks to all the mud, the muscles in my upper legs felt like they’d just gone 12 rounds with a young Mike Tyson. And like so many other proud fighters who had, they’d thrown in the towel early — only this time their stubborn corner had refused to stop the fight.

My quads nearly seceded at the thought, until I realized this was in celebration of his 100th birthday in 2017

I came away from this race thinking four 50+ milers in 18 months was more than enough, and that maybe it was time to scale back a bit. Sure, conventional ultrarunning wisdom dictates that I take the next step up to 100K or even 100 miles, but I have no desire — I know I could persevere through 100 miles, but what’s the point? I’d much rather speed up again than slow down further, because I still believe it’s more difficult to run a fast marathon than a slow 100 miles. And I have no desire at this point to become an ultrahiker. I can see myself potentially stretching for 100K (and I have just the race in mind), but 100 miles ain’t happening anytime soon. Though if I’ve learned one thing in my running career, it’s that I should never say never.

The next morning we bid Hagerstown goodbye and hit the road for Bethesda to visit friends, having added a patriotic 24th chapter to my 50 States memoir. As a participant in what JFK once termed “the vigorous life,” I’d accepted one of our nation’s preeminent challenges and prevailed in conditions that would have made even Teddy Roosevelt and his Marines proud.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

BOTTOM LINE:
First held in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, the JFK 50 Mile is the country’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. It’s an iconic race that draws some of the country’s most elite runners, as well as folks like me. The event remains a military race at heart with its most prestigious award, the Kennedy Cup, being awarded to its top military team. Buoyed by 56 years of history, this is a must-run race for serious ultrarunners, one that inspires fierce loyalty among its finishers — case in point Kimball Byron, who sadly fell short this year in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. With limited elevation change after the first 16 miles, this is also a great option for anyone looking to tackle their first 50-miler.

The JFK 50 course is part road (paved), part trail (unpaved). About 80% of the course runs on the unpaved Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal Towpath, with the paved 20% coming at the beginning and end. The course is divided into three main sections, starting with the Appalachian Trail (~11 of the first 16 miles) and moving on to the unpaved/crushed gravel C&O Canal Towpath (26 miles) before finishing on paved, rolling country roads (8 miles). The good news is you’ll get through the toughest section of the course (i.e. the Appalachian Trail) at the beginning; the bad news is that the hills and highly technical terrain will sap a lot of the energy and bounce from your legs. This was especially true in 2018, when record annual rainfall and eight inches of snow less than 36 hours earlier created trail conditions that were, according to one 31-time finisher, “the worst ever.” So my recommendation would be to prepare for the worst and then be pleasantly surprised if/when you luck into dry (or at least not marshy) trail conditions.

Despite having four 50+ milers under my belt, this was the first race where I can recall feeling bored for long stretches, particularly on the flat 26-mile C&O Canal Towpath along the Potomac River where the scenery never changed. As one RaceRaves reviewer put it, it was like the running version of Groundhog’s Day. With no hills, no change of scenery and no headphones allowed on the course, I spent much of the middle 26 miles in my own head trying to focus on something other than my heavy quads and mounting fatigue, while slowly ticking off the miles one… at… a… time. If not for having to negotiate frequent mud puddles, I could have run this entire stretch on autopilot.

So although I’d be curious to take another crack at this course under drier conditions, given that we live 2,500 miles away and I still have 26 states remaining, I won’t be returning for a rematch anytime soon. Someday, maybe…

Inspiration is a tough-as-nails 14-year-old in the fight of his life against an insidious disease (and yes, Tyler lives in Idaho)

PRODUCTION:
Race day was a smooth production for the most part. Aid stations were well stocked (which for me means peanut butter & jelly along with bananas), though I could feel my insulin levels spike just surveying the amount of cookies and sugary foods available. And the outstanding volunteers were ready to assist with pretty much anything you’d want or need, from food to Vaseline to good old-fashioned encouragement. As is the case with most events and especially the best ones, the JFK 50 doesn’t happen without the tireless support of its volunteers who sacrifice their day so the rest of us can chase our goals and play in the mud.

Conveniently held at the host hotel (the Homewood Suites by Hilton Hagerstown), the race expo was your typical low-key ultramarathon packet pickup with tables from Altra Running (the presenting sponsor), a local running store and the JFK 50 folks themselves selling race merch past and present. The organizers even created a cool booklet featuring statistics from past JFK 50 finishers and course record holders plus a detailed rundown of historical sites along the course, very few of which you’ll be able to appreciate on race day.

We even managed a post-race visit to the National Portrait Gallery

The post-race spread in the Springfield Middle School cafeteria was low-key but fairly generous including pizza, chili (Sloppy Joe or chili cheese dog, anyone?) and assorted aid station snacks such as pretzels, M&Ms and red velvet cake. Massages were also available for those who were willing to freshen up first. Most importantly for me, the indoor cafeteria offered a warm place to sit and recover while reveling in the accomplishment of another 50-mile run.

I’d recommend to the organizers that the pre-race briefing begin (or end) five minutes earlier, to allow for last-minute porta-potty stops before the race start. By the time I exited the crowded gym after the briefing, took care of business and then walked briskly to the start line, the starter’s pistol had already fired and I was among the last runners to start. Not a terrible thing except the JFK 50 has no chip timing at the start, so the clock started while I was still ¼ mile behind the line in my wind pants and jacket. Oops.

SWAG:
From what I can tell, the JFK 50 finisher medal never changes aside from the year because similar to Comrades, why fix what ain’t broke? The iconic award is a silver- (or gold)-colored medal depicting JFK in profile, reminiscent of (but larger than) the half dollar coin that bears his likeness. The medal hangs from a patriotic red, white and blue ribbon. Like many trail races, the shirt is a simple cotton short-sleeve tee featuring the race’s patriotic logo on front with sponsors listed on back. And though I have no shortage of race tees, I’ll happily wear this one if for no other reason than its promise as a conversation starter.

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating: 

FINAL STATS:
Nov 17, 2018 (start time 6:30 am, sunrise 6:57 am)
50.94 miles (includes ~0.2 miles extra due to starting behind start line) from Boonsboro to Williamsport, MD (state 24 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 10:24:33 (first time running the JFK 50), 12:14/mile
Moving time & pace: 10:07:55, 11:56/mile
Finish place: 297 overall, 82/208 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 762 (591 men, 171 women); 868 starters (663 men, 205 women)
Race weather: cold (39°F) & partly cloud at the start & finish, overcast throughout the race
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,862 ft gain, 2,953 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 239 ft, 1,749 ft

You have to motivate yourself with challenges. That’s how you know you’re still alive.
– Jerry Seinfeld

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Des Moines Marathon finish

If the tights fit, you must commit, I thought wryly.

I emerged from the fitting room to find the only other customer in the store waiting for me. “I’ll take ‘em,” I told Katie. Relieved to have found my size (on clearance — he shoots, he scores!), I paid quickly and we hustled out of the REI and into the frosty West Des Moines night, the helpful green-vested team member locking the doors behind us.

The last thing I’d expected, 11 hours before I’d be running my second marathon of the weekend, was an impromptu visit to REI on the outskirts of town minutes before closing time. Then again, the second-to-last thing I’d expected was that the race day forecast in Des Moines would suddenly dip below the 30°F mark, after we’d already boarded the plane from Los Angeles. Meaning my cold weather running layers were nestled all snug in their closet at home.

I’m no fan of running in tights; I live in Los Angeles, after all. But with roughly the same amount of body fat as Wile E. Coyote and an immune system already compromised by the Kansas City Marathon earlier in the day, I didn’t want to do anything stupid(er). I hadn’t raced in temperatures this cold since I’d last run in tights, and that had been in Antarctica 5½ years earlier.

As added incentive thanks to Katie’s sister Kristina, I needed to stay healthy for Game One of the World Series in Boston on Tuesday, less than 72 hours away. And if that had required running 26.2 miles in an aseptic sumo suit, I would happily have done that too.

So yeah, like I said — bring on the tights.

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

Hawkeye State of mind (start to Drake University, mile 13)
So far, so good, find a rhythm, I thought as we retraced our steps back across the Des Moines River. The modern brick facades of downtown Des Moines rose up to greet us on our return. Where’ve you been? they seemed to say. We haven’t seen you in minutes!

Though my new tights felt good in the crisp, clear morning air, here in the early going my legs clearly didn’t have their usual springiness, and I was laboring to stay with the 3:55 pace group. Certainly the cold weather had something to do with my struggles, but more to blame was the previous day’s effort in Missouri. Time would tell whether — and to what extent — I could shake Kansas City out of my legs.

And therein lies the “challenge” of the I-35 Challenge — two marathons in two states in two days, 200 miles apart. Missouri on Saturday, Iowa on Sunday. Two of the best marathons in the Midwest in a single weekend.

Downtown skyline seen in Mile 1 of Des Moines Marathon

Downtown skyline seen across the Des Moines River, mile 1

Rewind to Saturday, and after a quick post-race lunch in Kansas City followed by a smooth drive north on I-35, we’d rolled up to Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines (site of the Scheels Sports & Fitness Expo) as the last rays of sunlight danced warmly on the Iowa State Capitol building, its golden dome shining like King Midas’ crown. Unfortunately most of the expo vendors had called it a day by the time we arrived, but we were able to stop by and say hello to our buddy Blake Boldon, the tireless Director of the Drake University Relays and Drake Road Races and the former Executive Director of the Indy Monumental Marathon. On our way out we also purchased several raffle tickets in support of one of our favorite organizations, Special Olympics Iowa. And the full-zip Leslie Jordan jacket (rather than tech shirt) I received with my registration is one of the sweetest pieces of swag in my wardrobe. Nicely done, Des Moines!

