Archive for the ‘50 States’ Category

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

View of Clark Fork River

Behold! The Clark Fork River

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

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

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

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

Missoula Marathon welcome sign in Missoula airport

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Grand Teton

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

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

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

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

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

Missoula Marathon 2017 start line

Awaiting the go-ahead to run wild

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

Missoula Marathon 2017 mile 4

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - mile 9 of Missoula Marathon 2017

Two thumbs up at mile 9

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

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

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

Kona Bridge - mile 11 of Missoula Marathon 2017

A river runs under it: Kona Bridge, mile 11

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

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

Mile 14 of Missoula Marathon

Heading up Halfway Hill, mile 14

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

Maclay Bridge - Mile 17 of Missoula Marathon

Maclay Bridge, mile 17

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

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

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

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

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

Missoula residents misting marathon runners

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Missoula Marathon

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

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

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

Missoula Marathon finish line

(Photo: Gameface Media)

I was liking these signs more and more.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing Missoula Marathon

Ain’t nothin’ so fine as a finish line

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Tim Mullican at Missoula Marathon

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Because I enjoyed the dickens out of Missoula.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Missoula Marathon finish line selfie

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

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

Huckleberries in the wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated 50 states map:


RaceRaves rating:


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

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A boy’s story is the best that is ever told.
– Charles Dickens

Louisiana Marathon start
State 15 would beckon from

a land of purple & gold,
The next chapter in our story
and each chapter must be told…

The scene felt eerily lifted from a dystopian sci-fi film. As if of one mind, bodies like drowsy ants moved slowly but purposefully toward the start line. The hulking shadow of the nation’s tallest state capitol building loomed in the background, its dimly lit tower shrouded by the gray morning fog.

This was race day weather different than any I’d experienced before—foggy and yet strangely humid. Anyone who didn’t keep track of such things wouldn’t have guessed that just seven days earlier and 175 miles to the northeast, the Mississippi Blues Marathon in that state’s capital city of Jackson had been canceled by freezing rain and icy conditions.

Welcome to winter in the Deep South.

Louisiana Marathon start line shrouded in fog

Into the fog: One minute to “go” time (the state capitol is out of the picture behind us)

By contrast, here in Baton Rouge we’d apparently lucked out. Cloudy skies were expected to prevail until at least noon, and all signs pointed to ideal race day conditions. In our customary fashion Katie and I had arrived—after a ten-minute walk from our hotel—within 15 minutes of the official 7:00am start. That left me plenty of time to sidle my way to the front of the loosely packed start corral, where I found new friends James and Joey lined up ready to roll. Literally.

James and Joey (Team JoJo) would be taking part in the Louisiana Half Marathon as Ainsley’s Angels, a group that “aims to build awareness about America’s special needs community through inclusion in all aspects of life”. I’d first been introduced to Joey online and learned of his story through Mike B, a Bay Area friend who’d met the boy through “I Run For Michael”, a Facebook group that pairs able-bodied and special needs athletes.

Mike runs for Joey because Joey can’t run for himself. Joey has cerebral palsy but—as Mike likes to say—it doesn’t have him. He recently underwent Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy (SDR) surgery to reduce the spasticity in his lower body, a breakthrough procedure that has enabled him to walk and even run short distances. Nevertheless, his is a daily battle fought with the love and support of his dad James, mom Jessica and sister Abi.

But if you think having special needs earns him your pity, you’d be wrong. Joey is like any other 7-year-old boy—bursting with energy and eager to show off. When Katie and I met him and has family at the expo on Saturday, he kept us laughing with his infectious smile and carefree goofiness.

Mike Sohaskey, Joey and James D at the Louisiana Marathon expo

Joey shows off his Iron Man-like abs at the pre-race expo (dad James is at right)

And as it turns out, Joey loves to race. Apparently, after seeing an Ironman competition on television one day, he let it be known that that’s what he wanted to do. So at the urging of his son (and because that’s what awesome dads do), James trained his body into triathlete shape and now regularly pushes his athlete-rider son in a specially designed racing chair reminiscent of Boston’s legendary father-son duo of Dick and Rick Hoyt.

With start time fast approaching in Baton Rouge, Team JoJo looked ready to roll alongside a couple dozen other teams of Ainsley’s Angels. I wished them both good luck before falling back to take my place among the 3:45 pace group.

The Mayor/President-elect of Baton Rouge said a few words of welcome over the PA, and with five days to go until the inauguration of our 45th President, who can say whether she was referencing the current political unease when she quoted Kathrine Switzer: “If you are ever losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

Horace Wilkinson Bridge over the Mississippi during Louisiana Marathon weekend

The Horace Wilkinson Bridge spans the mighty Mississippi, with the USS Kidd in the foreground

Under cloudy humid skies this day
there’d be no winter cold
(All the details that matter
to the story must be told).

After a National Anthem sung by a fellow runner whose goal is to sing in all 50 states, we were off on what for most of us would be our first marathon of 2017. The first few miles flew by quickly, as the first few miles of a marathon typically do. With little to see thanks to the lingering fog, I took the opportunity to gather my thoughts and plan out my strategery for the next 3+ hours.

My goal for the day was simple: my training plan called for 13 miles at a pace of 8:08/mile, meaning I’d give myself three slower miles to warmup before kicking it up to an 8:08/mile pace. I’d then maintain that pace until mile 16, where I’d re-evaluate and hopefully take the last 10 miles to pat myself on the back. No pressure.

The fog persisted as though it had something to hide, and it struck me how little of Baton Rouge I was seeing. We’d begun our visit 36 hours earlier in a similar manner, entering the town under cover of darkness after making the late-night drive from New Orleans. All I’d been able to spy in the way of scenery had been the shadowy skeletons of trees lining both sides of the highway, and my brain had conjured up spooky imagery to fill in the gaps created by the blackness. In our rental car “Far From Any Road”, the haunting theme song to HBO’s gritty True Detective, served as our soundtrack welcoming us to Louisiana.

Back on course, I was feeling great despite the odd winter humidity, and was having no trouble holding an 8:08/mile pace. In fact, on several occasions I had to consciously slow down to avoid dipping down into the 7:40s. Given that 2016 had been a slowdown year for me with zero sub-3:30 marathons, it was comforting to be able to hold an ~8:00/mile pace easily.

Running south in a literal haze we passed The Book Exchange, one of the few edifices I could make out and the most dilapidated building we’d see all day. The store looked abandoned to say the least, as though it had exchanged its last book sometime during the Eisenhower administration.

Team JoJo at mile 9 of the Louisiana Marathon

Team JoJo looking strong in mile 9

Teams of Ainsley’s Angels were out on the course providing plenty of inspiration, and I clapped and cheered as I passed James and Joey on a slight incline in mile 3. James ran with a smile on his face while Joey stared straight ahead, keenly focused on the task at hand. And though I’d miss seeing them again as they’d finish an hour before me, father and son would celebrate their 13.1-mile accomplishment with Joey crossing the finish line on his own two legs—legs that I have no doubt will cross a lot more finish lines in the future. Congrats, Team JoJo!

Continuing along Park Blvd, the sprawling oaks lining each side of the street formed an extended “tree tunnel” that would have offered much-needed shade on a warm day. The green expanses of Baton Rouge City Park swept by, followed by City Park Lake, which seemed to morph almost seamlessly into the creatively named University Lake that borders the Louisiana State University (LSU) campus.

We hit the mile 5 marker outside what I’d guess is the centerpiece of the campus and the most popular center of worship in Baton Rouge—Tiger Stadium, which hosts the football team and undoubtedly as many LSU faithful as it can fit during the football season. I’ve said it before—I’m a sucker for a good college campus, and certainly the opportunity to run around and through the LSU campus may have influenced my choice of Louisiana marathons (that and not liking New Orleans). Like Austin, Baton Rouge is a college town moonlighting as a state capital.

Louisiana Marathon running by Tiger Stadium at LSU

The church of college football: Tiger Stadium (aka “Death Valley”) at mile 5

The highlight of the marathon route, had I not been distracted by the massive football monolith on the opposite side of the street, would have been the 15,000-square foot outdoor tiger enclosure, constructed in 2005 for a reported $3 million. The enclosure’s sole inhabitant is the campus mascot, Mike the Tiger—since 1936 there have been a series of “Mikes” who have called the campus home. Sadly its most recent occupant, Mike VI, lost his battle with sarcoma (soft tissue cancer) in October, and so the habitat currently sits empty.

I’m not an advocate of zoos, and so I was glad not to see another regal animal cooped up in a small space. And I’m not alone—after Mike V’s death in 2007, PETA had apparently urged the LSU chancellor at the time not to bring in a new tiger, a request that was roundly rejected in favor of Mike VI. But in LSU’s defense, Mike VI had been a rescue animal donated by an Indiana-based large cat and carnivore rescue facility, so it’s not like the chancellor sent a campus task force out to the Serengeti to poach a Bengal tiger. Nevertheless, the thought of such a magnificent beast living alone on—of all places—a college campus left me with mixed emotions, and I was admittedly relieved not to see it for myself.

Making a brief detour away from University Lake, we ran on narrow streets that read like a “greatest hits” of U.S. higher education—Cornell, Harvard, Emory, Stanford—past well-maintained homes with immaculately groomed yards and patios set off by white balustrades. Telltale signs of faculty housing.

By the time we rounded the campus and reached the opposite side of the lake, now headed north the way we’d come, the fog had lifted and I could finally appreciate our surroundings. Nutrition-wise I was sticking to a schedule, downing one Clif Shot Blok every 20 minutes and one gel on the hour, a strategy that seemed to be keeping my energy levels stable. I was feeling good, and I continued to pull back on the throttle as I regularly dropped below an 8:00/mile pace.

Mile 9 of Louisiana Marathon around University Lake

Fog-free mile 9 around University Lake

But no matter how good I felt as I pulled alongside the 3:35 pace group on the narrow lake path, it was tough to appreciate Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasting its time-tested chorus of “WHOAAAAAA, we’re halfway there…” in mile 9. With 17+ miles to go. (This is the running equivalent of an “alternative fact”.)

Entering double digits at mile 10, I passed the bizarre “Supreme Race selfie station”. From what I recall based on a fleeting glimpse, this featured a wooden cutout of a large bag of race primed for picture taking. And you’ll probably be shocked to learn there was no one waiting in line when I passed. No offense to Supreme Rice, I’m sure they make an awesome grain and I appreciate their sponsorship of this event since we couldn’t run without them—but how high on endorphins or Insta-crazed do you have to be to pose in the middle of a race with a fake (or real) bag of rice?

The miles flew by on a fantastic day for running, with long stretches of residential roads featuring pockets of cheer zones, though never any oversized or overly raucous groups of spectators. And now that I think of it, though they’re referenced on the website I don’t recall hearing any live bands along the course, either.

Speaking of spectators, my shout-out for best of the day went to an enthusiastic 4-year-old drill sergeant-in-training, with his blonde crewcut and impassioned cries of “LET’S GO RUN-NERS! LET’S GO RUN-NERS! LET’S GO RUN-NERS!” For a second I thought he might see my smile and tell me to drop and give him 10 pushups. He didn’t miss a beat or pause for breath as I passed, his boisterious chants receding in the distance behind me.

At mile 11 the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, with the half marathon course headed back toward the Capitol and the marathon course continuing east. This splitting of the two courses thinned the crowd (~75% half marathoners, 25% marathoners) dramatically and left me essentially running by myself. Just the way I like it.

Mike Sohaskey selfie in mile 10 of Louisiana Marathon

There’s always time during a marathon for a selfie (University Lake, mile 10)

To maintain an aggressive pace
whether naïve or bold,
Leads our story to an ending,

and the ending must be told.

I continued to hit my 8:08 mile paces comfortably as I approached mile 16, the end of my planned 13-mile tempo run. I decided to maintain that comfortable pace beyond mile 16 rather than intentionally slowing down, since the latter ironically struck me as the more laborious option. If I got tired I got tired, and at that point I’d slow down. All I had to do from here was maintain an 8:30/mile pace to ensure an easy sub-3:45.

Through attractive subdivisions we ran, along oak- and magnolia-lined streets decorated with homes whose distinctive architecture hinted at their antebellum roots. The city’s charming Southern architecture helped distract my mind from the mounting mileage.

The more marathons I run, the less likely it becomes I’ll see a new spectator sign that strikes my fancy—and Louisiana was no exception. “Your couch misses you” may have been my favorite of the day, though a shout-out to the lady with the “You run marathons, I watch them on Netflix” sign. And I’ve noticed in the past year that “Run faster, I farted” has become the go-to race day motivation of kids across the country.

Louisiana Old State Capitol building and Baton Rouge 200 sign

Louisiana’s Old State Capitol—used as such for 60 of the town’s 200 years—is now a National Historic Landmark

“Great job, random stranger!” is one of the more popular spectator signs at any marathon, and I couldn’t help laughing when a runner behind me responded on one occasion with an exuberant shout of “Thanks, random citizen!”