Des Moines Marathon start line

You better be fast if you’re running in sub-freezing temps in a singlet and shorts

Knowing better than to push the pace this early I dropped back, content to run on autopilot behind the 4-hour pace group. I needed to play it safe so I’d still have gas in the tank at the end. My most important consideration today had nothing to do with the clock — rather, I wanted to soak up the scenery and enjoy my 26.2-mile tour of Des Moines. Because there’s no better way to see a new city than on foot.

Runners around me chatted away. Lively conversation is common in the early, feel-good stages of a marathon and one that typically diminishes as fatigue sets in, before ceasing altogether in the final stages as the body shifts into survival mode. And speaking of shifting, the constant shifting of gears on Des Moines’ rolling, residential course — up, down, up, down — exposed and exacerbated the heaviness in my legs, the endurance equivalent of pouring salt on an open wound. C’mon legs, show me what you got!

The real surprise so far, as someone visiting Kansas City and Des Moines for the first time, had been the decidedly non-flat terrain — who knew these two cities were so hilly? Unlike Kansas City, though, most of the hills in Des Moines’ clustered in the first eight miles.

Luckily the surrounding scenery — more suburban and rustic than KC, with no shortage of tree-lined residential neighborhoods — helped to distract from the struggle in my legs. I imagined the tag on my new tights: 90% polyester/9% spandex/1% concrete. So THAT’S why they were on the clearance rack…

Polk County Courthouse

Polk County Courthouse

I’d definitely appreciated the tights on Sunday morning during the frigid 10-minute walk from our hotel to the start line, erected in the shadow of stately Polk County Courthouse. Our start time would be a leisurely 8:00am, presumably in support of all the I-35 Challenge runners for whom that extra hour of sleep would be bigly yuge. And despite a restless night’s sleep thanks to the usual post-marathon one-two punch of elevated core temperature and immunosuppression, I felt remarkably good as I bid Katie farewell and diffused into the start corral. Certainly I felt better than the poor woman who then stepped up to the mic and proceeded to forget the words to the national anthem.

Not being the superstitious type, I hadn’t taken that as a bad omen. I just wanted to start running so I could stop shivering. Being skinny has both its benefits and its drawbacks.

Now entering mile 5 and like déjà vu all over again, the rousing theme from Rocky blasted from a set of loudspeakers on a front lawn, just as it had in Kansas City. Its sheer volume drove us onward while driving the overmatched speakers to the brink of distortion.

That same mile also featured one of my more whimsical race-day sightings — an enormous inflatable Stay Puft Marshmallow Man of Ghostbusters fame, standing guard over another front yard with his unnervingly cheery smile and with arms open wide, as if inviting each and every runner into his sugary embrace.

Mike Sohaskey with Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

“You’re almost there!” shouted a spectator in the early miles, to which one agitated runner shot back, “Not even close!” Quickly the spectator corrected himself, “I mean the top of the hill!” Which I appreciated, since no runner likes that guy who’s never run a marathon but who thinks it’s funny to stand at mile 2 and yell “Almost there!”

Running near the 3:55 and 4:00 pace groups for a time, I marveled at the proficiency of the pace leaders — with a steady stream of insights and encouragement, they constantly let their charges know what to expect from the course and from themselves. Pacing is a tough job, and while it’s one thing to sacrifice your own race day to help others attain their goals, it’s even more impressive to do it with such poise, confidence and consideration. Having a good pacer to steer the ship can make all the difference between seizing the moment and throwing in the towel when the going gets tough.

Though my legs likely would have stomached a sub-4 pace, my stomach — typically my canary in the coal mine on race day — had other ideas. As soon as I’d start to feel good and speed up, my stomach would roil restlessly like a ball bouncing on a seal’s nose, as if to remind me that it, too, was still recovering from Kansas City and that we were in no hurry.

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

Luckily the course featured porta-potties aplenty. My first pit stop in mile 10 lasted roughly two minutes, during which I felt like a performer in Cirque du Soleil: Marathon, awkwardly navigating three layers — tights, shorts and elastic SpiBelt around my waist to hold my iPhone — with not just unwieldy gloves but with frigid fingers that simply didn’t work well in the cold, much less in such a cramped, confined space.

But the two minutes was time well spent, and exiting the plastic, phone booth-sized box onto a residential suburban street I took a deep breath, gauged my stomach’s temperament and focused on running comfortably. Which, for now at least, was easy enough on this Norman Rockwell-type course and with the worst of the hills behind us. Not only that, but the best was still to come. Next up: Drake University.

For me, the Drake blue track in mile 12 was the course highlight. The disembodied voice of our pal Blake Boldon on the PA system welcomed runners as we entered the track and called the action from the booth as we made a single ¼-mile lap on the bouncy, vulcanized rubber surface. A few spectators (Katie included) cheered from the bleachers, and I glanced around the stadium like a kid visiting Disneyland for the first time, trying to slow down time while I soaked it all in. Drake Stadium is a beautiful facility, and I can imagine what a thrill it would be as a college athlete to run in the prestigious Drake Relays on that track.

Drake Stadium was the turnaround point of the day’s longest out-and-back (six miles), and by the time we exited I was feeling in a comfortable rhythm and looking forward to the second half of the race. A stiff crosswind — and occasional cold headwind — continued to blow as we retraced our steps through campus, the occasional gust causing fallen leaves to dance across the road like tiny drunken pedestrians.

Drake Stadium in mile 12 of the Des Moines Marathon

Drake Stadium, mile 12

The thing about wind is, it’s public enemy #1 when it blows against you, slowing your progress and draining your energy. On the other hand, when it blows with you so that you suddenly feel a step faster, it often goes unappreciated since you typically can’t feel the wind at your back. In a tailwind, the runner takes the credit; in a headwind, Mother Nature gets the blame. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Running is an outdoor sport, though, and a well-timed tailwind can significantly affect the outcome of a race. Such was the case at the 2011 Boston Marathon. Taking advantage of cool temperatures and a brisk tailwind, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya ran the fastest marathon ever run at that time, finishing in 2:03:02, four seconds ahead of fellow countryman Moses Mosop. (Due to its elevation profile and start/finish separation, Boston isn’t eligible for world records.) Mutai also shattered the course record by nearly three minutes; no winner since then has come within 5½ minutes of his mark. Likewise, American Ryan Hall finished fourth that day in 2:04:58, an American record that stands to this day.

“It was at our back,” Mutai said afterwards of the wind. “But it wasn’t such a big wind.” Of course it wasn’t, at least not in Mutai’s eyes, because to admit as much might have diminished his record performance — a performance that by any standard was one for the ages.

Aside from the wind, the day was otherwise stunning — crisp and clear, the cloudless sky a particularly striking shade of sapphire. Tentatively I downed my first GU at mile 12.5; my stomach took it well, so that was promising.

Fall foliage on Drake campus in mile 13 of Des Moines Marathon

The Drake campus flaunts its flamboyant fall foliage, mile 13

Des Moines, des merrier (mile 14 to finish)
Seeing the back of my shirt, fellow 50 Stater David from Chattanooga asked, “What is RaceRaves?” He pronounced each half of the name distinctly, like a spelling bee contestant enunciating the word he’s been challenged to spell. And so, as we cruised back along residential Kingman Blvd, I happily shared my elevator pitch for our awesome website/race resource before I found myself pulling away from him.

Finally, I’d hit my stride and was feeling good. That peaceful, easy feeling would last about a mile, until GU number two caused my stomach to churn in protest. {sigh}

Huge props to the energetic spectator at the corner of Polk and Kingman, near the end of our Drake out-and-back. She was rocking a set of sleigh bells when I first passed her in mile 10, and again still as I approached her from the opposite direction in mile 15. And she shook them with feeling, as though the fate of Christmas (or maybe her own body warmth?) depended on it. She was a one-woman cheer zone, and I waved in appreciation as I passed.

Overall, despite similar finisher numbers and less than half the urban population, Des Moines struck me as having more spectators than Kansas City. And the signage I saw along the course won the weekend as well. Sure, I’ve seen it before — after 35 marathons and 40 half marathons, new spectator signs are tough to come by — but “You’re running better than the government” has taken on new meaning since 2016. And “Toenails are for sissies” is a tried-and-true sentiment that earns an unexpected smile when it’s sponsored by the Des Moines University Foot & Ankle Clinic.

Finally! a spectator sign that nails the marathon mindset

Aside from the Drake track, miles 18-24 are what I’ll remember most about the DMM course. These seven miles comprised a series of interconnected public parks, one transitioning seamlessly into the next as we followed a paved, well-maintained bike path through peaceful wooded stretches, across wide-open green spaces, along the Raccoon River and finally around popular Gray’s Lake. At times the route felt downright bucolic and far removed from city folk — as in, how most Americans envision Iowa.

Not to be assuaged by our tranquil surroundings, my mercurial stomach awoke with renewed agitation in mile 20, forcing me to make a second pit stop. Luckily this one was a bit more graceful, and I resumed the race with high hopes for reaching the finish line without further gastrointestinal distress. A boy’s gotta dream, you know?

Crossing the Raccoon River in mile 18 of the Des Moines Marathon

Crossing the Raccoon River, mile 18

The path in places was strewn with fallen leaves, many of them still green rather than fall’s preferred palette of yellow, orange and red. I glanced up to see large numbers of leaves — maybe primed to fall already? — being blown from their trees by the gusting wind. The displaced leaves fluttered in the air like startled green butterflies, a scene that struck me as strangely curious. Or maybe my second marathon in two days was messing with more than just my stomach.

One uniquely cool aspect of Des Moines was the good-natured course monitors who patrolled the route on bikes offering aid, nutrition or simply an encouraging word. For the novice marathoner or half marathoner, it’s gotta be reassuring to know that if the wheels (yours, not theirs) do fall off during the race, help will quickly be by your side.

Mile 20 banner at the Des Moines Marathon

Running along the Raccoon River in mile 20, a member of the bike patrol rode by blasting “All I Want Is You” by The Cars, and I had to wonder whether their choice of song was purely coincidental or drolly intentional: You might think I’m delirious, the way I run you down…

Leaving Water Works Park, we immediately entered Gray’s Lake Park for a two-mile loop of — surprise! — Gray’s Lake. The deep blue serenity of Gray’s Lake came at a perfect time. As the “Are we there yet?” miles of the marathon, miles 22-24 are among the most challenging, since you’re battling mental and physical exhaustion despite having 15-30+ minutes of running still ahead of you. So any distraction from my mounting fatigue was much appreciated.

A nifty foot bridge cut across one end of the lake, offering a skyline view of our final destination in downtown Des Moines. The scene evoked a déjà vu flashback to Omaha, where the neighboring Council Bluffs (Iowa) skyline had beckoned from across the Missouri River near the halfway mark.

View of Des Moines skyline across Gray's Lake

View across Gray’s Lake, mile 23

Two Katie sightings in quick succession — in Water Works Park and then Gray’s Lake Park  — likewise were well-timed picker-uppers. Though her seeming ubiquity got me thinking that maybe she’d nicked one of the course monitor’s bikes when their head was turned.

Fortunately, and despite my stomach’s perverse rejection of nutrients, I somehow avoided the proverbial marathon wall, maintaining a reasonable pace and passing quite a few runners in the last six miles. I even dared my stomach to protest one final half-packet of GU in mile 22. Luckily it chose not to call my bluff, instead remaining quiet for the final miles.

Back out on the main road, I was passed by a ruddy-cheeked, fast-moving runner with seemingly no shortage of energy. Only one thing could explain the oddity of such seemingly fresh legs this late in a marathon: the marathon relay, an event in which each member of a team runs one or more individual “legs” of the marathon, with each leg covering a variable distance for a total of 26.2 miles.

I have nothing against the relay as a race-day option — on the contrary, I’m all for anything that gets people off the couch and running. That said, the final miles of a marathon are very much a masochistic proving ground — a brotherhood of suffering, if you will — and so there’s an undeniable aggravation in seeing a fellow runner, one who’s clearly in a different place both physically and psychologically, coast by you effortlessly as though they’re running an entirely different race. Because the truth is, they are — and their mile 4 may be your mile 24. (Disclaimer: this is a foible of both human nature and the marathon that’s intrinsic to the distance itself and not reflective of the usual arrogance of marathoners. In other words, to quote every professional athlete, it is what it is.)

Final crossing of the Des Moines River on MLK Jr Pkwy in mile 25 of the Des Moines Marathon

Final crossing of the Des Moines River on MLK Jr Pkwy, mile 25

Mile 26 featured a return to the industrial straightaway of Martin Luther King Jr Pkwy, where I focused on picking off one slow-moving runner at a time while soaking up the warmth of the noon sun directly overhead. As I ran, I recalled fellow 50 Stater Dan’s own DMM experience on a much warmer day in 2012, when this same stretch of reflective glass and concrete traversed under the heat of the midday sun had proven a brutal final act. Given that he’d clocked a 3:25 on that day, though, I found myself short on sympathy.

A ginormous American flag hung across the road ahead of us, and with one last burst of energy I passed several folks who looked to be running on fumes, before leaning into the final left turn. There in the home stretch, I basked triumphantly in the final 200 yards of a whirlwind weekend. Hearing my name announced over the PA, I looked up to see the august dome of the Polk County Courthouse welcoming me back as I crossed my second marathon finish line in roughly 25 hours in a respectable 4:06:18.

With that, Des Moines earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first road marathon in 32 tries that I’d clocked in over four hours. It’s a streak I’m modestly proud of, but one which was bound to end at some point given the sheer number of marathons (and ultramarathons) I run. On the other hand, I’d finished within 15 minutes of my Kansas City time, and under the circumstances I could live with that.

Yes we can! (and yes we did)

Challenge completed
At no point during the race had I felt overdressed in tights, and in fact I’d been thankful for their warmth and compression, which together acted as a security blanket for my weary legs.

Gratefully accepting my DMM medal (woo-hoo!) and I-35 Challenge medal (woo-HOO!), I exited the finish chute and threw my arms around a Stay Puft-soft Katie in her poofy winter jacket. Then I allowed myself to simply wander in a daze for a few minutes, my shiny new hardware clanging together like wearable wind chimes. Challenge completed.

It wasn’t long before the bracing combination of cold temperatures, swirling winds and dappled shade rudely snapped me out of my stupor. Briefly I thanked Race Director Chris Burch who was overseeing finish line operations, as well as Blake who had made his way to the finish and who, seeing me start to shiver as my body temperature dropped, smartly urged me to throw on some warmer clothes.

Mike Sohaskey with Sam Adams recovery drink at Des Moines Marathon

Sam Adams: the founding father of post-race recovery

I grabbed some food and an excellent Samuel Adams DSM 26.2 Brew to wash it down, the latter the sign of a finish line festival designed with its runners in mind. On that note, a word to all races that feature low-calorie Michelob ULTRA at your post-race party: don’t. After running 26.2 miles, the last thing I want is a low-carb post-race beer that pledges not to compromise my “active lifestyle.” That’s what water is for. Au contraire, carb me up.

Unfortunately I lingered too long to hit the massage tent before it closed, but no matter — I was feeling remarkably limber after a two-marathon weekend. And for the next two days I’d feel no different than if I’d run a single hard marathon, with the usual post-race lethargy and immune depression. Nothing that rest, nutrition and Game One of the World Series in Boston couldn’t cure!

Scenes from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines Iowa

Scenes from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park (clockwise, from top left): Nomade; Spider; White Ghost; Three Dancing Figures (version C); Moonrise, east. august, Moonrise, east. january

That evening, we followed up a visit to the eclectic Pappajohn Sculpture Park (not to be to confused with the Papa John of racist pizza fame) with dinner and drinks at El Bait Shop, a local hot spot recommended by Blake which boasts the “World’s largest selection of American craft beers,” including a marathon-perfect 262 beers on tap. It was a restful ending to a wild weekend… and the calm before the storm of a wildly rewarding week.

On Monday we said our fond farewells to Des Moines and hit the road — I-35, I wish I knew how to quit you — for the return trip to Kansas City. There we hopped a flight to Chicago for an overnight stay with friends Pete and Faby and one-year-old goddaughter Eva, before boarding an early-morning flight to Boston for a Tuesday evening date with Fenway Park and the best World Series matchup of my lifetime, as my childhood Boston Red Sox hosted our hometown Los Angeles Dodgers.

By the time the dust settled and the Red Sox captured their 4th World Series title in 15 years, we’d ended up visiting five states in five days. During that time I’d renewed great friendships, visited two vibrant Midwestern towns, notched marathons 35 and 36 in states 22 and 23, and crafted a 3,800-word blog post on Iowa without a single Field of Dreams reference.

Good thing too, because I’d hate to be accused of being corny.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho Des Moines Marathon finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: As midsize marathons go, Des Moines is one of des best in the des Midwest, if not des entire country. The meandering, Hyde-and-Jekyll course is best considered in terms of pre-Drake (rolling first half) and post-Drake (much flatter second half), with the highlight being a lap around the blue Drake University oval in mile 12. Despite a similar field size, the course felt more suburban and more intimate than had Kansas City’s one day earlier, with much of the route passing through quiet neighborhoods and local parks, including a two-mile loop of serene Gray’s Lake late in the race. That said, the spirited support from the Des Moines community was impressive, including one woman who stood at miles 9.5 and 14.5 shaking her sleigh bells as if the upcoming holiday season depended on it.

As a spectator Katie drove many of the streets and neighborhoods bordering the course, and in so doing witnessed the more blue-collar commercial and industrial sectors of the city, none of which were immediately apparent to us marathoners. My own impression of Des Moines from race weekend was of a scenic, comfortably sized town with few defining features but with an abundance of green spaces, a vibrant university campus and an artsy, entrepreneurial streak. And finishing 26.2 miles in the shadow of stately Polk County Courthouse was a nice touch.

(Note: I ran DMM as the second half of a back-to-back weekend with the Kansas City Marathon as part of the excellent I-35 Challenge.)

Attending Game One of World Series at Fenway Park

With my two favorite Iowa natives at Game One of the World Series, Fenway Park

PRODUCTION: Des Moines was staged with clear attention to detail, from the scenic course that showcased the best of the city to the plentiful aid stations (and porta-potties) to the helpful volunteers who patrol the course on bikes, acting as mobile aid stations. And though the finish line festival (or in this case, the Samuel Adams Block Party) was a good bit colder and windier than the previous day in Kansas City, I stuck around to thank Race Director Chris Burch in person, and to take advantage of the free post-race nachos and Sam Adams DSM Brew, never a bad combination. Unfortunately I missed the complimentary massage tent, but that too was available to sore-legged finishers.

A handy pocket-sized Spectator Guide was available at packet pickup. The guide featured a map of the course showing the locations of cheer zones and parking lots, as well as helpful hints including the Sunday schedule, how to get connected with your runner and when/where to watch on race day. Super-spectator Katie found the guide to be particularly helpful in association with Google Maps.

One suggestion I might make would be for pacers (who always amaze me with their ability to lead, inform and entertain, all while maintaining a consistent pace for 26.2 miles) to carry signs that more clearly identify their pace times — the pace signs this year were difficult to read from a distance, which frustrated me on several occasions as I tried to gauge my progress based on a pace group running ahead of me.

I-35 Challenge medals

SWAG: Des Moines overdelivered in the swag department. While the shiny round finisher medal emblazoned with the race logo is an eye-catching addition to my collection, it’s overshadowed by the high-quality full-zip jacket with the IMT DMM logo printed on the left lapel. Not only is the jacket a thoughtful and significant upgrade from the usual race tee, but it’s the type of outerwear I’ll find a reason to wear even in SoCal, as it’s both comfy and stylish.