I reached mile 23 before fatigue finally insinuated its way into my quads and hip flexors. Recognizing that I’ve got a lot of racing miles ahead of me in 2017, I consciously slowed to avoid blowing out my legs in my first race of the year. Even so I continued to pass other runners, and I can only recall a single runner passing me in the last 13 miles, with that coming in the final mile. Not since last year’s Los Angeles Marathon had I run a marathon this comfortably. Good to know my legs ain’t broke.

I held off on my last gel until just before the mile 24 aid station, leaving me no choice but to accept a cup of water from a fellow dressed head-to-toe in Green Bay Packers gear. Those same Packers would jettison my Dallas Cowboys from the NFL playoffs on a last-second field goal later in the day. Unfortunately, at mile 24 of a marathon beggars can’t be choosers, so I smiled and thanked him while silently wishing a soul-crushing and season-ending defeat on his team. Apparently he was wishing just a little bit harder.

Louisiana Marathon finish line homestretch

1/10 of a mile to go with half marathoners on the left, marathoners on the right

Mile 25, and the marathon and half marathon courses merged once again as we turned back toward the Capitol. And here the organizers demonstrated the kind of keen foresight that runners appreciate (and remember), keeping the two courses separated with half marathoners on the left and marathoners on the right. Not that there were many half marathoners remaining after more than 3 hours, but it’s never fun to have to weave tiredly around a pack of shoulder-to-shoulder walkers spread out across the street and oblivious to exhausted runners coming up behind them. It’s a small thing to be sure, but small things add up—and attention to detail is what distinguished the Louisiana Marathon from some other small-town races I’ve run.

The course is almost entirely flat, the most noticeable “hill” being the North Blvd overpass located in mile 2 and—as course layout would have it—mile 26. Still feeling good but ready to be done, I ran step-for-step with another determined fellow as we crossed the overpass and approached the short-but-nasty uphill jag leading to the final turn.

One last surge of adrenaline hit me as we turned up 4th St. into the home stretch, and I could just make out the finish arch faintly visible nearly half a mile away. I’d done what I came here to do, and as I passed the mile 26 marker I soaked up the crowd’s energy and genuinely enjoyed the last 385 yards, returning to the State Capitol in much less of a haze than I’d left it and in a time of 3:31:13, my fastest marathon in nearly two years.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Louisiana Marathon

Bienvenue à la ligne d’arrivée! Celebrating a jog well run

I reunited with Katie who had been everywhere as usual, covering the course almost as efficiently as the fog. We compared notes and cheered in other finishers before slowly diffusing toward the finish festival. It’s not often I look forward to a post-race party, but I’d heard and read so much about Louisiana’s hospitality that I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

And the festival didn’t disappoint, with food and vendor booths set up around the perimeter of State Capitol Park, giving finishers a place to stretch, lounge and munch while a live band entertained with the musical stylings of the Deep South. If you’re wondering how two vegetarians found their way in a state known for meat-heavy dishes like jambalaya and crawfish étouffée, the Whole Foods Vegan Village featured a variety of tasty options, even if they did run out of several items early. And the beer was flowing freely for carnivores and herbivores alike.

On the leisurely walk back to our hotel we stopped to chat with Jim, a fellow finisher clad brightly in INKnBURN gear, hot pink headband and rainbow calf sleeves. Jim also happened to be the singer of that morning’s National Anthem. We chatted briefly about his own 50 states quest (running and singing), and he mentioned that he celebrates every finish with a post-race headstand. Clearly the man is—in his own words—not a wallflower.

Upon learning he’d be running SoCal’s own Surf City on Super Bowl Sunday, we promised to keep an eye out for each other. And as luck would have it, three weeks later we’d reunite after crossing the Surf City finish line within seconds of each other, Jim finishing the half marathon (which started 90 minutes later than the full) while I wrapped up my second marathon of the young year. It’s a small world, after all.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Louisiana Marathon finish line
Parting ways with Jim, we’d have one last acquaintance to make before saying our goodbyes to Baton Rouge. As we strolled down 4th Street away from the finish line, I saw slowly approaching the distinctive stride of marathoning legend Larry Macon, accompanied by two other runners. His labored stride—suggestive of a man carrying a bag of rocks slung over one shoulder—betrayed the accumulated miles of a man who’s run over 1,800 marathons in his 72 years. His face, however, told a different story.

“Nice to meet you, Larry!” I called, stopping to applaud. “You too!” he smiled back as he shuffled past without breaking stride. As we watched, his blue “LARRY – 1,800 Marathons and counting” vest faded into the distance, passing the mile 26 marker en route to the same finish line I’d crossed nearly 3½ hours earlier. And the question flashed across my mind—will I still be running 26 miles at a time 26 years from now? It’s tough to imagine, but one thing is certain: I won’t need four digits to count ‘em up.

Larry Macon at mile 26 of the Louisiana Marathon

Larry Legend and friends close in on mile 26 and the finish line

Few of us will ever catch a touchdown or hit a home run or dunk a basketball—but anyone can cross a finish line. If an indomitable 7–year-old with cerebral palsy can do it, and a 72-year-old can do it over 1,800 times while still smiling, then there’s no excuse for sitting on the sidelines. You don’t have to run marathons, or even half marathons, but the cliché is cliché for a reason: Where there’s a will, there almost always is a way. In an increasingly bitter and divided country, running is everyone’s sport. As the nation continues to accumulate negative energy, challenging yourself to reach your personal finish line regardless of obstacles—physical or otherwise—will always be among the most positive things you can do to improve yourself, inspire others and make a difference.

Because there’s nothing like a good run to lift the fog.

The lesson learned? Keep this in mind:
though (s)he be young or old,
A runner’s story may just be
the best that’s ever told.

Baton Rouge sunset

BOTTOM LINE:
Whether you’re a 50 stater
or just seeking a great race,
I can tell you with conviction
Baton Rouge is just the place.

With Deep South hospitality
and lagniappe to spare,
you get the sense the folks in charge
do really give a care.

Logistics are easy, the course shows off
the campus and the town,
and ‘cross the finish line awaits
the best post-race fest around.

Free photos, awesome volunteers,
aid stations laid out well—
if the devil’s in the details
Louisiana gives ‘em hell.

Sure, the swag may not excite
with simple shirt and bling.
But ask me would I run again?
No doubt—and that’s the thing.

So a final word for runners
looking for a top-notch show:
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
is the place you want to geaux!

#GeauxRunLA

Louisiana Marathon medal by state capitol building

Baton Rouge wins the medal for tallest state capitol building in the nation

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves review of the Louisiana Marathon
FINAL STATS:

January 15, 2017 (start time 7:00am)
26.38 miles in Baton Rouge, LA (state 15 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:31:13 (first time running the Louisiana Marathon), 8:01/mile
Finish place: 76 overall, 8/71 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 951 (537 men, 414 women)
Race weather: cool, cloudy & foggy at the start (temp 61°F), cool & cloudy at the finish, humid throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 170 ft ascent, 173 ft descent

louisiana-splits

He conquers who endures.
– Persius

Omaha We Don't Coast sign
The Boss dedicated an album to it. Academy Award nominee and noted ultrarunner Bruce Dern starred in a movie about it. On game days, its college football stadium becomes the second-most populous “city” in the state. And it’s widely regarded as America’s Heartland, although technically speaking relative to the nation’s geographic center in Kansas, it’s more like America’s appendix.

But if Nebraska is indeed America’s Heartland, then given the current state of the nation I shouldn’t have been surprised by the PA announcer’s words as we gathered in the first light of daybreak outside TD Ameritrade Park.

“There’s been a shooting over on Cuming, we’re going to have to push back our start time 30 minutes to an hour.”

After the initial shock subsided—a shooting? At 6:30am on a Sunday in Omaha?—a murmur of uncertainty rippled through the modest crowd. Now what do we do?

Omaha Marathon 2016 start line

Sunrise behind the start line

An important footnote for non-runners: delaying the start of a marathon isn’t the same as rescheduling lunch with a friend or pushing back a work meeting an hour. It’s not even the same as a rain delay at a baseball game.

As athletic endeavors go, marathon preparation is the most meticulous of its kind. For most runners this means 16+ weeks of dedicated training that culminates on race morning with an elaborately choreographed ritual of mental and physical preparation. Alarms chime before the crack of dawn, allowing time (but not too much time) for breakfast to be eaten and digested by a nervous gut, while leaving time (but not too much time) for the body to wake up and warm up to face the day’s daunting challenge.

More than anything, though, race morning is about steeling the mind for the 26.2-mile battle ahead, so that by the time you toe the start line you’ve mentally retreated to your happy place, poised and focused on the task at hand.

For many runners, then, delaying the start of a marathon is like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube. Don’t get me wrong—running a marathon ain’t rocket science. But as seasoned runners can testify, the key on race day is to control the process and limit the number of variables that can go wrong. The more variables that are out of your control, the more likely one of them will go haywire and short-circuit your day. And this semblance of control is one reason so many Type A personalities are drawn to running.

So then delaying the start of the race an hour introduced several new variables beyond our control, which I’ll touch on shortly. Ironically, aside from the necessarily convoluted pre-race machinations of a Boston or New York, small-town Omaha already was one of my more eventful races—and it hadn’t even begun.

Mike Sohaskey & Dan Solera at Omaha Marathon start

An hour delay at the start left me & Dan plenty of time for photos

Mission: Nebraska
Before landing in Omaha, what I’d known about Nebraska could have fit on a kernel of corn—think “Warren Buffett” and “Cornhuskers”. But then again, what does anyone know about our 37th state? “I want to askya about Nebraska,” I imagined myself saying to the young Bieber wannabe working the front desk at our hotel. But I refrained, afraid that his violently forward-combed hair may rise up like Medusa’s and turn me to stone for flaunting my ignorance.

Nebraska. The word had conjured up visions of deafening red seas of college football chaos, of sweeping golden plains and expansive green stalks of corn swaying gently in the breeze and stretching unimpeded to the infinite horizon. Wyoming would be visible to my left, Iowa to my right, with the marathon start line behind me and South Dakota directly ahead. Big-boned, salt-of-the-earth types would greet me with a firm handshake and look me in the eye when they spoke, unaware that on their smart phone at that moment, a much more interesting conversation was no doubt taking place.

So I’d admittedly been excited to leave behind, for two short days, the Hollywood pretension and urban angst of Southern California for the more tranquil open spaces of America’s Heartland. And a pre-dawn shooting to start the day definitely wasn’t sticking to the script.

Like the other anxious runners milling around us, Dan and I had no choice but to resign ourselves to the situation. We planted ourselves on the sidewalk, wandered through the crowd, hopped back in line for the porta-potties, all the while glancing frequently at our watches and hoping this watched pot would boil sooner rather than later. Because speaking of boiling, mo’ delay meant mo’ heat, and pushing the start back an hour meant we’d now be finishing closer to midday, when the mercury would top out in the mid-80s.

Finally the PA system crackled to life with the promise that the race would start promptly at 8:00am, one hour behind its scheduled 7:00am start. Unfortunately, due to the shooting—which I’d later learn involved a fellow firing a handgun at passing cars before being wounded by police—the course would have to be re-routed, meaning the organizers could no longer guarantee its certified status as a Boston Qualifier. So now, faced with the reality of qualifius interruptus, many runners had no choice but to reset their expectations. Luckily, neither Dan nor I had arrived in Omaha expecting anything more than a new race in a new place.

I’d also arrived in Omaha without Katie, the first time in four years she wouldn’t be joining me for a race. Not since the Griffith Park Trail Half Marathon in 2012 had she sat one out. With a previous commitment filling her weekend, and with no known acquaintances in Omaha, it hadn’t taken much arm-twisting from Dan to convince me to join him in coloring in Nebraska on our 50 states map.

8:00am arrived at last. Restless runners took their place in the start corral as an instrumental rendition of the National Anthem played, accompanied by the presentation of colors by the Marine Color Guard. I glanced around out of curiosity, seeing nobody on one knee doing their best Colin Kaepernick impression. With a countdown and police siren we were off, running east directly into the morning sun rising inexorably over downtown Omaha. The race was on to get back here before that same sun had its way with us.

Omaha collage from Omaha Marathon weekend

Scenes from the Heartland, or What we saw in Omaha (Clockwise from top left): the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge connecting Nebraska and Iowa; TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College Baseball World Series (CWS); oversized homage to the CWS in the Old Market neighborhood; Spirit of Nebraska Wilderness in Pioneer Courage Park; cousins to the Golden Gate Bridge?

“We don’t coast, we set the pace”
Through downtown Omaha we cruised, along gently rolling streets and past quiet industrial sections, before transitioning to more residential neighborhoods. A sign proclaiming “BLACK VOTES MATTER” greeted us from the lawn of a stately looking residence. Within two miles Dan’s long, relaxed strides had carried him out to a significant lead, and I let him go.