In addition to race-specific swag, marathoners and half marathoners who also completed Kansas City the day before earned 1) a colorful stained-glass I-35 Challenge medal with the names of both races on the medal and ribbon, and 2) a long-sleeve gray tech tee with “Challenge Completed” printed on the front. Hats off to the organizers in Des Moines and Kansas City for going the extra mile to make the I-35 Challenge one of the most memorable weekends in running!

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Oct 21, 2018 (start time 8:00 am)
26.26 miles in Des Moines, IA (state 23 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 4:06:18 (first time running the Des Moines Marathon), 9:25/mile
Finish place: 492 overall, 43/92 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,275 (766 men, 509 women)
Race weather: bitter cold (27°F) & clear at the start; cold, breezy & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 712 ft gain, 719 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 761 ft, 981 ft

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.
– Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), A League of Their Own

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho by That's How We Do KC sign

As the ongoing saga of this blog attests, I’m a sucker for a good challenge — and especially of the running kind. So when I learned about the I-35 Challenge, I was as powerless to resist as a cow in a tractor beam.

The I-35 Challenge first popped up on my radar several years ago. It’s a shrewd partnership between the Kansas City Marathon and Des Moines Marathon in which runners tackle the two races on consecutive days — Kansas City on Saturday, Des Moines on Sunday — to earn bragging rights plus exclusive finisher swag. More importantly for a 50 Stater like me, it’s a golden opportunity to notch two states (Missouri and Iowa) in two days, at two of the best marathons in the Midwest.

That, and the idea of running back-to-back marathons — my first since Alabamissippi in early 2014 — added a hint of competition I couldn’t refuse.

I’d had my eye on the I-35 Challenge for some time, the main problem being that the two races annually fall on the same October weekend as Katie’s birthday — a bit of irony, given that she was actually born in Iowa (tell me she doesn’t look Iowan!). So I’d been unable to run in 2016, when we’d made other plans for her birthday. Then in 2017, I was disappointed to learn the organizers had inexplicably scheduled the two races on consecutive weekends, rather than consecutive days — a non-starter for those of us coming from the West Coast.

Mike Sohaskey with I-35 Challenge banner

2018, though, turned out to be our Goldilocks year — the timing on everyone’s part was juuuuust right, and so with Katie’s blessing I pulled the trigger, and the I-35 Challenge fell into place in what quickly became a busy fall racing schedule.

I’d only visited Missouri (whether you pronounce that with the stress on the first or second syllable is up to you) once before, on a 2010 visit to Washington University that had left me with decidedly mixed impressions of St. Louis. So I was excited instead to check out the state’s largest city in Kansas City, which from all accounts sounded more promising… though given recent changes to the marathon course and with little knowledge of the city itself, I resolved to keep my mind open and my expectations in check.

Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Our double-duty weekend got off to a spirited start Thursday evening, as we dinnered (of course it’s a verb, look it up) with good friends and fellow Antarctica 2013 alumni Louann, Fran and Tom. Louann now lives in Kansas City, whereas Fran and Tom like us were in town for the marathon.

Poor Louann, who only recently had moved to Missouri and who typically by default introduces out-of-town guests to one of the city’s beloved BBQ joints (it is KC, after all), instead had to maneuver to find a recommended dining option for four vegetarians. And that’s how we ended up having an excellent meal with even better company at Café Gratitude, an inspired vegan café that also has locations in SoCal and the Bay Area. The memorable-but-too-short evening reiterated what we’ve all discovered time and time again over the past 5+ years: that Antarctica is the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks for being our hostess with the mostest, Louann!

National World War I Museum and Memorial by day

The National World War I Museum and Memorial by day…

… and at sunset

With race day on Saturday, that left us all day Friday for a self-guided tour of the City of Fountains, starting with the race expo at historic Union Station. Located on the northwest corner of a busy intersection that also features the Missouri Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Henry Wollman Bloch Fountain and the official race hotel (the Westin Crown Center), Union Station was a cool choice for the expo venue. Originally opened in 1914, closed in 1985 and restored in 1999, the station today serves as a busy Amtrak depot as well as home to theaters, museum exhibits, an interactive science center — and even its own escape room. Yes Union Station, you’ve finally made it.

The KCM expo was one of the more lively and enjoyable I’ve attended, with plenty of interesting vendors (including several local races) in a nicely laid-out, easy-to-navigate footprint. We quickly secured my packet, spent about an hour shopping and chatting, and then hit the road for a whirlwind tour of the city that featured two professional sports stadiums, at least half a dozen fountains and a brief sojourn across the state border into Kansas, our first-ever visit to the Sunflower State. Hopefully we’ll return to run on that side of the state line soon.

After that night’s mandatory carbo-calorie cram, the highlight of which was Katie’s sister Kristina calling to let us know she’d secured tickets for Game One of the World Series (!) on Tuesday in Boston, I prepped for the day ahead before settling in for a longer-than-usual pre-race nap. With 52.4 miles to run in the next 36 hours, sleep would be my not-so-secret weapon if I hoped to reach the finish line in Des Moines with a smile on my face.

Kansas City Marathon start corrals

No matter your intended pace, the start corral was like Walmart on Black Friday

Off to a hill of a start
Perfect morning for a marathon, I reflected as we made the easy 5-minute stroll from our hotel to the start line. There in the pre-dawn darkness under the watchful eye of the iconic neon red Western Auto sign, our Saturday began with the national anthem performed on trumpet by a local musician. The final lingering note hung briefly in the still air before the eager buzz of the crowd rose up to swallow it. Meanwhile, I squeezed my skinny frame into the middle of the tightly packed start corral like one more clown in an overstuffed phone booth.

I chatted briefly with a fellow 50 Stater from Maryland who would be pacing her friend’s first marathon today. Then I wished them both luck as fireworks lit the twilight sky around us and the corral surged forward, propelling us across the start line.

The gradual yet immediate climb up Grant Blvd was a shot across the bow to any runner who’d arrived in Kansas City expecting a flat course. I’d mentally — and thanks to June’s Comrades Marathon, physically — prepared for a rolling, hilly 26.2 miles, even if that didn’t jibe with my preconceived notions of the Midwest.

Stretching our legs and rousing our lungs, we followed Grand Blvd through downtown, over I-670 and past the multi-purpose Sprint Center, its rounded glass façade imposing and unmistakable in the low morning light. A quick turnaround at City Hall sent us back the way we’d come, downhill this time as we sneaked up on the Sprint Center from behind before arriving at the headquarters of The Kansas City Star, the city’s 138-year-old newspaper.

Western Auto sign

I glanced down instinctively as my Garmin beeped to signal the mile marker — 8:18, a great pace for mile 25 on Sunday but too fast for mile 2 on Saturday. And especially since the plan called for a relaxed sub-4 hour (9:09/mile) finish. I needed to slow down and be smarter. Granted, half of mile 2 had been downhill and the uphills would obviously be slower, but clearly pacing here would be a challenge. With that in mind, I resolved to avoid spiking my heart rate on the uphills, since I knew doing so would compromise my recovery and come back to haunt me in Des Moines.

Come ON, Des Moines is over 24 hours away, plenty of time to recover — 3:45 or bust! sneered the competitive voice in my head. But with a frenetic ten months of working, racing and traveling behind me and a busy two months still ahead, a spectacular flame-out this weekend was the last thing I needed.

The Rocky theme song (“Gonna Fly Now”) may be second only to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” for most popular race-day musical selection, and hearing its familiar orchestral élan wafting ghost-like across a seemingly empty baseball field made me want to one-two punch the air in appreciation. But having done this long enough to know that energy saved is energy earned over 26.2 miles, I opted instead for silent approval. Keep it simple, stupid.

Unless you were specifically looking for it, you could be forgiven for missing the understated American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum late in mile 4 — and especially since most runners here were focused instead on the road, which was a pitted and unfinished mess. A lady to my left assessed the situation bluntly: “Well, this sucks.”

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art with its iconic Shuttlecocks display

Luckily it was a short stretch that passed quickly, though not quickly enough for poor Fran, who apparently fell on the rough surface and suffered a nasty skinned knee. And while the road may have exacted its ounce of flesh, the fall did little more than slow her down as Fran picked herself up and soldiered onward to yet another marathon finish in this, her fourth tour of the 50 states.

Turning south away from downtown, the urban route morphed into a more residential, tree-lined boulevard that offered a welcome contrast to the closely spaced buildings in our rearview mirror. “On a scale of 1 to 10, you’re a 26.2” proclaimed one spectator sign along this otherwise subdued stretch.

With all due respect and appreciation to Garmin for its sponsorship of the marathon, my “Questionable promotion of the day” award goes to the company’s “fastest quarter mile” challenge. Basically, a faux finish line arch stood at the mile 8 marker in Rockhill, and the person who ran the final ¼ mile of mile 8 in the fastest time would win a Garmin. Which might have been an interesting contest in mile 26 (or mile 13 for the half marathoners), but honestly I can’t imagine a better way to torpedo your marathon or even half marathon performance than by throwing down 400m of speed work in mile 8. Hey, to each his own — I’d imagine the free Garmin would be worth the effort for the winner. For the runner-up, though…

Here at mile 8 the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, and after crossing over Brush Creek we followed the creek along Volker Blvd on a two-mile out-and-back. Cruising comfortably along Volker, I was overtaken by a runner wearing a dye sublimation American flag t-shirt and camouflage fatigues carrying two large flags, one an American flag and the other a blue flag with white lettering and a red outline that read “PRESIDENT TRUMP: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”

Squinting back at me from the fellow’s shirt was what appeared to be a blonde pumpkin wearing a red tie. Holding my comfortable pace, I fell into step several yards behind my brainwashed buddy so I could appreciate the reception from runners coming in the opposite direction on the out-and-back. Not surprisingly (and especially in Missouri) both cheers and jeers greeted him, with one fellow muttering to his running partner as they passed, “I hope his arm falls off.”