My training since May’s Hatfield McCoy Marathon had been strictly aerobic (meaning plenty of slow runs while wearing a heart rate monitor) with minimal speed work, and so I was determined to keep my heart rate under control and my pacing in the mid-8:00/mile range as much as possible. Given the impending heat, my main goal for the day would be a nice round sub-4 hours, with a sub-3:45 in the back of my mind depending on how things played out.

Dan Solera coasting in mile 1 of Omaha Marathon

Dan coasts while setting the pace in mile 1

Looking at the course map before the race, I’d been disappointed to see the route would 1) be an out-and-back covering 13.1 miles, and 2) not pass through either the Creighton University or the University of Nebraska Omaha campus. I’m not a fan of out-and-backs, particularly in road races where there’s no shortage of potential routes, but I am a sucker for a good college campus, so this was already (maybe unfairly) two strikes in my mind. On the other hand, as we ran along tree-lined residential streets I realized the shade here would be very much appreciated on our return trip 2+ hours from now.

At every road race, amid the predictable “RUN NOW, BEER LATER” and “WORST PARADE EVER” signs, there’s typically at least one spectator sign that’s memorable for its wit. Sometimes, though, the best humor is unintentional—and my smile mile would come early in Omaha, courtesy of a spectator sign gone wrong. As we made our way north still feeling fresh, four young kids stood elbow to elbow, each holding a sign which collectively formed a message of support—or at least that was the intent. Instead, their piecemeal message read:

BE HAPPY!
THIS!
GOT
YOU

Or maybe, I considered, they’re just being honest? Unfortunately the moment passed before I could think to stop and snap a picture, and we continued on our way without further amusement, legs churning away over asphalt streets interlaced with cracks.

Miller Park section of Omaha Marathon

Cruising through Miller Park

The green oasis of Miller Park in mile 6 offered a momentary reprieve from the treadmill monotony of residential Omaha. With its block after block of bungalow-style homes and chain-link fences, the town reminded me very much of—well, pretty much every other small town in America. This could have been Jackson, Mississippi. Or Mobile, Alabama. Or my own childhood hometown in Texas. I could have sworn I’d been here before, just as I knew I’d be here again.

In mile 8 the course emerged from residential streets onto an exposed stretch of asphalt that paralleled rusty train tracks. As the sun continued its ascent overhead, the next 10 miles of unshaded trail promised a gut check for a lot of us.

Roughly half a mile later we were directed on to the Riverside Trail, a sidewalk that paralleled the main road and which led past Power Park, an unusual collection of youth sports fields overlooked by the park’s skyline-dominating power plant on a backdrop of gleaming transformer towers. One wooden footbridge later we were turning away from the main road toward the Missouri River (mile 9-11) and Carter Lake (miles 12-13), each of which doubles as the border between Nebraska and Iowa.

Life was good, I’d knocked out the “gotta get through these” early miles, and I looked forward to seeing how much ground I could make up on those ahead of me. Watching a steady stream of runners returning from the mile 13.1 turnaround, I realized there would be serious work to do. Naturally I assumed that at least a few of these runners would fade in the intensifying heat, and I just hoped I wouldn’t be one of them.

Turns out I had NO idea.

Power Park section of Omaha Marathon

The industrial centerpiece of Power Park

Everybody hurts
Approaching from the other direction and looking composed, Dan responded to my question of “How you feeling?” with an ominous “Feels like mile 22 already.” Not what I wanted to hear, but I assumed he would—as he had so many times before—find his third or fourth wind in time to rally down the stretch.

I reached the turnaround point where a few spectators waited to cheer us on, and continued back in the opposite direction at my comfortable Goldilocks pace—not too fast, not too slow, but juuuuust right. With a nod to Iowa across the water I stepped up my pace ever so slightly and focused on my mission of passing as many runners as possible.

Dan Solera at mile 14 of Omaha Marathon

Turnaround time: Dan still floating on air in mile 14

Running along the water on the exposed trail, it struck me—unlike most runners who avoid the heat of the day, I love running in peak temperatures. Most of my weekend long runs happen at midday along a shade-free beach path under cloudless skies. Granted our SoCal summers don’t compare with the heat & humidity of a Boston or Dallas, but still given the choice, few folks will choose to run 20 miles in mid-80°F temperatures without the benefit of shade. So in that sense, these 10 miles in Omaha were no different than my typical Sunday long run, minus the ocean view.

I don’t envy you, I thought as a female runner dressed snugly as an ear of corn passed in the opposite direction, reminding us all that this was the Cornhusker State. I would’ve followed, but didn’t want her to think I was a stalk-er.

Apologies for the corny humor.

Miles 11 and 16—the segment leading from the Missouri River to Carter Lake and back again—bordered Eppley Airfield and was predictably the most drab section of the course. With little more than concrete and chain-link fences for scenery, I focused instead on my breathing and on encouraging the occasional runner still approaching in the opposite direction. These are the toughest runners out here, I thought, commiting to a 5+ hour marathon on a day like this…

Passing what looked to be a concrete mixing plant, the noxious stench of petrochemical waste clashed with the soothing sound of crickets chirping in the tall grass alongside the river. Petro-triggered memories of stifling summer days spent growing up in the suburbs of Dallas rushed to my brain—all I needed to crystallize this nostalgic interlude was a few nasty chigger bites.

Mile 17 of Omaha Marathon

Mile 17, with concrete mixing plant at left and Mormon Bridge spanning the Missouri in the distance

Looking ahead as I passed the mile 18 marker just before Power Park, I saw a sore sight for eyes, one that I hoped was nothing more than a heat-induced hallucination. But it wasn’t hot enough to be seeing things, and sure enough there was Dan’s sleeveless white tee and lime green Sauconys some 50 yards ahead of me. This sucks, I thought, crestfallen to see his head drooping and his stride reduced to a labored shuffle.

Having now experienced it, I can say without a doubt that nothing I’ve endured as a runner—not the kidney-punishing heat of Diablo, nor the food-poisoning fiasco in Mobile, not even the nauseating pain of running the last 9+ miles in Nevada on a severely sprained ankle—could compare to the abject helplessness of seeing a friend struggle mightily. And especially not with 7+ miles still to go. Were it possible, I would have gladly siphoned off half of my remaining energy and IV’ed it straight into his bloodstream. But the inconvenient truth was, Dan was the only one who could pull himself out of his unexplained tailspin. And so, with a few words of “Hang in there”-type encouragement that rang hollow in my own ears, I put my head down and plowed ahead.

Whether sympathetic or not, my own stride felt a bit more labored as I followed the Riverside Trail back toward downtown Omaha. Of course, this being the last 8 miles of a marathon on a hot day may also have contributed to my mounting fatigue.

The hotter it gets, the less my body craves calories, and I’d been training specifically for months (via dietary tweaks and frequent fasted runs) to take advantage of my body’s fat stores and reduce its need for supplemental calories on race day. So I took in zero solid calories during the Omaha Marathon nor did my body crave them, even refusing the one Clif Shot Blok I popped in my mouth in mile 16. My only in-race “nutrition” other than frequent water stops was a couple sips of Heed, the sports drink favored by masochists and runners born without taste buds. The stuff remains as unpalatable as I remember it from the otherwise amazing Moab Trail Half Marathon four years ago. On the bright side, it didn’t eat through the paper cups.

Iowa across Carter Lake - Omaha Marathon

Iowa standing tall across Carter Lake

I’m sure too the folks at Hammer Nutrition sponsoring the race would have appreciated hearing the volunteers yell “GATORADE!” at every aid station while holding out cups of Heed. Apparently nobody had instructed the volunteers on what was actually in those carbuoys.

In mile 23 I nodded to a couple of cheering spectators, one of whom called out to me, “That’s the first smile we’ve seen in a while!” Unless I’m really suffering I try to smile as much as possible, if for no other reason than to Jedi mind trick my brain into thinking “This is not the fatigue you’re looking for.”

This year’s marathon was at 1/3 capacity with 332 finishers… though after mile 20, that number seemed about 300 too high. A war of attrition was playing out as we retraced our steps through the tree-lined residential neighborhoods of Omaha. Runners became increasingly sparse and I passed each one in succession, many of them valiantly jogging a few steps at a time before giving in to fatigue and slowing to a walk.

One fellow sporting a bright yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet chugged along, his arms pumping furiously. Grunts of exertion escaped his lips, sounding like something I’d expect to hear on the other side of my hotel room wall. His snorts & groans acted like second-hand fatigue, threatening to sap my own energy as I hurried to pass.

Mile 25 of Omaha Marathon

Runners were few & far between as we neared downtown Omaha in mile 25

Coming down the long straightway of N. 19th St. in mile 25, with an uplifting view of the downtown Omaha skyline rising in the distance, I had to keep close tabs on the nearest runner some 100 yards ahead, since it would have been easy to guess wrong—especially with my subpar sense of direction—and take a wrong turn at any intersection.

Honestly, I’ve never seen a group of marathoners struggle more in the last few miles than I did in Omaha—aside from the runner directly ahead of me, I don’t recall seeing anyone running in mile 26. Usually a few folks dig deep in that final mile, riding the last of their energy reserves to a proud finish. Not in Omaha. And I was reminded that psychologically it’s incredibly tough, with the sun beating down on you and your body begging you to take a break, to keep running when everyone around you is walking. Not that my pace by this point was anything to celebrate—my final three miles would each clock in at over 9:00 minutes. But still, I refused to stop running. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

Time to finish this thing.

Omaha Mural Project

Omaha Mural Project: Fertile Ground tells the story of Omaha’s past, present & future

The Road to Omaha
Approaching TD Ameritrade Park, the crowd of runners swelled as we merged with the back-of-the-pack half marathoners. None of them were running either.

One final left turn and we entered the park, emerging on the center-field warning track. The jumbo screen to our left broadcast live footage of runners approaching the finish. Crikey, I still have to circle the field? I thought wryly as my desperate eyes searched for and found the finish line 300° away, like water in the desert. Ironically, on any other occasion I might’ve taken the time to soak in my surroundings and savor this victory lap—but not right now. Right now I wanted to be done. I sped up on the dirt to pass the family ahead of me so I could finish in the clear, crossing the finish line in a time of 3:47:22.

U.S. Marine awarding Omaha Marathon medal

When a U.S. Marine congratulates you, that’s humbling

For the first time in 23 marathons, not a single runner had passed me in the second half of the race.

With as energetic a “thankoo” as I could muster, I proudly allowed one of the waiting Marine Corps officers to hang an impressively ginormous medal around my neck, accepted two ice-cold bottles of water and then staggered toward the outfield wall, which looked both willing and able to support my exhausted remains. As though waiting for this moment, sweat begin to stream down my face, stinging my eyes with sunscreen. And despite a cooling breeze and partially cloudy sky, the day suddenly got very hot. Was I overheating?

I collapsed in the shade against the wall and gulped one bottle of water while balancing the other on the back of my neck. There I watched one runner after another round the field, few seeming to enjoy their victory lap. The 3:45 pacer crossed the finish and shuffled past, shaking his head and muttering “Bad day for a personal worst”.

Trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, I turned my attention instead to Dan. As though reading my mind my phone buzzed with a text, letting me know he was at mile 25 and feeling dizzy. Well, shit. I weighed my options—I could sit here and wait for him, or I could stumble around and likely throw up on the field. I chose not to move.

Really now… who wouldn’t want to run a marathon?

Mike Sohaskey at Omaha Marathon finish
Finally Dan emerged from the entryway tunnel, taking his time circling the field before striding across the finish looking none the worse for wear. Clearly he’s a quiet sufferer, I thought. And it was amazing to think that although each of us had run nearly twice as many (hilly) miles together four months earlier, these relatively flat 26 miles had felt twice as hard as those 50. No doubt about it—heat is a stone-cold killa.

We were both completely spent and not at all hungry, and after briefly collapsing on a patch of grass Dan headed back to the hotel while I stuck around to collect my day’s winnings, courtesy of a runner-up age group finish. Unfortunately the organizers weren’t yet ready to present the marathon awards. Not only that, but the fellow announcing the 5K winners under the midday sun was doing so at a lethargic pace that, by comparison, made the sloth from “Zootopia” sound like an auctioneer. Luckily I was able to return after hotel checkout to claim my award, since it’s a very nice certificate presented in a curved acrylic frame. Not the easiest thing to carry on an airplane, but definitely worth the inconvenience.

run-for-the-border_bch

Someone stop her, she’s making a run for the border!

Our last couple of hours in Omaha were spent at a Nebraska-like pace. Try as we might we couldn’t muster the energy to visit the trendy Old Market neighborhood with its supposedly cool breweries, nor could either of us locate our appetite. Instead we sat in a gastropub next to TD Ameritrade Park, chatting while Dan nursed one beer and the poor waiter graciously brought us refill after refill of water. Dan (recently a 3:16 marathoner) tried to make sense of his acute struggles, which you can read about in his “Anatomy of a Bonk”.

Luckily Dan’s a resilient guy (on to state #46!), a thoughtful guy and to me, Omaha was more memorable for the company and life experience than for any race day detail (random shooter notwithstanding). Plus, coming together in the middle of the country was a terrific way to experience a place that otherwise holds very little allure, like the Jeb! of the 50 states.

Omaha certainly wasn’t the most distinctive city I’ve marathon’ed in—aside from The Road to Omaha, a 1,500-pound bronze sculpture that sits outside TD Ameritrade Park, nothing about the city stood out in my mind. Typically a marathon course bends over backward to showcase a city, so maybe this was more the fault of the organizers than the city. Granted my visit lasted only 42 hours, and maybe there are other parts of the city that residents point to as distinctly Omaha—but if not for its hosting the College World Series, I’m not sure there’d be another reason to visit. The fact that the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon and Nebraska Marathon, both log many of their miles in Iowa suggests the locals feel the same.

The Road to Omaha - Blisters, Cramps & Heaves

The Road to Omaha, timely motivation right before running a marathon

Finishing on the field was a cool touch, though there’s nothing uniquely captivating about TD Ameritrade Park. And bypassing both Creighton and the University of Nebraska Omaha only added to the sense of a very “beige” city. Race production—including the sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it expo which featured individually wrapped slices of bread—was largely devoid of personality (see “Production” below), with the race itself feeling detached from rather than integrated into the surrounding community. For a race in its 41st year, spectator interest was minimal.

Omaha brought to mind the (no pun intended) running joke I have with a couple of buddies, that low-energy or less dynamic cities are often described by their residents as a “great place to raise kids”. It’s like the phrase is code for “there’s nothing to do here”. And hey, to each his own—if your top priorities in life are peace and quiet (and living among white people), then there’s a place for you in Omaha. I don’t need car horns and police sirens shrieking outside my bedroom window 24/7, but I would prefer that my state’s cultural & economic relevance extend beyond college sports.

Our weekend in Nebraska reinforced the notion that America’s Heartland, both geographically and functionally, may be more appropriately described as America’s appendix—as in, nobody really knows why it’s there. Yes, the people I met in Omaha (Omahans?) seemed friendly enough. But aside from having spent a fun weekend with Dan, ten years from now I’m not sure what I’ll remember about the city itself—maybe the pre-race shooting, maybe the finish line on the field, maybe the fact that it shares a border with Iowa. Even its signature sports stadium is best known for hosting teams other than its own. Omaha is Anytown, USA or Springfield, Nebraska, and so I’m not sure how I’d recommend the city to anyone who’s not a college baseball fan. Unless of course they’re looking for a quiet place to settle down and start a family.

Because Omaha? Omaha would be a great place to raise kids.

Dan Solera & Mike Sohaskey at Omaha Marathon finish

After miles spent running without shade, my camera suddenly decided to provide its own

BOTTOM LINE: Like its pleasant yet average host city, the Omaha Marathon is a pleasant yet average race. To this outsider Omaha was largely nondescript, and if you didn’t know where you were you’d be hard-pressed at any point to identify what city you’re running through. So it’s definitely not the most memorable course you’ll run, but then again it’s a golden opportunity to tour (per the race website) “Nebraska’s most vibrant city”. And the course lies entirely within the state border, a plus for me since I was there to fill my brain with Omaha and Nebraska, like a student cramming for final exams.

(Each of the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon on Oct. 2 and the Nebraska Marathon on Oct. 16, includes significant mileage in Iowa—though why the 43rd most populous city in the country needs three marathons all within a month of each other is unclear. I sense a bit of civic competition!)

The city aside, the race itself felt like a faceless event devoid of personality and going through the motions. It felt detached from rather than integrated into the community, and it certainly didn’t seem to draw much interest from residents. On-course entertainment was lacking (unless you count a small number of spectator signs), and without aid stations we would have run in silence for most of the 26.2 miles—no high-school bands, no speakers pumping in aural adrenaline, no music of any kind. Even the music at the start line felt apologetic, its volume so low as to be nearly inaudible.

I certainly don’t mind smaller, quieter events—in fact I prefer them, and here some of my favorite races spring to mind, including Run Crazy Horse, the Mississippi Blues Marathon and the Hatfield McCoy Marathon. The difference, as their names suggest, is that these events focus on and embrace the local culture, giving runners a legitimate sense of place. Would you rather run the “Jackson Marathon” or the Mississippi Blues Marathon? The “Eastern Kentucky Marathon” or Hatfield McCoy? Not only that, but the swag for each of these races featured a “surprise & delight” nod to local culture (e.g. a harmonica from Mississippi Blues, a mason jar from Hatfield McCoy). The best race organizers understand that details matter.

The lone kernel of Nebraska culture on this morning was the runner dressed as an ear of corn who I saw shortly after the turnaround. On the bright side, the race was a solid value at $85 (plus inconvenience fees) and significantly cheaper than Omaha’s two other marathons. Though given the Nebraska Marathon’s competitive slogan of “Run local”, I’m guessing its organizers may do more to recognize and embrace local culture.

Omaha Marathon expo

The expo, the whole expo and nothing but the expo

PRODUCTION: All things considered, I wasn’t surprised to learn that HITS Endurance, which produces the race, is based in New York and is “the largest equine show jumping production company in the world” (equine as in horses). The Omaha Marathon is currently the only running event on the company’s calendar, along with a handful of triathlons. Race production struck me as color-by-numbers and just good enough to get by, as though someone had watched a two-minute YouTube video or read a primer on “How to produce a marathon”.

Overall the day ran smoothly enough with no major speed bumps, and kudos to both the organizers and the Omaha police for resolving the pre-race shooting incident as quickly as possible and with minimal disruption to the event itself. At the same time, several missed opportunities throughout the weekend suggested a lack of attention to detail.

bread-slice

EXTRA GRAINY—and now extra plasticky!

First, the expo was disappointing—the five or six tents set up in the parking lot of TD Ameritrade Park were of little interest and seemed scarcely targeted toward runners, including the vendor closest to the entrance who handed us each individually wrapped slices of bread. I could practically hear the planet groaning underfoot.

In addition to the concerns above and the color-by-numbers feel of the production, aid stations were inefficiently organized. Race organizers who pay attention to detail will ensure that water and sports drink (in this case Heed) are offered in visually distinct cups so you can tell at a glance which is which. In the heat of Omaha I had to expend energy at each aid station asking for water, since everything was served in white cups. Not only that but unlike Gatorade, Heed is clear and so indistinguishable from water, thus adding to the confusion. Though this didn’t prevent volunteers from mistakenly shouting “Gatorade!” at every aid station.

Mike Sohaskey with Omaha Marathon medal

This Katie-sized medal will be standing in for Katie today

The post-race spread, though not terrible, was typical: bananas, oranges, dry bagels, an oversized open jar of peanut butter and a container of jelly with flies buzzing happily around it in the heat. No local vendors offering samples or selling food, something I always appreciate as an easy way to showcase the community to a receptive audience. Dan did manage to score us some chocolate milk from a cooler of ice.

Individually these may sound like the nitpicky ramblings of a high-maintenance runner, but while none are make-or-break details, together they’re a clear indication of how well an event production company knows its stuff—and maybe more importantly, how much it cares.

SWAG: Other than surviving the heat, the highlight of the Omaha Marathon may have been the swag, most of all the impressively sized medal that passes the “heft test” and which is now among the largest in my collection. The age group award—a colorful certificate in a curved & beveled acrylic frame—was an unexpected bonus; luckily I stuck around to claim it, since it would have cost me $10 to have it shipped. And the race shirt is a nicely designed, dark blue & green long-sleeve tech tee that will come in handy during the harsh Los Angeles winters.

Read Dan’s side of the story HERE.

Omaha Marathon medal and age group award
RaceRaves
rating:

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FINAL STATS:

Sept 18, 2016 (start time 8:00am after an hour delay)
26.44 miles in Omaha, NE (state 14 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:47:22 (first time running the Omaha Marathon), 8:36/mile
Finish place: 38 overall, 2/28 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 332 (212 men, 120 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 61°F), hot & sunny at the finish (temp 80°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 332 ft ascent, 332 ft descent
omaha-splits

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
– Muhammad Ali

Gallopalooza — the horses of Louisville

Gallopalooza — a celebration of Louisville artistry & community

(If you’re here because you happened to Google “Hatfield McCoy race reports”, feel free to scroll… the race starts about 1/3 of the way down the page)

In a more lucid moment, I might have found my situation ironic—that in a state renowned for its moonshine, one of my lasting memories would be its sunshine. The cooling shade had largely abandoned me, and my current progress could best be described, not as “mile by mile” or even “step by step”, but as “sponge by sponge”. With my legs growing increasingly sluggish, I reminded myself that every step taken was one step closer to the next aid station and the next icy sponge. And with temperatures creeping toward 90°F, I knew revival = survival, at least for my chances of a sub-4 hour finish.

For the first time in a long time I’d reached the start line of a marathon feeling anxious, unsure of what to expect. Sure the heat, humidity and lack of sleep were all partly to blame. But the truth was, I hadn’t expected to be here at all.

Hadn’t expected to be in Kentucky, of all places. Hadn’t expected to make my first visit to the Bluegrass State this weekend, to run a hilly marathon four weeks after my first 50-miler, to drive 800 miles across the state and back in just over 60 hours, touching three other states in the process. This was supposed to be a low-key weekend at home back in SoCal, part of my ongoing recovery from the previous month’s a-May-zing Ice Age Trail 50.

Then The Greatest died.

Muhammad Ali career record sign

I’d never been a student of Muhammad Ali’s life, never been a zealous fan or devoted follower. In fact, by the time I was old enough to express my distaste for boxing, he was well past his pugilistic prime.

But Ali was one of the first professional athletes I’d encountered as a child, in the same place I’d encounter most of my early heroes—in the pages of books. My elementary school library carried a series of biographies on famous athletes, the entire series of which I devoured like a great white shark after a weeklong fast. Three names from that series still stand out in my mind nearly 40 years later: Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali.

By the time I picked up his biography in the first grade, Muhammad Ali was already a legend in and beyond the world of boxing. For a sports-obsessed white kid growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, the life story of a black boxer, heavyweight champ and Olympic gold medalist who’d brashly declared himself “The Greatest”, disavowed his “slave name” Cassius Clay and converted to Islam (what did that mean?) was a fantastic tale. Dragons and wizards had nothin’ on this guy!

In the years to come, I read at least two other biographies of the Louisville Lip. And while Ali’s life after boxing was progressively slowed by the neurodegenerative effects of Parkinson’s, his stature as a humanitarian — and the world’s need for his message of peace and tolerance — only grew. The mere mention of his name was enough to draw my attention, because unlike other athletes I’d looked up to as a kid, I knew he’d never disappoint. This was never more true than in 1996 in Atlanta, when a visibly trembling yet calmly dignified Ali inspired a global audience by accepting the torch from swimmer Janet Evans and lighting the flame to open the Centennial Olympic Games. Go ahead, try to watch the footage without getting emotional.

Ali lived in our hometown of Los Angeles for nearly a decade, and between 1975 and 2002 the city declared no fewer than five different dates to be “Muhammad Ali Day”, including his birthday on January 17. And his is the only star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that’s never been stepped on — it sits embedded in a wall on Hollywood Blvd because Ali reportedly didn’t want anyone to “trample” the name of the prophet Muhammad.

Over the years, the name Ali came to represent far more than the man himself — an almost superhuman manifestation of beauty, power, spirituality and compassion. He was arguably the most recognizable and revered figure of our time, a charismatic athlete whose superior punching power was exceeded only by the strength of his convictions, at a time when standing by those convictions cost him three prime years of his career and nearly his freedom. Yet at the same time Ali was unfailingly down-to-earth, with a sharp wit and a poetic tongue. And he was a reporter’s dream come true, always quick with a memorable sound bite. Before his 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman, he delivered this crowd-pleasing quip:

“I done somethin’ new for this fight! I have wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; I done handcuffed lightning, throw thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

You can’t spell “personality” without “Ali”.

Muhammad Ali tribute collage

Scenes from the Muhammad Ali tribute (clockwise, from upper left): video board outside the KFC Yum! Center; Louisville commemorates its favorite son; a fan pays his respects on Muhammad Ali Blvd; exhibit inside & memorial outside the Muhammad Ali Center; The Greatest remembered in his own words

So when I read on Tuesday—four days after his death—that he’d arranged (in typical Ali fashion) for the funeral ceremony in his hometown Louisville to be open to the public, I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor an American icon. Never would Kentucky be more relevant in my lifetime, seizing the national spotlight as the birthplace of a man who dedicated his life to making a positive impact on his nation and the world—rather than as the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Unfortunately, I also knew the only way to rationalize the expense of the trip would be to find a nearby marathon to run as part of my 50 states quest, since two separate trips to Kentucky would be untenable. But what were the odds of the state hosting a compelling marathon—one I actually wanted to run—that same weekend?