“Asshole!” yelled another more candid runner, at which MAGA man turned and shouted dumbly back at him, “Where’s YOUR flag?” Ah, the unifying power of patriotism! Nothing says “I’m looking for a thoughtful conversation about the direction of our country” like running 26.2 miles swaddled in the worst U.S. President of the post-war (that’s post-Civil War) era.

Turning off Volker at mile 10, I sucked down half a GU, my first of the day. Normally I’ll minimize (or skip) in-race nutrition, but today I knew I’d need the carbs — if not for the next 16 miles, then certainly to give my body a head-start in its post-race recovery. With that in mind, I’d repeat this routine five more times every 2½ to 3 miles, which helped to stabilize my energy levels so I wouldn’t dig myself too deep a caloric hole.

When in Rome… Standing Figures (Thirty Figures) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

A KC Masterpiece
Skirting the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the course rolled uphill yet again as we entered some of the city’s more upscale neighborhoods, where sturdy contemporary homes sported freshly manicured lawns, wide driveways, wooden picket fences and decorative gables. Past another immaculate park and another gushing fountain, one tree-lined street blended into another until finally we reached Ward Parkway for a 7+ mile out-and-back along the Missouri/Kansas border.

Turning onto Ward Pkwy, a small group of Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics passed me in mile 14, and I happened to notice one of them wearing an awfully familiar blue-and-orange cap with #RavingLunatic on the back — our RaceRaves cap! No cooler moment than seeing a RaceRaves member wearing our gear in the wild. I pulled alongside, complimented her on her choice of headwear and quickly introduced myself to Katie S. from Manhattan, Kansas. Then I texted ahead to let my own Katie know to keep an eye out for her.

Spectators — including Katie H. in miles 15 and 20 — lined the out-and-back along Ward Pkwy, enabling them to cheer on their runners twice without having to budge. Ward Pkwy turned out to be a very pleasant (and relatively flat) stretch of the course and a perfect opportunity to appreciate the seasonal changing of the guard in the red-, orange- and yellow-accented trees on either side of us.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 20 of Kansas City Marathon

Feeling strong on the Ward Parkway out-and-back, mile 20

Rather than a straight shot out and back, a 4-mile loop at the end of Ward Pkwy added a measure of commercial and residential variety to this stretch. I took advantage of these “cruise control” miles to relax and reflect on my impressions of Kansas City as a charming and vibrant city, from its prolific fountains and nicely manicured parks to its diverse architecture and even the nation’s only official World War I Memorial. The newly reimagined (as of 2017) marathon course is smartly designed to showcase a city which really does feel like the heartland of America.

Two more miles of spacious front lawns and wrought iron fences brought us back to Volker Blvd, where we retraced our steps across Brush Creek and soon arrived at Country Club Plaza with its trendy, high-end shops and Spanish-inspired architecture. Here we rejoined the half marathoners, and I saw an updated version of the same spectator sentiment I’d noted earlier: “On a scale of 1 to 10, you’re a 13.1.” Hey, what’s with the downgrade? Sure I’m no Kipchoge, but I’ve gotta do this again tomorrow!

American flags lined the road to my right as we approached Mill Creek Park in mile 23. There I enjoyed my final Katie Ho sighting in mile 23 before passing the most impressive fountain of the day, the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain with its water colored royal blue, presumably in celebration of marathon weekend.

Approaching Mill Creek Park, mile 23

All these fountains and not one fountain of youth, I pondered. I can get pretty profound in the later miles of a marathon. Ironically, though, this was a day where youth would have been wasted on the old, because I was feeling great. The combination of smart pacing, regular GU-age (ewww) and engaging scenery had me running as comfortably as I’d ever run 26.2 miles.

Turns out the same couldn’t be said of my flag-toting MAGA friend. Apparently both gravity and fatigue(s) — as in, his choice of running pants — had caught up to him, and I glanced up to see him struggling ahead of me, his once-confident stride reduced to more of a shuffle. November 6 is coming, I thought as I cruised by without a word. Have a nice day.

Moments later I found myself overtaking Katie S. on a short uphill. “Looking great, keep it up!” I encouraged as I passed. She looked strong and well on her way to a sub-4 finish.

A wildly enthusiastic fellow offered Dixie cups of beer in Westport — you know, just in case we weren’t sufficiently dehydrated after running 24 miles. Which reminded me of one of my favorite spectator signs, a classic that still makes me smile whenever I see it: “Run faster, the Kenyans are drinking all the beer!”

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain

Singin’ the (Royal) blues at the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain

Surrendering myself to the seductive “so close yet so far” embrace of mile 25, I pulled alongside two women, one of whom was loud and rambunctious and clearly pacing her friend. It took me a moment to realize it was the same 50 Stater from Maryland whom I’d met in the start corral 3½ hours earlier. She’d grab her friend’s hand and prompt cheers from the crowd with a shout of “It’s her first marathon!” I chimed in with my support, letting her friend know that the finish line was almost in sight. To her credit, she was holding together well and didn’t resemble an extra in “The Walking Dead” like so many other first-time marathoners at that stage.

It’s often the case in urban marathons that the first two and last two miles are the least scenic, and Kansas City was no exception. We re-entered the downtown commercial sector comprising block after block of fast-food joints, loan shops and other strip mall standbys silently hailing our triumphant return. Were those Golden Arches just a bit more golden this morning? Had Burger King quickly tipped his crown as we’d passed? Did that Wendy’s sign just wink at me? I was sure of it.

The National WWI Museum and Memorial (left) and city skyline beckon, mile 26

On the flip side, what most other urban marathons don’t offer is a straight (free of turns) one-mile shot to the finish, nor half a mile of downhill running culminating in the finish line itself. Depending on your fitness level, Kansas City’s last ½ mile (which loses nearly 200 ft of elevation) serves as either a green light to empty the gas tank and finish strong or a painful reminder of the physical toll the first 25.7 miles have exacted on your quads. Or in some cases, both.

Having successfully done nothing stupid to this point, I saw no need to press my luck on the final downhill — a few seconds won or lost this late in the game meant nothing. Instead, I paused to snap one last photo of the downtown skyline framed against a pristine blue sky, before coasting downhill in the shadow of the National World War I Museum and Memorial and across the finish line in a reasonable if unspectacular time of 3:51:28.

One down, one to go.

Kansas City Marathon finish line

Coasting across the finish (left) while Katie S. (right) shows off her best finish-line face (photos: SportPhotos.com)

I turned in the finish chute to see Ms. Maryland and her exhausted friend follow me across the line, our 26.2-mile journeys starting and ending almost in sync. The two of them were followed moments later by Katie S, who yelped as she crossed the line and limped by me without braking, her face contorted in a painful grimace. As she veered toward the medical tent, the sound of her “OW OW OW OW” receded like a police siren in her wake. Fortunately, seeing her moments later from afar, she looked to be walking well and without a limp.

Gratefully I accepted my finisher medal from a smiling volunteer and thanked Race Director Dave Borchardt, who stood monitoring the finish line of his excellent marathon. He looked relaxed, despite operating on what no doubt amounted to little more than a pre-race catnap. Then I reunited with Katie and joined the finish line festival across the street in Washington Square Park. There I immediately found an open spot on the grass where I could lay on my back and elevate my legs, feet propped up on a tree trunk while sipping from my bottle of Tailwind Rebuild (brought from home) to refuel and replenish the 3,000+ calories I’d burned on my tour of the city. The weather was Octoberrific, as though that too had come with us from SoCal. Post-race recovery was underway.

KC Royals mascot and local celebrity Slugger

Ten minutes later I rejoined the vertical world to take advantage of the post-race massage tent and several cool photo opportunities, including one with Kansas City Royals mascot Slugger who wandered the festival slapping high-fives. Famished runners chowed down on hot BBQ and cold beer, and with a fleeting jealousy I glanced around at all the happy finishers who were done running marathons for the weekend.

But that’s why they call it a challenge. As the saying goes, if it were easy everyone would do it. State #22 was in the books, and the Show-Me State had done exactly that. And for those of you scoring at home that’s Mi•zoor’•ee, accent on the second syllable.

I could have closed my eyes under a tree there in Washington Square Park and happily taken a nap, visions of laurel wreaths and shoe sponsorships dancing in my head. But we had somewhere to be — I-35 was waiting. And Iowa was calling.

Iowa welcome sign

Running back-to-back marathons? Some post-race recovery tips for marathon #1:

1) Recline: Soon after crossing the finish line, elevate your legs above your heart to minimize the short-term immune response that produces soreness and inflammation. And if the post-race party includes a massage tent, all the better!

2) Refuel: I’m no nutritionist, but I know my body is depleted after running a marathon and burning roughly 3,000 calories. Unfortunately, it usually takes several hours for my appetite to return. Refueling with simple carbohydrates and protein soon after the race helps your body start replenishing its glycogen stores and repairing muscle microdamage. My current go-to recovery drink after a hard workout is Tailwind Rebuild.

3) Rehydrate: Don’t limit yourself to that tiny bottle of water in the finish chute — hydrate consistently throughout the day. And remember this rule of thumb when it comes to urine: If the color’s straw, hip hip hurrah! (Ok, so maybe I made that up… but it’s true!)

4) Rejuvenate: If you have time after the race, soak your legs in an ice bath (or as cold as you can tolerate) for 10-15 minutes to help ward off inflammation. As uncomfortable as this may sound (and yes, it’ll feel that way at first), you and your legs will be glad you did.

5) Revive: Many runners swear by compression socks, which claim to accelerate post-race recovery by improving the circulation of blood in the legs to reduce swelling, muscle soreness and muscle fatigue. I’ll often wear them myself both during and after a race. The passive recovery period spent driving or flying between races is the ideal time for compression socks.