Here the running gods smiled down on me. Using our best-in-class race finder over at RaceRaves.com, I found one marathon happening in the entire state that weekend, and it just so happened to be the one Kentucky race that piqued my interest: the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, held 250 miles east of Louisville on the border of West Virginia. In fact, the race starts in Kentucky and finishes in West Virginia, a bonus for 50 states runners who can count the race for either state.

Things moved quickly from there. On Wednesday we secured flights, lodging and rental car, and I checked the Hatfield McCoy Facebook page to ensure that, despite projected weekend highs in the 90s, there’d be no threat of the race being canceled due to heat. Then on Thursday, as our flight taxied down the runway for takeoff, I submitted my online race registration ahead of the midnight deadline.

And that’s how a white guy and a Chinese-American gal with no interest in the “Sweet Science” ended up catching a last-minute flight to a place we’d never been, to pay our respects to a black Muslim boxer we’d never met.

Muhammad Ali tribute collage2

Ali memorialized at his boyhood home (top & bottom right) and on the streets of Louisville (bottom left)

Honoring “The Greatest” (Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016)
Touching down in Nashville (our cheapest travel option) shortly before midnight, we hopped in a car for the three-hour drive to Louisville. As if our night weren’t already short enough, we lost another hour somewhere along I-65N as we transitioned from Central to Eastern Time, stopping only to secure a dinner of trail mix and Naked Juice from a highway convenience store. Not my typical pre-race diet, but then again this wouldn’t be my typical race.

Six hours after reaching the Louisville city limits, we rolled out of bed and threw open the curtains on a brilliantly sunny day — and a scene that felt “Truman Show”-esque. In a city poised to star on the global stage, an eerie sense of normalcy accompanied us along the steamy sidewalks of Kentucky’s largest city. Until, that is, we reached the animated throngs lining Muhammad Ali Blvd.

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

Residents of all ages sat on curbs, stretched out in lawn chairs, sprawled on the hoods of cars, and leaned against trees, fences and sign posts awaiting the opportunity to pay homage to their hometown hero one last time. Opportunistic enterpreneurs peddled t-shirts. Cameramen stood on ladders, multiple cameras draped around their sweaty necks and tripods ready, as police rolled out yellow “DO NOT CROSS” tape to enable modest crowd control. In this residential neighborhood just down the street from Cassius Clay’s high school, a predominantly black crowd lined the streets, in contrast to the more racially mixed crowd we’d encounter several blocks over in the downtown district.

Regardless of venue, the congregation’s heartfelt outpouring was undeniable as the funeral procession — led by unmarked police cars and Ali’s hearse — made its way purposefully along Muhammad Ali Blvd. Cheers erupted, prayers were given, high-fives and handshakes were exchanged through open car windows, flowers rained down on the motorcade. And Will Smith — who played Ali in the 2001 biopic and would be one of his pallbearers — beamed brightly like a kid on Christmas morning from the back seat of his vehicle.

The horde of enthusiastic supporters continued to grow as the procession, after a stop at Ali’s boyhood home, circled back on Broadway toward downtown. Helicopters overhead tracked its progress, and here the crowds were even more vocal in their chants of “ALI! ALI! ALI!”, as if expecting their hero to emerge in red gloves and his trademark white sneakers for one last epic battle. As the eager masses pressed in like paparazzi, jockeying for position and a fleeting glimpse of greatness (“There’s Will Smith!”), I was pretty sure someone was about to get their foot crushed under the motorcade’s slowly moving tires.

Gradually the procession faded into the distance, its destination Ali’s final resting place at Cave Hill Cemetery, where his casket will forever face Mecca. We decided to grab a quick lunch near the oddly named KFC Yum! Center, where Ali’s memorial service would be held later that afternoon. I’d been unable to secure tickets by phone for the service, since all 15,000 tickets had been distributed (for free) on a first-come, first-served basis two days earlier. But I certainly wasn’t alone in my futility: many locals who’d stood in line for hours had themselves left empty-handed.

Instead we strolled the area outside the center which was abuzz with activity, including an appearance by former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Then, with a marathon the next day and a 250-mile drive still ahead of us, we hit the open road and set our sights on Pikeville in far eastern Kentucky. Vast swaths of rolling green countryside flew by on either side as we listened to the memorial service on the radio. As a highlight of the memorial, I’d recommend Billy Crystal’s funny and poignant eulogy, delivered at a time when laughter really was the best medicine.

Unfortunately we weren’t laughing when an accident on the highway sent us on a lengthy and circuitous detour along the state’s backroads. Throw in a longer-than-planned dinner stop in Lexington, and we finally rolled into Pikeville around the time most Hatfield McCoy runners were entering REM sleep. Quickly I laid out my gear for the next morning and we dropped into bed, hopeful for another 5+ hours of sleep before our 5:00am wake-up call.

Yeah, right.

The road to Hatfield McCoy Marathon in South Williamson

The road to South Williamson

No Feudin’, Just Runnin’
My brain was wound tighter than a pre-med on Red Bull as I lay in bed, reliving the day and unable to sleep. I was almost relieved when my iPhone sang out to signal the start of our day, since I could at least get up and do something. But rather than exhausted I felt strangely energetic, neither drowsy nor lethargic as we dressed, prepared breakfast and made the sleepy, sinuous drive to South Williamson where the day’s fun would begin. It was an almost mystical ride, an exhilarating start to the day, with the first shafts of sunlight illuminating fog-shrouded valleys and majestic rock walls blasted out on either side of the highway.

That sense of awe, though, faded quickly 25 minutes later as we pulled into the parking lot of the Food City supermarket that would double as the race start. Luckily, what the venue lacked in ambience it made up for in convenience, and 10 minutes later — having claimed my bib and made one last pitstop at the vacant porta-potties — I was chatting with a nervous first-time marathoner from Arkansas. This seamless, relaxed process was much appreciated, since given our whirlwind 36 hours and lack of sleep, I was already feeling something I hadn’t felt at a marathon start line in quite some time — anxiety.

Taking inventory of the running faithful, I guesstimated the percentage of Marathon Maniacs, Half Fanatics and Double Agents at 20%, give or take. Given its remote & strategic setting (the closest city is tiny Charleston WV, 80 miles away), Hatfield McCoy is clearly appealing to 50 Staters looking to “knock out” either Kentucky or West Virginia.

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo, which I missed during my pre-race pitstop

Case in point Fran & Tom, who we originally met on our Antarctica trip and who are currently on their third — or is it their fourth? — tour of the states. Glimpsing them in the crowd, we had just enough time to exchange “how are ya?”s before Tug Valley Road Runners Club President Alexis Batausa gathered us together and sent us on our way across a makeshift start line hastily chalked on the asphalt parking lot.

With Food City in our rearview mirror and only ~500 marathoners and half marathoners, I was soon running with plenty of elbow room. The cool morning air urged me onward as if to say Hurry, before the sun comes up! Wisps of morning fog like smoke signals peeked above the trees to our right, and I found myself already stopping for photos in mile one.

My loosely formulated “plan” would be to bank time (typically a terrible strategy) in the first half of the race, hoping to leave myself enough cushion to push through the soaring mercury in the later miles and still finish in under four hours. Realistic? It was impossible to know how my legs would hold up to the heat, humidity and accumulated fatigue. ‘Cuz 26.2 miles, you know?

Mile 1 fog at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The morning fog watches over its domain

Along US-119 we ran past tree-lined hills and blasted rock walls. The camber on the shoulder of the road was pronounced, like a gentler version of those “anti-gravity” rooms typically seen at low-budget amusement parks.

Turning off US-119 in mile 2, the course changed dramatically as we entered thickly wooded neighborhoods on a two-lane road. Colonial-style homes and the occasional chapel flanked the narrow road, the sporadic resident wishing us good morning with a jovial wave from their front porch. A well-fed dachshund dragged its belly through the grass to confront me, its frenetic yapping suggesting that were it not for the chain-link fence between us, my ankle would have all it could handle.

We’d entered the heart of feud country. And yet contrary to its ornery origins, at every turn and every aid station the Hatfield McCoy Marathon distinguished itself as one of the friendliest races I’ve ever run, with its focus clearly on making its runners feel welcome. For instance, something I’d never seen: all along the course, and especially in the first three miles, handwritten “Welcome Back {Runner’s Name}!” signs with motivational messages were posted on trees, rails and sign posts, shouting out to repeat runners. There must have been over 50 signs distributed along the course, and I’m sure this was a welcome distraction for many runners keeping an eye out for their sign.

Mile 2 rock walls at Hatfield McCoy Marathon
Those first five miles remained temperate thanks to the early hour as well as dense tree coverage that blocked the rising sun. I even clocked a sub-8:00 mile in mile 5, one of only two I’d manage on the day.

Also in mile 5, the course adopted a gradual upward trajectory culminating in our first real test of the day, a steep 0.8-mile climb to the base of Blackberry Mountain that stopped many runners in their tracks. Not wanting to crank up my heart rate I slowed to a jog, passing quite a few walkers on my way to the top where we were rewarded with an aid station and immediate 1.3-mile descent. Down through a verdant world my momentum carried me to my second sub-8:00 mile of the day. And somehow I resisted the impulse to fling my arms out and let loose with “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!”

Luckily this would be the case for most of the hills on the rolling 26.2-mile course, with each uphill closely followed by a congratulatory downhill.

The Hill at mile 8 - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Top o’ the world — the base of Blackberry Mountain (mile 8)

Near the base of the hill we passed Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses, which certainly sound like a cute addition to the county fair, but which had the geneticist in me wondering how many generations of inbreeding had conspired to bring us these tired-looking creatures.

More entertaining was the fellow playing the trumpet at one of the early aid stations. As I approached he deftly transitioned from the “Superman” theme to “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Thinking back first to “Sweet Caroline” in Boston, then “Chariots of Fire” on the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, and now this… it had been a solid two months for on-course entertainment!

I smiled as we passed the McCoy Funeral Home, thinking about how lucrative business must have been back in the day. And skirting the Hatfield McCoy Park, I imagined rifle-toting young’uns mounted on mini-dwarf horses chasing each other around the colorful plastic jungle gym. And this was before any of the heat-induced hallucinations set in.

Hatfield McCoy Mini-dwarf horses at mile 10 of Marathon

Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses (mile 10)

The course was surprisingly beautiful in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Sure it lacked the coastal grandeur of a Big Sur, the majestic red sandstone cliffs of a Moab or the secluded, one-with-nature feel of Ice Age. But its tree-lined backroads and tranquil green countryside, sprinkled with southern style and patrolled by a softly babbling river, were the very definition of charming.

Starting at mile 10, I began to douse myself with cold water at aid stations, saving a sip from each cup for my insides. I’d chosen to wear white arm sleeves to a) protect my pale skin from the sun and b) soak up my sweat and any water I poured on them, thus slowing evaporation and keeping me cool longer. I also began to pop a Clif Shot Blok every 30 minutes or so, only to realize by the third one that my body wasn’t really in a sugar state of mind. Fuel wouldn’t be my nemesis on this day — my primary concern would be lack of sleep.

Given the choice of poor nutrition or poor sleep on race day (nice choice, I know), I’ll take poor nutrition every time. The body is amazingly adaptable when it comes to its fuel sources, especially younger bodies—some elite East African runners, for instance, have been reported to subsist on dietary staples of Uji (porridge) and french fries, the latter for its fat content. Over time I’ve trained my body to run long distances on primarily its internal fat stores, and these days I can run 20 miles after fasting for 12-16 hours. And that’s me, who is to an elite athlete what mini-dwarf horses are to thoroughbreds. So clearly, for runners at least, there’s significant flexibility where diet is concerned.

Mile 3 chapel at Hatfield McCoy Marathon
Sleep, on the other hand, is indispensable. There’s no substitute for sleep, no scientifically proven shortcut, no alternative path to mental and physical recovery. Critical physiological processes are activated only during REM sleep, and plenty of scientific studies attest to its importance. And though they may not read the scientific literature, elite runners know this to be true, with many of them logging ten hours of sleep per night plus one or more naps during the day. Kenyan runner and women’s half marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat insists on 16 hours of sleep per night. That’s more than some new parents get in a week!

A live band blasting ZZ Top greeted us as we crossed over the Tug Fork (known as “America’s Bloodiest River”) and into tiny Matewan, West Virginia. After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it loop of the town, I passed the half marathon finish in 1:48:24, leaving myself over two hours to complete the second half. With the mercury rising steadily and fatigue waiting in the wings, I just hoped it would be enough.

Crossing into West Virginia at Hatfield McCoy Marathon halfway point

Crossing the West Virginia border at the halfway point

Kentucky fried runner
Crossing the Tug Fork back into Kentucky, we immediately turned onto a crushed gravel bike path. After the halfway point, the already sparse flock of runners thinned significantly, and I’d end up running solo for most of the last 13.1 miles.

For much of the race, a river ran through it — the Blackberry Fork in the first half, the Tug Fork with its many branches in the second. For some reason I neglected to take a picture, which was unfortunate since the quietly babbling river was maybe the most soothing aspect of the course.

Loose gravel trail at the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, mile 18

The course transitions to loose gravel in mile 18

Miles 14-18 began on crushed gravel before transitioning onto looser gravel, and from there onto a dirt road with sparse muddy patches. These few miles rolled quite a bit but were largely shaded, and despite the rising heat and mounting fatigue I began to see a (sun)light at the end of the tunnel. Though as I trudged up another roller, it entered my mind that Damn, I pity the fool who comes here trying to run a BQ.

Mile 18 ended on the grounds of the Tug Valley Country Club. Here the unshaded course followed a paved cart path alongside the golf course before crossing a charmingly rickety wooden suspension bridge, its widely spaced slats reminding me of a hillbilly’s teeth.

Back and forth across the Tug Fork we ran — into West Virginia, then Kentucky, then West Virginia. And though this sounds dizzying, I wouldn’t have realized any of it without consulting a map post-race.

Wooden foot bridge_mile 19 of Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Crossing the wooden suspension bridge into West Virginia (Tug Valley Country Club, mile 19)

Based on my trial-by-fire experience at the Mount Diablo 50K and Harding Hustle 50K, I knew as the day grew hotter I’d need to pay close attention to my breathing — inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 2 steps, otherwise I’d end up panting like an overheated dachshund. Not an image any runner wants to emulate.

At one aid station a stuffed figure clad in overalls and a straw hat hung in effigy from a gallows, a noose around his neck. Seeing him hanging there, it crossed my mind that he may be the lucky one, at least he’s in the shade.

I could feel my energy reserves dwindling as I exited the golf course, so the timing was perfect for my first Katie sighting. Like the world-class support crew she is, she came armed with a full bottle of ice water, and after drinking a few sips I poured the remainder on my head and arms and down my neck. The refreshing shock awoke my overheated muscles and brought me back to life, propelling me along this exposed stretch and past other shuffling runners for nearly a mile.

Mike Sohaskey approaching mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Approaching…

Departing mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

… and departing the mile 20 aid station

The life-affirming shade — my closest ally for the first 20 miles — was now largely behind me, and my ability to endure these final six miles would be the litmus test for a sub-4 hour finish. As the ruthless sun exacted its toll, Katie and I would repeat the ice-water drill at miles 22 and 24, with help from the icy sponges provided by aid station volunteers.

Speaking of which: the Hatfield McCoy volunteers were some of the nicest and most genuine folks I’ve met anywhere, and in this respect they reminded me very much of another event in the Deep South, the Mississippi Blues Marathon. A couple of them asked amiably where I was from as they handed me a cup of water, seeming both surprised & delighted to hear me say California.

I was able to maintain a reasonable pace until around mile 22 when, realizing I resembled more zombie than runner, I slowed to a brisk walk, marching with knees high to loosen my quads and hip flexors. After a short stretch I forced myself to pick up the pace and run to the next aid station or the next Katie, whichever came first.

Like a wind-up toy powered by icy sponges I moved from one aid station to the next, getting off to a brisk start at each one before inevitably slowing under the sun’s onslaught.

Hatfield McCoy Marathon elevation profile

It doesn’t look like much compared to miles 5–8, but that innocuous-looking spike in mile 24 is a gut check

Funny thing about hills: their impact during a race can depend as much on placement as on steepness. So a smaller hill in mile 24 can feel just as draining, if not more so, than a longer steeper hill in mile 7. Such was the case here — glancing at the course elevation profile, I’d been so focused on the monster in mile 7 that I’d failed to notice the more modest speed bump in mile 24. Now though, in the moment, that molehill felt more like a mountain.

It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe. – Muhammad Ali

One last Katie sighting at mile 24. One final dousing of ice water, two squirts of Powerade and I was off again, slowing just before the mile 25 marker to gather myself and harness my residual energy for the final stretch. My Garmin chimed to signal mile 25 and I glanced down for the first time since mile 2, seeing an overall pace of 8:49/mile staring back at me. In my haziness I realized I could still break four hours, though doing so (I told myself) meant I’d need to hustle, which meant no more walk breaks.

The mile 24 hill looms ahead - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The mile 24 hill looms ahead

A wave of exhaustion washed over me as I picked up my pace again — just over a mile to go, surely I could draw motivation from that? As I chugged along my brain kept telling itself, I’m fine, I can stop to walk anytime, just run a few more steps first. One step at a time I strung my steps together at a slow but deliberate pace, seeming to gain momentum with every step. Not much momentum, but enough — and the finish line was getting ever closer.

With half a mile to go we re-emerged onto US-119, passing the last and most tempting aid station yet — the local Dairy Queen — followed by the ultimate mile 26 landmark, the Marathon gas station. The end was near, but not before one final crossing of the Tug Fork back into West Virginia. Visions of Hill City at the Run Crazy Horse Marathon came rushing back as I sped up ever so slightly over the final 200 yards through “downtown” Williamson, barely registering the red-brick facades and mom-&-pop store awnings as my eyes locked on the official time hanging below the finish line arch.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Hatfield McCoy Marathon
I’d done it, sleepless night and all — and I tried to savor those final few steps before sharing an exhausted low-five with Mr. Hatfield and Mr. McCoy in a finish time of 3:53:23. I paused just over the finish line to regain my wits before shuffling forward to accept a bottle of water and collect my medal. The LED display on the bank across the street read 87°F.

Reuniting with Katie, we joined the post-race party already in progress in the parking lot of the Community Trust Bank, where I collapsed in a chair under a shaded tent. There I rehydrated, refueled with chocolate milk, devoured a few defenseless orange slices and compared notes with other Maniacs and 50 Staters. One finisher commented with a weary smile that she wished she’d had her own Katie out on the course to bring her ice water. Truth is I’m the luckiest runner at every race, and I’ll never dispute that. And it’s doubtful I’d do some of the crazy things I do without Katie by my side — because what fun would that be?

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving Hatfield & McCoy at finish

As it turned out, every finisher also received a mason jar emblazoned with the race logo. It may sound odd but I’m a sucker for mason jars, and as a bonus this one could be used to sample the local “white lightning” moonshine. Unfortunately, in my depleted state whiskey sounded as appealing as 800m repeats.

We also needed to get back to Pikeville before check-out, and we still had a 250-mile drive ahead of us back to Louisville. There we’d use our remaining time to pay further tribute to The People’s Champion, visiting Muhammad Ali’s boyhood home as well as the Muhammad Ali Center, before driving north 120 miles to Indianapolis for our flight back to Los Angeles.

But what a weekend it had been — 800 miles driven through four states in less than 72 hours. Marathon #22 in state #13 completed, a hidden gem I’d recommend to any runner looking for a race that underpromises and overdelivers. And final respects paid to one of the most revered figures of our lifetime, a man best memorialized as “the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest that we can be”.

Mike Sohaskey at Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line

Happy to mediate a finish-line truce

For those who ask and for those who wonder, Kentucky exemplified why I want to run a marathon (or longer) in all 50 states and around the world. Not to “knock out” states as fast as possible like a speed-dating session, or to chase elusive self-esteem across finish lines, or to validate my journey as measured by the amount of hardware and the number of “likes” on Facebook. I do this to meet people I’d otherwise never meet, to see places I’d otherwise never see, and to open myself up to new experiences that challenge my values and make me question my truths.

Because as contentious as the world has become, in the end we’re all in this together. And in our hearts we are all Muhammad Ali. Ask me “Why?” — Why visit Kentucky? Why travel there of all places to run a marathon? — and my answer will inevitably be “Why not?” So while others may say I “knocked out” Kentucky on my 50 states quest, I think all the judges in this case would agree.

It was Kentucky that won by a knockout.

Sunset outside Lexington, Kentucky

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t sleep on Kentucky — Hatfield McCoy is a hidden gem of the marathon (and half marathon) scene. Even if you’re not a 50 Stater, I’d recommend the race for its low-key ambience and peaceful, bucolic course that thumbs its nose at the modern, anxiety-ridden American lifestyle. Hearing only your own breathing and footfalls on the quiet, densely wooded back roads will relax your mind and make you feel like you’ve run back in time to a simpler era. The rustic setting is surprisingly scenic & beautiful, with the least appealing part being the start in the Food City parking lot. Plus, the people are among the friendliest you’ll meet anywhere, from the organizers to every volunteer who selflessly donated their time to stand out in the heat so the rest of us could run — especially the two good-natured fellows who played the roles of Hatfield and McCoy, wearing long sleeves + long pants and agreeably standing under the sweltering sun for HOURS to greet finishers and pose for pictures. Every man, woman & child was amazing.

The ever-changing course is challenging in that it rolls quite a bit, with notable hills in miles 7 and (ouch) 24. Luckily the first 20 miles are well shaded, since heat was a definite factor this year as indicated by a winning time of 3:13:22. In an age of ever-escalating registration fees and new events that don’t merit the expense, the HMM is also a tremendous value — I paid only $80 (plus a $6.20 inconvenience fee) two days before the race.

Granted the race’s remote setting — the closest “city” is Charleston WV, 80 miles away and we stayed in Pikeville KY, 25 miles away — works against it, making it difficult to attract first-timers and the more casual runners targeted by large urban marathons. On the other hand, that remoteness is a huge part of its charm. So if you’re willing to travel a bit out of your way, and unless you’re a runner who absolutely needs screaming spectators and rowdy on-course entertainment, do yourself a favor and check out the Hatfields & McCoys.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho - Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line selfie

Maybe the best photobomb ever — and no, we didn’t plan it

PRODUCTION: On point, from pre-race to post-finish. Race-day packet pickup couldn’t have been easier, though as a courtesy I’d avoid parking in the Food City lot if you plan to leave your car there all morning. But at 6:30am there was plenty of parking there as well as in the nearby lots recommended by the organizers. And while “More porta-potties!” is typically the race-day rallying cry of runners everywhere, there were more than enough of those at the start as well, with a relatively small group to accommodate.

Luckily traffic was sparse on the narrow roads and so not much of a concern. The course itself was well marked for the most part — even with my subpar sense of direction I never took a wrong turn, though more signage in a couple of spots (e.g. the end of River Rd in mile 18 where the course enters the golf course) would have been helpful. Thanks to the heat I made frequent use of the aid stations, where awesome volunteers were always ready with ice water, Gatorade, and even icy sponges. Given the lack of shade after mile 20 a couple more aid stations in the last five miles wouldn’t have been unwelcome, particularly for those who didn’t have a Katie taking care of them.

I wonder if @hotmail.com political train wrecks?

Maybe simpkins_law@hotmail.com also specializes in political train wrecks

Hats off to the dedicated folks manning the post-race grills in the 90°F heat, making hot dogs & hamburgers available to hungry finishers. It being 2016 and all, a veggie option would have been a nice addition to the post-race spread, though in fairness my own stomach wasn’t ready to tackle solid food anyway.

SWAG: The finisher medal is unique in being shaped like a mason jar, even if it is an odd milky gray color (maybe that’s the white lightning?). And rather than the cheaply made, unflattering race tee I’ve come to expect from smaller races, the white HMM tee with stylish mesh side panels fits beautifully. As a complement to the standard shirt-&-medal combo provided at every road race, all finishers even received a nifty mason jar adorned with the race logo — another cool hometown detail that sets the Hatfield McCoy Marathon apart.

Muhammad Ali tee + Hatfield McCoy Marathon medal
RaceRaves rating:
RaceRaves review
FINAL STATS:

June 11, 2016 (start time 7:00am)
26.37 miles from South Williamson, KY to Williamson, WV (state 13 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:53:23 (first time running the Hatfield McCoy Marathon), 8:51/mile
Finish place: 28 overall, 4/19 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 298 (159 men, 139 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 63°F), hot & sunny at the finish (temp 86°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,881 ft ascent, 1,888 ft descent

Hatfield McCoy splits

Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.
– Sunny Blende, M.S., Sports Nutritionist

Start-line-selfie

Let’s call this one Giddy Anticipation

(An abridged version of this post was published on Ultrarunning.com)

The final a cappella tones of the National Anthem drifted away on the chill morning breeze, and like that we were fully exposed. Not just to the frigid temperatures, but to the epic challenge ahead of us. Dan and Otter’s pent-up energy crackled on either side of me, my lowfat frame shivering between them in its bid to stay warm. Curiously my full-body shiver response was most vigorous in my posterior, as though the spirit of Beyoncé had suddenly occupied Château Caucasia.