View from the post-race recovery cam, Washington Square Park

BOTTOM LINE: Having entered the weekend as a Kansas City newbie not knowing what to expect, I can now enthusiastically gush about the City of Fountains. Both the marathon and the city itself exceeded my expectations for a state that outsiders cheekily pronounce MISS’-ou-ri. Kansas City (as least the Missouri side; we spent very little time on the Kansas side) strikes me as a vibrant, scenic town that’s comfortable in its own skin, with a hint of cosmopolitan panache and plenty to see and do.

With significant upgrades to the marathon course in recent years, the rolling route now leads its runners past some of the city’s most notable neighborhoods, parks and landmarks including the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain (with its water dyed blue, presumably for race weekend) and the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Even the lengthy out-and-back along Ward Pkwy in miles 14-21 passed quickly with its upscale neighborhoods and flashy fall colors, which always appeal to someone coming from SoCal where seasons are more of a fanciful concept than a climatic reality.

Sometimes, in the course of running all 50 states, you find a race that just feels right, in an unassuming city that’s eager to showcase itself to anyone receptive to its charms. Kansas City was just such a race, and it’s probably no coincidence that it was also one of my most consistent marathon performances, from its uphill start to its downhill finish. For anyone looking for a Midwestern marathon/half marathon or any 50 Stater looking to add Missouri to their map, I’d highly recommend you #RunKCM. Oh, and do train for hills.

(Note: I ran KCM as the first half of a back-to-back with the Des Moines Marathon as part of the excellent I-35 Challenge.)

PRODUCTION: For the most part, race weekend in the City of Fountains flowed smoothly from start to finish. The energetic pre-race expo, held in historic Union Station, was one of the more enjoyable mid-size expos I’ve attended, with plenty of diverse vendors big and small as well as a number of cool races I’d love to run if I lived in the Midwest. Popular Olympian and running coach Jeff Galloway was available to offer guidance, sign books or simply chat. Kansas City was also the site of the quarterly 50 States Marathon Club reunion, which further added to the energy of the weekend for club members.

Despite a densely packed start corral that was tough to access, the marathon course did a nice job of showing off the city and its highlights, with plenty of aid stations and terrific volunteers. And though some may disagree, I appreciated the fast downhill finish since I still had control of my legs. Spectator support was sparse, which I count as a positive since big, loud, raucous crowds typically aren’t my cup of tea. That said, a diverse collection of bands filled the air along the route with musical motivation. Hats off, too, to KCM and SportPhotos.com for providing free race photos — always a bonus, and especially if you don’t have your own star spectator like Katie to expertly (wo)man the camera for you.

Taking advantage of perfect late October weather, the finish line festival in Washington Square Park was jumping. Operation BBQ Relief dished out Kansas City BBQ while Central States Beverage served up local beers. As a vegetarian planning to run another marathon in another state the next day, I bypassed both the BBQ and beer, though not the complimentary massage tent where I got a (literal) leg up on my post-race recovery. A number of photo ops awaited happy finishers, including a gong waiting to be rung by anyone who’d qualified for Boston, set a personal record or simply run Kansas City for the first time (one out of three ain’t bad!). Even KC Royals mascot Slugger was on hand trading high-fives and posing for pictures. Given that we had our sights set on Iowa for the next day’s Des Moines Marathon as part of the I-35 Challenge, we couldn’t stay long, but I soaked up the post-race ambience for as long as possible before hustling back across the street for our noon checkout at the host hotel.

Speaking of the host hotel, this was our only legit source of race weekend disappointment. Although a convenient and comfortable facility, the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center seemed to have no clue that the city’s largest running event was happening just outside its doors and that many of its patrons would therefore be runners. For example, information on road closures in the vicinity of the hotel would have been helpful for friends and family members who would be driving the course to support their runners. Much more annoying, our request for a late checkout was denied, and by the time we reached our room minutes after noon, our room key had been deactivated. Sadly we weren’t alone, as I chatted with several other disgruntled runners in our hallway while Katie went downstairs to reactivate our key. We ended up disregarding the checkout time, grabbing a quick shower and hitting the road sometime after 12:30pm. So if you expect you’ll need more than 4½ hours to finish your marathon, you may want to think twice before booking the Westin.

2018 Kansas City Marathon medal by Union Station

SWAG: KCM earns two thumbs up (and five shoes on RaceRaves) for this year’s standout swag, which included an attractive and comfy lightweight blue hoodie, the first of its kind I’ve received in 35 marathons and one I’ve already worn on several occasions. And the hefty square finisher medal is uniquely Kansas City in the best way, as it depicts four of the city’s fountains while distinguishing the race distance visually based on ribbon color. Well done, KC!

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS
Oct 20, 2018 (start time 7:00 am)
26.42 miles in Kansas City, MO (state 22 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:51:28 (first time running the Kansas City Marathon), 8:46/mile
Finish place: 301 overall, 23/80 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,264 (787 men, 477 women)
Race weather: cool (45°F) & clear at the start, warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 880 ft gain, 854 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 787 ft, 1,011 ft

You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!
– Dr. Seuss

Mike Sohaskey by Welcome to Jackson WY sign

Gather ‘round friends, and let me tell you about the greatest bet I ever lost…

October 2017, and the World Series matchup is set. Our hometown Dodgers, having posted the best regular-season record in baseball to earn home field advantage in the best-of-seven series, are consensus favorites against the team from my college city, the Houston Astros. Naturally I’m rooting for the good guys in blue, whereas my former college mate Ken falls squarely on the side of his underdog Astros. All of which leads to a friendly wager: Dodgers vs. Astros, with the winner choosing where we run our next marathon together.*

(*Said friendly wager comes six weeks after our most recent race together at September’s high-altitude, character-building Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler, which had been Ken’s call for his first 50-miler. So you’d think I’d know better than to risk putting him in charge again. Apparently I’m a slow learner…)

Long story short, the Dodgers throw everything they have at Houston only to come up short in Game 7, meaning Ken and his wife Jenny (also a Rice alum) wield the power to choose our 2018 marathon destination. And their inspired choice of Jackson Hole, Wyoming nearly makes an Astros fan out of me.

Jackson Hole isn’t easy to get to — check that, Wyoming isn’t easy to get to — but then again, that’s a big part of its allure. That and its immediate proximity to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, two of our favorite getaways in the U.S. We’d recently visited both parks in July 2017 before running the Missoula Marathon in Montana, and every time we visit it’s like falling in love all over again.

Oxbow Bend - Grand Teton National Park

Oxbow Bend, the most photographed spot in Grand Teton National Park

Throw in the fact we were able to convince our Hoosier friends Jeff and Susan to join us for a Labor Day Weekend runfest, and state 21 on my 50 States quest was shaping up to be a hole lot of fun.

But the first rule of Jackson Hole is, you have to get to Jackson Hole. And so, as Southwest Airlines frequent fliers, we flew into Salt Lake City and made the 300-mile drive through three states (Utah, Idaho, Wyoming) while listening to the historic saga of Marvel vs. DC on the Business Wars podcast. The charming drive through wide-open countryside played out like a minified version of the Great American Road Trip, and we rolled into Jackson Thursday evening feeling relaxed and energized for the weekend ahead.

Friday was a day to kill, and we were in the right place with the right people to kill it. Last summer in Montana, we’d front-loaded our race week with several days of hiking in Yellowstone and Grand Teton with family, leading to an epic physical struggle at the Missoula Marathon.

And so, having learned that lesson the hard way, this time we limited our pre-race activities to packet pickup at the host hotel and a low-key, picturesque driving tour of Grand Teton National Park (including the Snake River Overlook immortalized by Ansel Adams) with Jeff and Susan, followed by dinner at Ken and Jenny’s local Airbnb rental. Much as we wanted to be out in the park on moose patrol, the meeses would have to wait.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Snake River Overlook

Ansel Adams never had such mad selfie skills (Snake River Overlook)

After 34 marathons, 40 half marathons and a handful of ultras, I’ve finally discovered the secret to a good night’s sleep before a race: low expectations. Sure, I always want to run well — who doesn’t? But given the altitude (~6,300 ft) and my less-than-focused training regimen since June’s Comrades Marathon, my “A” goal in Jackson Hole would simply be to soak in my surroundings and enjoy the run. This may very well be the first road marathon I’d finish in over four hours, but with 50 states and 7 continents worth of marathons on my radar, it was bound to happen at some point.

So after an unusually solid night’s sleep, I showed up in Jackson Town Square on Saturday morning well rested and ready to roll. Katie drove Jenny out to the half marathon start line near mile 15 while Jeff, Ken and I stayed warm in the lobby of the host hotel. There we chatted with a blonde woman in her late 40s/early 50s, asking her if she’d ever run Jackson Hole.

Admittedly it was early and we were all trying to wake up, but still I was taken aback by the glassy look in her eyes and the listless tone in her voice. “I just need this state,” she replied wearily, glancing up without ever actually looking at the three of us. “I’m running all 50 states, this is #43.” Without prompting, she then informed us without any hint of enthusiasm that she was running all the continents this year. “Wow, all seven in one year? That’s quite an adventure,” I offered. “Eight,” she corrected me. “New Zealand is now a separate continent.”

What, no love for Madagascar? I thought, avoiding the urge to ask about the Atlantis Marathon. Seems someone gets their knowledge of world geography from social media and not Scientific American.

Then, without so much as a parting smile, our blonde box-checker stood up tiredly from her chair and moved slowly toward the door of the hotel to face her destiny in state #43. I’ve seen root canal patients in my dentist’s office who looked happier than her. This is how most Americans view running, I thought. And I hope that if I ever reach the point where running brings me as much excitement as paying taxes and shopping for car insurance, that someone grabs me by the shoulders, shakes some sense into me and reminds me, “YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS FUN THING YOU USED TO ENJOY SO MUCH!”

Ken S, Jeff R and Mike Sohaskey under Jackson WY elk antler arch

Ken, Jeff and I gather beneath 10,000+ pounds of shed elk antlers

Minutes later we left the warmth of the hotel ourselves for the short walk to the start line. The morning was crisp and clear, the air pristine — a perfect day to run a long way. We paused for a shot under one of the four iconic elk antler arches that sits on each corner of the Town Square. Anyone who’s ever visited Jackson with a camera has snapped at least one photo of the elk antler arches.

The start arch — this one made of inflatable rubber and not elk antlers — stood on one corner of the Town Square. After a last-second bathroom stop at Starbucks that caused me to miss the National Anthem, Ken and I nonchalantly crossed the start line alone at the back of the pack, as the timing crew prepared to pack up their equipment. We were in Wyoming, and we were in no hurry.

And with that, state #21 was underWaY.

Ken S & Mike Sohaskey - last to start Jackson Hole Marathon 2018

Ken and I take a sunrise stroll across the start line

In God’s Country (Start – mile 13)
After an immediate turn onto Broadway, Ken and I fell into a comfortable rhythm as we caught up to the back of the pack. Each of us congratulated a fellow with “CHRIS, 50 States Marathon finisher, Wyoming #50” printed in huge letters on the back of his shirt; Chris flashed an appreciative smile and thanked us in kind.

We hadn’t even run a mile before we were greeted with a hint of things to come: a sublime view of the distant Teton Range bathed in the first pink light of sunrise. In the foreground, the morning fog covered the ground of the National Elk Refuge like a thick layer of cotton balls.

I was bummed to see Jeff walking in mile two as we passed; it was clear his knees were bothering him, both of them having fallen victim to Father Time and the surgical scalpel in recent years. Jackson Hole hadn’t been on his 2019 race schedule until we’d invited them to join us, so for him this marathon would clearly be a case of “How bad you want it?” Wisely, Susan had elected to enjoy her day by sticking with the half marathon.

Mile 1 Jackson Hole Marathon - National Elk Refuge

National Elk Refuge, mile 1 — the Teton Range can be seen in the distance

As we cruised through town on the edge of wilderness, I checked my breathing and effort, since the main challenge of Jackson Hole for this sea-level sissy would be the altitude. Starting at 6,200 ft and finishing around 6,300 ft, the course would feature a net downhill to mile 8.5 before adopting a gradual, almost imperceptible uphill trajectory over the final 18 miles.

The morning was as crisp, clear and postcard-perfect as advertised, and I glanced at my Garmin periodically to ensure I kept my pace at a manageable 8:45–9:00/mile. Having run at more severe altitude in Colorado a year earlier, I knew that while the mile-high altitude of Jackson wouldn’t necessarily affect the cadence of my breathing, it would compound the usual marathon fatigue leading to increasingly heavy quads as the miles wore on.

After mile three I realized Ken was no longer running alongside me, though how far back he’d fallen I couldn’t be sure. Though most of his own marathon training had been done on a bike, Ken lives in Steamboat Springs at an altitude similar to Jackson, and so I assumed we’d be reunited at some point along the 26-mile route to Teton Village.

I was already running alone by mile four, heading south along US 26/US 89/US 189/US 191, a highway with more names than cars. Here we ran on the paved bike path dotted with the occasional black-and-gold elk crossing sign, the early morning traffic whizzing by on our left and the fog still blanketing the fields to our right like a frothy witches’ brew.

Elk crossing sign at Mile 6 of Jackson Hole Marathon

As much as I was savoring the natural beauty of my surroundings, I wondered whether this alone would be enough to sustain my motivation over the next 22 miles.

But if any race can get away with sameness of scenery, it’s Jackson Hole. Every mile was another scene from the Great Outdoors: golden-green landscapes, hearty conifers and distant mountains with a sprinkling of residences and commercial buildings. Even an atheist like myself had to appreciate that this was God’s Country, and all around us Wyoming’s wyde-open serenity and splendor were on full display.

How ironic that the country’s least populated states (Alaska, Wyoming, Montana) are also among its most beautiful. Most Americans don’t know what they’re missing.

Not only that, but the largely asphalt path beneath our feet was well maintained and a pleasure to run on. Huge props to the town of Jackson for all it’s done to optimize its Community Pathway System — as a traveling runner, I know how little regard some other parts of the country have for runners and cyclists (I’m looking at you, Texas).

Jeff R at mile 8 of Jackson Hole Marathon

Jeff ignores his knees and powers on, mile 8

At regular intervals along the right side of the trail, small signs bore the outline of a particular state plus the state abbreviation with “GRIF, State #__” written on them. Collectively the signs counted up to track Grif’s steady progress toward his 50 states goal, each of us reliving the journey right along with him. This was a neat distraction and a cool way to relive 1,310 miles of marathons.

I pulled alongside a skinny fellow in a tank top, arm warmers and visor who looked like he should be running at the front of the pack. Yes, I understand looks can be deceiving and especially where the stereotypical “runner’s body” is concerned. But still, I couldn’t help feeling a momentary surge of adrenaline on passing him by. And in the course of running 26.2 miles, I’ll take every little advantage I can get.

In the shadow of giants (Mile 14 – finish)
Heading north now toward Teton Village, the second half of the race began with a much appreciated high-five from Katie, who on this day was deftly playing the role of support crew for five runners. As expected my legs were starting to lose some of their springiness, and as much as I would have loved to demonize the altitude, if I’m being honest I probably did myself no favors with an abbreviated recovery after 56 hilly miles in South Africa.

View of Grand teton at Mile 14 of Jackson Hole Marathon

The camera adds 10 pounds & 10 miles: Grand Teton beckons, mile 14

So I was psyched to kick off mile 14 with a clear view of Grand Teton’s snow-capped peak in the distance. The nine million-year-old sentinel of Jackson Hole never looked more striking, its indomitable majesty gazing down from its perch high atop the cerulean sky. Best of all, that unmistakable white crown would be my muse and North Star for much of the final 12 miles. I couldn’t imagine a better companion.

The half marathoners merged with our own course in mile 15, not that there were any crowds to fear — with the half starting at the same time as the full, the only overlap between the two would see the fastest marathoners passing the slowest half marathoners. Jenny and Susan were well ahead of me, and hopefully we’d not meet until the finish.

Bridge over Snake River at Mile 17 of Jackson Hole Marathon

Bridge over untroubled waters, mile 17

Mile 17 saw us cross the legendary Snake River on a foot bridge parallel to the Teton Pass Hwy. To our right, the river flowed peacefully alongside the Teton Range, the distinctive snow-tipped summit of Grand Teton beckoning from afar. On any other day, this would have been the perfect place to stop for a picnic lunch.

Soon after crossing the river, I did a double take at one of the most ingenious course landmarks I’ve ever seen: an electrical transmission tower cleverly designed to look like a pine tree. Soaring above its all-natural counterparts, the electrical evergreen blended in beautifully with its wooded surroundings. Only once I’d passed did it really occur to me what I’d seen, and I’d have to return after the race for a proper picture.

Tree Transformer seen at Jackson Hole Marathon

Would you have realized this isn’t a tree?

As we turned onto the shoulder of the Teton Pass Hwy for a brief stretch, an electronic road sign bid drivers to be “CAREFUL: 3 MOOSE HIT IN JULY” and warned of “YOUNG OSPREY ON ROAD.” As if to punctuate this warning, the occasional osprey could be seen nesting atop an electrical pole. Meanwhile, a fast-moving flock of Canadian geese flew overhead in characteristic V-shaped formation, their distinctive honking quickly receding to the south.

Even if the chances of such an encounter were slim, it’s not every day you see a “MOOSE XING” sign along a marathon course.

I typically try to minimize/eliminate aid station stops, and luckily ideal weather helped my cause in Jackson. I’d been training in the heat and humidity of Los Angeles, plus I don’t sweat much normally. So with temperatures in the 40s and 50s I wasn’t losing much in the way of water or electrolytes, nor did the thought of Gatorade, GU or even water sound appealing. And so on I ran, bypassing each aid station with my reusable polyurethane SpeedCup stuffed in the pocket of my shorts in recognition of the race’s environmentally friendly, Cup-Free policy.

As you might predict at a small-town marathon in an isolated region of the country, spectators were limited to small, sporadic clusters in the vicinity of aid stations. Well, two-legged spectators at least — in the second half of the race we passed plenty of cattle, including a couple of black cows who chewed their cud and stared blankly at us as if to say, “Don’t you ever accuse us of being dumb animals.”

Cows as spectators at Jackson Hole Marathon

One of the largest gatherings of “spectators” on the course

At slower marathons, i.e. those I’m not necessarily racing, I’ll start out telling myself to stay steady so I can preserve enough energy to speed up in the final three miles and finish strong. Then, sometime after mile 16 as my legs grow heavy, that number becomes the final two miles… and then just as soon as I reach the mile 25 marker. Dr. Strange may be Master of the Mystic Arts, but after 30+ marathons I’ve become a master of mental chicanery.

It’s the immutable law of marathoning: whether I’m running the first 20 miles at 7:30 or 9:30/mile, at altitude or at sea level, the last six miles always suck. Two-time Olympic marathon medalist Frank Shorter said it best: “Why couldn’t Pheidippides have died at mile 20?”