I tried to savor the moment, focusing on the fact this would be far more than a novel challenge at a longer distance. Over the next 12 hours I’d be attempting to run 50 miles—19 more than I’d ever run in one day, and roughly the same mileage I’d been totaling on a weekly basis for the past several months. And yet I felt an extraordinary and almost unsettling sense of calm—was mine the blissful ignorance of a turkey accepting an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner?

Shivering backside notwithstanding, the weather in Kettle Moraine State Forest would be perfect for the task at hand: cloudy skies to minimize the sun’s influence; cooler temps to prevent overheating, not to mention deter bugs (including ticks!) & allergens; and light intermittent rains in the days leading up to the race, which ensured we’d be running on cushiony trails free of dust. If the weather gods had instructed me to “Take as much time as you need,” I couldn’t have designed more ideal conditions.

All that said, my brain kept circling back to the same question: Was I ready to run 50 miles? The answer was as clear as the patchy mud all around us:

I have no idea.

Wisconsin flg

Dan & Otter had arrived in Kettle Moraine—Dan with his father-in-law Steve, Otter with his girlfriend Lisa—in search of redemption. Dan had dropped at mile 39.3 of the North Country 50-Mile Run three years earlier, the victim of ill-timed patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), while Otter had dropped at mile 43.3 of last year’s Ice Age 50 due to time-limit concerns. For each of them, revenge would be a dish best served cold—and cloudy, and windy. So we all had something to prove.

Before we’d even crossed the Wisconsin border, our best-laid plans had nearly gone astray. In a classic case of not AGAIN, Dan had experienced a flareup in his left knee ahead of last month’s Silurian Springs 25K, dropping from the 50K to the 25K as a result. He’d finished the 25K strong, but had since been babying the knee in preparation for Ice Age—meaning his training regimen over the past month had been limited. For his part, Otter was recovering from a nasty cold that still sent him into the occasional coughing fit. Of all the recreational options you might choose on a weakened immune system, an ultramarathon wouldn’t be high on that list.

Me, I’d be the healthiest among us, coming off back-to-back marathons six days apart in Boston & Big Sur. If anything, my concern was OVERtraining, and a resulting lack of energy similar to what had flummoxed in Boston. But having curtailed my training significantly in the three weeks since Big Sur, I was eager to find out how well my body had recovered from two beatings on concrete in close succession. Unfortunately, with all my training focused on road marathons in Boston and Big Sur, my trail time in recent months had been minimal. And in fact, by crossing the finish line at Ice Age I would have tripled the mileage on my trail shoes. So this would definitely be a trial (or trail) by fire.

Runners&Crew_start

All for one, and one for all! (L-R: Dan, Steve, me, Katie, Otter, Lisa) (photo: Dan Solera)

During our group carbo-loading session the night before, Dan and I had admitted to the same ambitious goal. Whereas “Just finish (in under 12 hours)” was our overall goal for the day, we’d set our best-case scenario at under 10 hours. Because if you’re going to run the race, you may as well aim high. At an average pace of 12:00/mile I knew we could do it—if everything went smoothly and according to plan {cue mad scientist laugh}.

By definition it would be a long day of running and—based on every first-timer story I’d ever read or heard—an inevitable sufferfest. Anticipating that, I’d divided the race mentally into a series of five 10-milers. Here’s how I expected the day to unfold:

Miles 1-10: Start strong, feel great to be running through the forest with friends

Miles 11-20: Settle in, maintain a comfortable pace, ensure all systems are go

Miles 21-30: The struggle officially begins as I pass the marathon mark and approach my longest-ever distance (50K)

Miles 31-40: Fatigue sets in, legs tighten and focus dwindles; if my nutrition isn’t dialed in, the wheels could come off in a hurry

Miles 41-50: Hang on for dear life, channel my inner Dean Karnazes (“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”), do whatever it takes to reach the finish line in under 12 hours.

As it turns out, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Ultrafood

The plan was to sleep like a baby before the race & eat like one during it

Miles 1–10 (Green means GO)
As the National Anthem faded, race director Jeff Mallach wasted no time sending us on our way with a flurry of cheers from both runners & spectators. The three of us immediately set about debating whether, with a 6:04am start time, the cutoff would be 12 hours later or 6:00pm sharp. The unspoken hope was that none of us would need to care.

I’d agreed with Dan & Otter’s plan to stay together for the first 9-mile loop, to ensure we kept each other in check while maintaining a smart & steady pace. The wide & welcoming Nordic Trail was trail running at its finest, with rain-softened dirt and grasses cushioning every step amid radiant surroundings, as though the entire forest had recently been treated to a fresh coat of green paint. I could see how, in late autumn before the first snowfall, our route might resemble a scene from “The Blair Witch Project,” with skeletal trees and naked dirt casting a dull, uniform brown over the entire scene. Now though, with the flush of spring fresh on its cheeks, coupled with the recent rains, Kettle Moraine could easily have passed for the Pacific Northwest.

Cruising though the conifers we conversed easily, sharing stories and enjoying this day we’d planned for a year, seemingly oblivious to the 40+ more miles we still had to run. This steady stream of conversation also ensured we were never working hard enough to get out of breath. We took turns running in pairs on the wide doubletrack, occasionally emerging from the forest into a wind-exposed meadow before being swallowed again by the soaring canopy of towering evergreens and more modest hardwoods.

At one point, curious about the plant life lining the trail I pointed down and asked “Any idea what this is?”—to which I got simultaneous reponses of “grass” (from Otter) and “dirt” (from Dan). Ask a silly question…

Dan-&-Otter_Nordic-Trail

Dan & Otter set the pace on the Nordic Trail

On every incline, even those of moderate ascent, we’d slow to a hike to stay within our aerobic (fat-burning) zone. And here I was lucky to be running with two ultra vets, since this strategy flew in the face of my training & programming. I’ve always conditioned myself to run uphill until either I’m out of breath or I can’t lift my quads—basically run ‘til I can’t run, then hike ‘til I can run again. This was another reason Otter had smartly recommended we run together—he knew the temptation to attack those early hills would be strong. And he knew energy saved now would prevent an ugly bonk later.

Before I knew it we’d come full circle and reached the start line aid station (mile 9), where Katie, Lisa & Steve—on this day the Most Valuable Crew—waited. Glancing over my dining options, I grabbed one quarter of a PB&J and a cup of the original sports drink, Mountain Dew. It had been years—check that, decades—since I’d tasted Mountain Dew, and on this day we’d be reunited like old friends.

Given we were running ~10 minutes ahead of Otter’s projected time, Steve looked at me with clear trepidation in his eyes and made a gentle “take it easy” gesture with his hands. “You guys are pacing this really well” he said diplomatically, which I understood to mean “I know you feel great now, but you have a long way to go—don’t do anything stupid and flame out early.” Feeling a swell of appreciation, I assured him we’d been running comfortably and hiking the uphills. And I knew Dan would be in very capable hands for the next 41 miles.

Not wanting to waste time at this first stop, I exchanged “See you soon”s with Katie and pushed on ahead of Dan & Otter, our tacit agreement being that after the first 9 miles we’d run at our own pace.

Otter&me_mile9

(photo: Bill Flaws, Running in the USA)

I seldom use aid stations for anything more than the occasional cup of water, since I don’t sweat much and prefer to carry (and trust) my own nutrition. But knowing I’d need them early & often at Ice Age, I’d resolved to get in & out of each one as fast as possible. Otter had made another valid point here: assuming 15 aid station stops at 4 minutes per (not a long time when you’re hungry, stiff & tired), you’ve already sacrificed an entire hour of your race to the aid station gods. So get in, get what you need and get out.

To keep my hands free (in case of a fall) I’d ruled against carrying a bottle in favor of my hydration pack, which I filled with a liter of Skratch Labs drink mix (water + electrolytes) along with pouches of puréed (i.e. baby) food and packets of GU. I wanted my go-to nutrition to be as easily digestible and stomach-friendly as possible, supplemented by aid station bananas and PB&J. Nom nom.

I’m not the superstitious sort, but I do subscribe to the theory that the more you pack, the less you’ll need. For that reason I’d packed enough wardrobe options to make Katy Perry jealous. Katie had several potential changes of clothes & shoes ready to go, in case anything rubbed, chafed, or blistered. And I’d brought hiking poles in the event any of us needed extra support late in the race. I also carried bandaids, baby wipes for ‘tween-aid-station emergencies and a 5-Hour Energy for a shot of caffeine late in the race. Plus, I’d be carrying my iPhone in my Spibelt for picture-taking purposes. Boy Scouts ain’t got nothin’ on me!

One ten-mile race down, four to go.

Back to the start_mile9

Full circle: Dan leads the way back through the start line at mile 9

Miles 11–20 (Settling in on the singletrack)
Quickly I reached Confusion Corner at mile 11, which on this day was most notable for its lack of confusion. There, a helpful volunteer directed everyone onto the Ice Age Trail for the out-and-back to Rice Lake. In fact, the entire course was free of confusion and impeccably marked, with yellow flags denoting the 50-mile route and orange flags the 50K. Even with my notoriously faulty sense of direction, I was never in danger of taking a wrong turn.

Here on the beautifully groomed singletrack of the Ice Age Trail, a game of leapfrog developed which would hold for the next 20 miles. At each aid station I’d fuel up quickly and leave ahead of Dan, who would soon overtake & pass me with a whoop of warning or—in one case—the theme from “Jaws”. He’d dance by and gradually extend his lead with long fluid strides… then we’d hit a descent and he’d gracefully airwalk downhill as if it were a treadmill, while I tediously picked my way over rocks & roots or down wooden-framed steps, careful not to treat those around me to my first face-plant of the day.

Ice-Age_miles-11-32

Scenes from the Ice Age Trail, Section 2 (miles 11-32)

At one point Dan turned a corner 30 feet ahead of me, and by the time I reached the same spot he was already down a hill and out of sight around the next bend, like a will-o’-the-wisp in running shoes. As much as I wanted to chase him down, though, I focused instead on maintaining a steady, comfortable pace, reminding myself to keep my eyes on the prize—the finish line was still a long way off.

Besides, Dan & Otter had a bit of a home-field advantage here, having made the two-hour drive from their hometown Chicago several times in recent months to train on these trails. So far though, I had to admit—I was thoroughly enjoying my own personal introduction to Kettle Moraine.

Lisa & Otter_mile13

Lisa & Otter review their strategery, mile 13.1

Aid station stops became models of efficiency. Katie and Lisa would cheer us in as we approached, Lisa bundled in a hooded green winter jacket that had scantily clad runners telling her she looked cold. Katie, nestled deep within her own poofy jacket, would greet me each time with the agreed-upon “What do you need?” She’d hand me a pouch of puréed food, which I’d down along with ¼ PB&J, two bites of banana, a cup of Mountain Dew and a few sips of water before heading out again. Easy peasy, baby food squeezy.

Both the men’s and women’s leaders flew by us along this stretch, headed back toward Confusion Corner well ahead of their pursuers. Lead woman Larisa Dannis (7:05:56) glided past us, moving purposefully and looking sharp in her INKnBURN gear. I too had donned INKnBURN shorts for the race, mainly for practical reasons since they’re the most comfortable running shorts I own. Unfortunately, any similarity between our running styles ended there.

Two ten-mile races down, three to go.

Uphill caravan

Uphill caravan, mile 15 (photo: Dan Solera)

Miles 21–30 (Waiting for The Wall)
I rolled into the turnaround at Rice Lake (mile 21.7) feeling strong and silently lauding the cool weather—on a warmer day, this course could have been much less hospitable, with the reeds around Rice Lake providing a haven for swarming gnats and hungry no-see-ums. Again I hastened through my aid station routine, doing a few leg lifts this time to keep my hip flexors loose. Dan had a similar idea, holding Steve’s hands as he leaned back in an upright sitting position to stretch both quads & hamstrings. I fueled up, gulped down my obligatory shot of Mountain Dew and continued back the way I’d come.

Rice Lake_mile 22

Rice Lake, mile 22

At each aid station I marveled at the selflessness of the volunteers, incredible people who were donating pretty much an entire day of their lives to stand out in the cold for us, to restock food for us, to pour drinks for us, and to ensure that each & every runner who passed through their aid station had exactly what they needed. “You’re doing all the hard work!” they’d respond modestly when I thanked them. I wish I’d had the time & wits to stop and chat with every volunteer, since some have been doing this for over 20 years. I say it in pretty much every race recap, and it rang especially true at Ice Age—volunteers they make the running world go ‘round.

At every mile I mutely celebrated the satisfying beep of my Garmin and immediately looked forward to the next, appreciating life as an endorphin junkie. Dan and I were now running alone in the damp woods, trading the occasional snippet of conversation but otherwise focused on the task at hand. These moments of easy comradery were among the highlights of the day, and I wouldn’t have traded them for a course record.