Speaking of mile 20, the struggle was real as I glanced up to see Katie just off the path ahead of me — I hadn’t expected to see her again until the finish line. But as quickly as my spirits rose on seeing her, they immediately fell again when I saw Jeff standing alongside her dressed in spectating gear. Clearly, despite a strong head and heart, his knees hadn’t been in the game today. I had no doubt he’d made the right choice, and as it turns out his decision had been made easier by Katie’s presence (with automobile) at the halfway point.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 20 of Jackson Hole Marathon

Celebrating a Katie sighting, mile 20

From there I had one simple goal: to keep moving. Because I knew that as soon as I walked once, I’d want to walk twice, and each walk break would become progressively longer until I was racking up 10+ minute miles with no shot at a four-hour finish (my “A” goal which I knew was still within reach). I would already be cutting it close, so I resolved to stay focused and keep pushing forward as fast as possible without stopping. Just keep running, just keep running…

I felt like a human hourglass, as though with each stride my quads were gradually filling with sand.

Yet another immutable law of marathoning, this one a positive: even in a race as small as Jackson Hole with its 175 finishers, by continuing to move at even a leisurely jogging pace you’ll pass at least a few runners in the last six miles. And passing other runners always feels good, particularly in the closing miles when every ounce of motivation counts.

Both my neck and shoulders were now uncomfortably tight — a consequence of the altitude, I assumed.

Hiking Cascade Canyon after Jackson Hole Marathon

Post-race hiking in Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park

At mile 25 the TLS Liquor and Beer tent awaited with free samples. No way, no way, no way. Instead I took that as my cue to try to step up my pace ever so slightly. At the same time I passed a fellow who, every few seconds, emitted a guttural bark as though he’d just been shot in the side. Luckily he showed no other outward signs of distress, and so with less than a mile between us and Teton Village, all my remaining energy went into putting as much distance as possible between me and my unnervingly noisy friend.

Ah, but few sounds fall so sweetly on the ears as the chime of a GPS watch marking the end of mile 26. That’s your cue to empty the gas tank and give it everything you’ve got, knowing the finish line will be coming into view at any moment.

And Jackson Hole’s Teton Village finish line didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was among the most beautiful I’ve seen, nestled as it was at the base of the Teton Range with the last few yards on grass. High above us red gondolas delivered passengers from the village to the top of the mountain and back. The scene — green and evergreen surroundings overlooked by mountains on a backdrop of vivid blue sky — overwhelmed the senses, as though Mother Nature had jacked up her vibrance setting to “11.”

Finish line of Jackson Hole Marathon

One of the country’s most gorgeous finish lines

Crossing the grass I heard Katie yell, “You’re gonna make it under 4 hours!” In silent celebration I passed under the inflatable arch — patterned after Jackson’s own elk antler arches — in an official time of 3:58:05, keeping my sub-4 road marathon streak intact.

Exhausted, I bent over with hands on knees and said hello to co-Race Director and legendary ultrarunner Lisa Smith-Batchen, who welcomed me back and hung a finisher’s medal around my neck, signaling the official completion of state #21. Among her storied accomplishments in the sport, Smith-Batchen is a nine-time finisher and two-time winner of the Badwater 135, as well as the first American to win the prestigious 6-day, 250km Marathon des Sables. (Both races bill themselves as the world’s “toughest foot race.”) So receiving congrats and a medal from someone of her stature was the perfect ending to a special morning.

Jackson Hole Marathon co-RD Lisa Smith-Batchen at finish line

Co-Race Director Lisa Smith-Batchen welcomes back her finishers

(Jackson) Hole lotta love
Jenny and Susan waited at the finish with Jeff, each basking in her own post-race glow. Ken would join us 50 minutes later, his pace like most of ours having slowed considerably in the last six miles. It is an immutable law of marathoning, after all…

As we sat recovering and swapping stories, we saw our blonde friend from the hotel cross the finish line with the same faraway, expressionless look on her face from that morning. She’d successfully notched state #43. And though I don’t claim to know her story, here’s hoping Jackson was simply a mental hiccup on her journey across 50 states and seven — check that, eight — continents.

Ken S finishing Jackson Hole Marathon

Ken finishes strong with Jenny’s support

But we couldn’t leave before the grand finale. Alongside an impressive gathering of friends and family (“Grif’s Crew”), I cheered fellow 50 Stater Chris Griffes — the fellow we’d passed in mile one and to whom all those signs along the course had paid tribute — across the finish line as he celebrated the final chapter in his own epic 18-year quest, begun at the turn of the century in his home state of Washington. Bravo, Chris!

Being a fellow 50 stater who’s not quite halfway to my goal, I have big-time respect for what Chris has accomplished and the resolve he’s shown to get there.

50 States Finisher Grif at Jackson Hole Marathon 2018

“Grif’s Crew” erupts in cheers as he closes the book on his 50 States journey

As good as the race itself was, the post-race was even better. After a celebratory gathering with the six of us at Jackson’s popular Snake River Brewing, Katie and I spent Sunday exploring Grand Teton National Park with Ken and Jenny. There, hiking in the shadow of the Teton Range, we immersed ourselves in the park’s wild beauty while enjoying excellent human and ungulate companionship, including our first moose sighting since — well, since our first visit to GTNP a decade ago.

Note to every state I have yet to run in: please be more like Wyoming (moose optional). Except you, Alaska and Hawaii — you guys don’t change a thing.

Moose sighting in Cascade Creek, Grand Teton National Park

Oh, deer! A moose cow cools off in Cascade Creek, Grand Teton National Park

Jackson Hole is a shining example that, when it comes to marathons, size doesn’t necessarily matter. Sure, two of my favorite marathons in Boston and Chicago both happen to be huge and awesome. But most of my favorites including Big Sur, Missoula and now Jackson Hole are smaller, more intimate gatherings in some of the nation’s most picturesque venues. So it comes as no surprise that JHM recently was named the best marathon in Wyoming by RaceRaves. Shout-out to Race Directors Jay Batchen and Lisa-Smith Batchen — it’s tough to imagine a more charming, uplifting race experience.

With that, we said our goodbyes to Wyoming and hit the road for our return trip to Salt Lake City. Maybe though, with my Boston Red Sox ousting Ken’s Astros as this year’s World Series champs, the choice of our next group destination race will fall on me.

Until then, here’s to us losers… because state #21 was a WYnner.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho, Jackson Hole Marathon finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: From now on, whenever non-runners (and even some runners) ask why I’m running in all 50 States, I have an easy two-word answer: Jackson Hole. The opportunity to discover incredible hidden gems like JHM is what motivates me to travel the country and the planet in search of the world’s best races. Few marathons can top Jackson Hole’s mix of eye-popping scenery, comfortable low-key production and easy access to two of the nation’s most beautiful destinations in Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. It’s no surprise then that Jackson Hole was just voted the best marathon in Wyoming by runners across the country on RaceRaves.

For most of us Jackson Hole isn’t easy to get to, but then again that’s part of its allure. Flights into Jackson are typically expensive and indirect, with the airport located right at the base of the Teton Range. For this reason (but also because we have a Southwest Airlines companion pass) we flew into the closest Southwest hub, Salt Lake City, and made the 280-mile drive to Jackson through rustic Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. The drive felt like a Cliffs Notes version of the Great American Road Trip. And we stayed just outside of town (~2 miles from the marathon start in Jackson Town Square) at the Flat Creek Inn, a nice affordable alternative to the host hotel in the heart of Jackson.

Mike Sohaskey & Susan K at Jackson Hole Marathon finish

Susan and I bask in another shared finish line

The race is held on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, when Grand Teton and Yellowstone experience the last gasps of the summer tourism season. So while there will still be plenty of cars in the parks, traffic won’t be what it is during the summer months. At the same time, weather for race weekend this year was gorgeous, with temperatures ranging from the high 30s to mid 70s with plenty of sun. And few sights are more stunning or life-affirming than Grand Teton and the little Tetons on a sunny day.

Note to sea-level sissies like me: Jackson Hole sits at ~6,300 ft, and though the altitude may not perturb your breathing, you’ll likely notice your legs feeling heavier than normal on race day. Luckily the course is relatively flat with gentle climbs and descents, so you’ll have that going for you in your battle against the thin air.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho hiking in Cascade Canyon

PRODUCTION: Don’t confuse adjectives like “low-key” and “relaxed” with “loosely organized” — race directors Jay Batchen and Lisa Smith-Batchen know exactly what they’re doing. This is a race for runners by runners, and one that does exactly what it needs to do production-wise before yielding the stage to the star of the show, Jackson’s pristine beauty. The marathon course was impeccably measured and marked, with plenty of aid stations (or so it seemed, though I didn’t stop at any). As a cup-free event, runners were instructed to carry their own “hydration system” (cup, bottle or vest) which could be filled and refilled at aid stations; I carried in one pocket a handy collapsible HydraPak SpeedCup which I ended up not using.

If race photos are your jam then Jackson Hole may not be for you, since Katie was the only photographer I saw on the course.

Reminiscent of Disney events, the post-race food was a FitFul box containing pita chips, hummus and applesauce. Best of all was the goodie bag, which included a voucher for a free beer (with the purchase of an entrée) at the popular Snake River Brewing, which happens to be Wyoming’s oldest brewery as well as a great place to celebrate another marathon success with friends. Cheers!

Jackson Hole 2018 medal

SWAG: My favorite finisher medals tend to feature some memorable aspect of the community, whether it be a city skyline or popular local attraction. Case in point the smartly crafted JHM medal, which depicts the iconic Jackson Elk Antler Arch with a “JHM” dangling from the peak of the arch. And not that anyone runs (or judges) a marathon next door to Grand Teton National Park based on its shirt, but JHM’s is a nicely understated blue Greenlayer tee that I’ve happily included in my regular rotation.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey 50 States map

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Sept 1, 2018 (start time 7:05 am)
26.42 miles from Jackson to Teton Village, WY (state 21 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:58:05 (first time running the Jackson Hole Marathon), 9:06/mile
Finish place: 32 overall, 12/27 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 175 (91 men, 84 women)
Race weather: cold (36°F) & clear at the start, warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 557 ft gain, 514 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 6,033 ft, 6,337 ft

Splits_JHM

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

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