As we passed the 25-mile mark, I pointed out optimistically that we’d now be counting down mileage to the finish. And I understood Dan’s reluctance to count unhatched chickens—while mile 25 may be the physical midway point of the course, we both knew the next 25 miles would feel much longer than the first 25. Nonetheless the thought of counting down miles with less than a marathon to go provided a nice psychological pick-me-up. And I was quick to seize on any available edge, real or perceived.

Tree-tunnel_mile24_BCH

Rain—no wait, are those sleet pellets?—began to fall lightly at the marathon (mile 26.2) mark, so gentle and transient as to be nothing more than an amusing distraction. A brisk, chilling breeze periodically flexed its muscles as we traversed open meadows or paused at exposed aid stations, but at no time did I ever feel too warm or too cold. All day long I was the Goldilocks of ultramarathoners, my body temperature juuuuust right.

As I neared the aid station at mile 30.2, I felt my core and upper quads starting to tighten noticeably and thought Uh oh, here we go. In response, I added leg lifts & leg swings to my aid station routine, setting Katie’s expectations that it would take me longer to cover miles 30–40 (to reach our next rendezvous point at mile 40.2) than it had the previous 10 miles. Her expression never deviated from calm and reassuring, confirming I still looked as good as I felt. So much so that I decided not to grab my headphones, since the idea of distracting from the awesomeness around me with a playlist or podcast felt counterproductive. If anything I wanted to be more in tune with my body and my surroundings, not less. So far, so good.

Three ten-mile races down, two to go.

Dan_mile30

“I know I left those legs around here somewhere…”

Miles 31–40 (Where no Mike has gone before)
Again I left the aid station ahead of Dan, who was likewise looking strong & poised for the final 20 miles. Given that crew members would be unable to access aid stations for the next 10 miles, this stretch promised to feel like the longest yet.

Reaching the 50K (mile 31.1) mark, I recognized the occasion by pausing for a “longest run ever” selfie. Also along this stretch I paused for the first and only time to relieve myself. Unfortunately, despite the 56,000 acres of dirt-, grass- and pine needle-carpeted forest surrounding me on all sides, in my preoccupation to shield myself from oncoming runners I somehow managed to empty my bladder directly on my shoetop. And all I could do was laugh at my own sad ineptitude. Watch that sock get wet now & cause blisters, I thought, wiggling my toes and shaking my foot like a wet dog before forging ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at 50K of Ice Age Trail 50

“Longest run ever” selfie at 50K, still with two dry feet

If I were to voice one—complaint is too strong a word—reservation about Ice Age, it would be the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, particularly when the leaders would fly by like methed-up gazelles. Two-way traffic is admittedly unavoidable, and the vast majority of runners handled it with grace and aplomb, recognizing for example that downhill runners have the right-of-way. That said, the occasional miscreant would come barreling down the middle of the singletrack trail with their head down like a charging rhino, forcing anyone in their path to hop off the trail or distort their tired body to avoid a nasty head-on collision. Trail runners are typically easy-going folks and these instances were rare, but even once was too much at a race like Ice Age, where sharing the trail is the only way everyone can achieve the same ambitious goal.

Despite the two-way traffic, throughout the day I enjoyed several miles of what I love most about trails—no traffic, no red lights, no dogs barking from behind chain-link fences, just running alone in a quiet, beautiful place. Ever the voice of experience, Otter had recommended we each adopt a mantra for when the going got tough. I’d jokingly channeled my inner gladiator and suggested “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” But at the moment it fit perfectly… because I really was.

Ice-Age-buckles

24 years of Ice Age glory on display

At some point light snowflakes fluttered around me, dissipating as quickly as the sleet. Then the sun broke through the clouds, providing a brief respite of warmth before again retreating, this time for good. It was as though the god of weather had entrusted the day to his young and inexperienced protégé.

But where was Dan? Here the aid stations were spaced 3 and 4 miles apart, and each one I departed without seeing him enter. He hadn’t been far behind me at mile 30.2, and I felt a twinge of concern that his knee might be acting up. Vanquishing it immediately, I assured myself he was fine and probably just battling the same heavy-leggedness I’d felt at mile 30 (which, amazingly, had dissipated as quickly as the sleet and snow). And I was confident Otter would be having an excellent adventure of his own.

As I reached the Horserider’s aid station at mile 37, my Garmin chirped a warning and displayed a “LOW BATTERY” message. Shite. Quickly I flipped the display from my real-time stats to time-of-day only, hoping to conserve as much battery life as possible. I hadn’t glanced at my wrist all day, appreciating my Garmin only for its regular mile updates. Sure I’d assumed my battery wouldn’t survive the entire 12 hours, but this was even earlier than anticipated.

Dan_mile21

Sometimes you see the camera before it sees you (Rice Lake, mile 21.7)

The hills kept coming. Otter had warned us that this third section of the course, the 18-mile out-and-back to the Emma Carlin aid station, would be “objectively the hilliest… both in terms of the number of hills, as well as the overall elevation gain”. This included one of the toughest climbs of the course in Bald Bluff at mile 35. And yet the hills never felt interminable, nor were any as severe as the ones I frequent in California. My memory may be deceiving me here, but each hill seemed to be followed by a stretch of highly runnable terrain.

I continued to stay within my aerobic zone, power-hiking the steeper hills—always with hands on quads, for better stability and more power—while running the gentler ones. The frequency of my uphill running increased with each passing mile. And in fact I felt more comfortable running the uphills, since the most challenging part of these later miles was restarting from a standstill each time I crested a hill or left an aid station. Once I’d get the legs cranking again, though, it was all good.

During an ultra, “It’s not so much if you’re going to have stomach problems, it’s when you’re going to have stomach problems, and what you’re going to do about it,” says sports nutritionist and ultramarathoner Sunny Blende. That said, my stomach defied convention all day long by behaving like a baby asleep in the back seat of a car. Sure, by mile 37 the PB&J sandwiches were getting a bit stale and increasingly difficult to swallow. But my stomach never faltered, a fact I attribute to 1) the weather, 2) Otter’s advice to eat early & often, and 3) my reliance on real food, puréed and otherwise, rather than lab-synthesized maltodextrin and Soylent Green.

Baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… Welcome to the machine, I thought wryly.

Sentry Steve_mile26

Steve plays sentry at mile 17.3

Several times I lost focus and scuffed my toe on a rogue rock or root, lurching forward but regaining my balance in time to prevent a fall. Until finally it happened — just before the mile 40 turnaround, I lifted my right foot one inch to clear a two-inch high rock and tumbled forward in a flying somersault tuck with a half-twist, landing softly in the green foliage beside the trail. Alone and unfazed, I hopped up and continued on my way, relieved that I’d finally put that inevitable episode behind me. I’m used to face-planting on dusty rocky SoCal trails, so falling in Kettle Moraine was like landing on unicorn feathers.

I saw Katie, Lisa & Steve for the ninth and final time at the Emma Carlin aid station (mile 40.2). His brow furrowed, Steve signaled at me to ask whether I’d seen Dan. I gestured back that I hadn’t. Approaching the food table I admitted to the volunteers, “I thought Emma Carlin was the stuff of legend, I can’t believe I’m actually here”. They assured me they were real and that I was still standing. They also informed me the bar was open, and I glanced back to see a table stocked with Samuel Adams and sporting a “Flatlander Ultrarunners” sign. Who in their right mind, at mile 40 of an ultramarathon…? I thought. Clearly I wasn’t thinking straight or I would’ve known the answer…

I knew better than to sit down, not that I felt like it. Aid station fatigue was setting in, but as tired as I was of eating PB&J and drinking Mountain Dew, 10 more miles felt like nothing, and I almost felt like I could reach out and touch the finish line. My nutrition was dialed in and my body felt good—time to buckle down (pun intended) and get this done. I gave Katie a peck on the forehead and told her I’d see her at the finish.

Four ten-mile races down, one to go.

RunHappy

It was a #LiveLong and #RunHappy kind of day in Kettle Moraine

Miles 41­­–50 (DNF = Do Nothing Fatal)
The main benefit of the out-and-back course layout was that roughly five minutes after leaving Emma Carlin, I passed Dan coming the other way. I felt a shot of adrenaline on seeing him, as he looked to be in high spirits and trained his camera on me as I approached. And that was the definitive moment I realized Damn, we are all going to finish this thing.

Fifteen minutes later I passed Otter, pulsing with characteristic energy and a manic look in his eyes. I blurted out encouragement in passing, his response reaching my ears Doppler-style as he never broke stride: “YOU BETTER GET GOING, ‘CUZ I’M GOING TO CATCH YOU!” Absurd as his words sounded, his voice was so strong and so full of conviction that for one brief moment it crossed my mind, He may actually mean it.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing—and I missed it. Otter rolled into Emma Carlin and took the Flatlanders up on their offer to do a beer bong. At mile 40 of a 50-miler. In his defense, he did choose a light beer—and I can’t help but think this was a symbolic middle finger to his 2015 Ice Age effort, which ended prematurely at mile 43.3.

Otter_beer bong_mile40

Otter demonstrates proper mile 40 beer bong technique as the paparazzi look on in awe

When I heard about Otter’s Emma Carlin moment I felt amused sympathy for Lisa, who as his crew had gamely shouldered the responsibility for ensuring he had everything he needed when he needed it—food, water, ibuprofen, salt tablets, etc. So I could only imagine how she must have felt on seeing him sidle up to the Flatlanders’ dehydration station. On the most pleasant day, hers (and Katie’s and Steve’s) could easily be construed as a thankless job. On this day, though, with temperatures peaking in the 40s and aid stations exposed to a bone-chilling wind, the job of crew member verged on cruel & unusual. Luckily Lisa’s Michigan constitution and sense of humor shined through when she needed them most.

With one final chirp of surrender, my Garmin bid the day farewell just short of mile 41. For the final 9 miles I’d be on my own, without the addictive beep of each mile marker to count on.

For most runners, the scarlet letters “DNF” mean “Did Not Finish”, but ultrarunners like to joke that they stand for “Did Nothing Fatal”. And that was my goal over those final 10 miles. I’d come too far to lose focus now—one errant step or ill-timed face-plant could negate the past 8+ hours of effort, particularly on the downhills where my stiffening legs had lost much of their earlier flexibility.

Katie&Me_mile40

Nothin’ but happy at mile 40.2

Steve had witnessed just such a game-changer firsthand at mile 30. He’d helped a fellow who’d fallen on the trail and sustained a nasty cut beside his left eye, a cut requiring medical attention that ended his own race not with a bang but a whimper.

Under the verdant canopy my eyes remained glued to the damp ground, dancing over rocks and roots, triangulating my next step before darting ahead to map out my next three. I took what the trail gave, never forcing the issue—each step as long or as short, as lithe or as deliberate as the capricious terrain dictated.

And I pondered the question: How was this happening? Other than predictable fatigue my feet, legs and body felt strong. Where were the cramps? Where were the heaves? Not even a blister to provide some discomfort drama over these last few miles. With my past 1½ years of training being dominated by Boston, I’d forgotten just how much I missed trail running.

Bald Bluff (Dan)

One section of Bald Bluff, the toughest climb on the course (photo: Dan Solera)

With a dead Garmin and a refusal to glance at my iPhone, I had no idea how much time had elapsed or what my pace was. Was a 10-hour finish still reasonable? I told myself Dan would be charging up from behind at any second, dancing by me and disappearing down the next hill out of sight. So I needed to bear down and maintain my pace—now was not the time to give in to fatigue. Run those flats! Hike those hills! Don’t let off the throttle!

The gentle crunch of my footfalls, the measured timbre of my breathing and the hypnotic swish of liquid in my hydration pack were the only sounds audible in the dormant forest.

At the mile 43.3 aid station, I deviated from my routine ever so slightly for an experiment, popping a salt tablet in my mouth before heading out again. I wasn’t sweating heavily and I didn’t feel low on salt; nonetheless I figured I’d give it a shot to see if it made a difference. As my tongue recoiled from the pungent grains I realized NOPE, salt wasn’t what I needed, and spat the capsule into the bushes. Lesson learned.

Approaching the penultimate aid station at mile 47.6, it struck me that I’d effectively whittled the challenge of the day down to the Ice Age 5K. Someone had posted a handwritten sign that read “IF YOU START TO FEEL GOOD DURING AN ULTRA, DON’T WORRY, YOU WILL GET OVER IT”—and I marveled again that so much conventional ultrarunning wisdom had gone out the window here in Kettle Moraine. I gulped down one last cup of Mountain Dew and pushed ahead, blowing past the final aid station 0.9 miles later with a nod of appreciation. “1½ miles to go!” the volunteer confirmed as I passed.

Home stretch_mile50

Still looking Instagram-purty after 50 miles

Like an audio tour of the course, Otter’s voice in my head shepherded me toward the finish. “Remember this hill,” he’d said as we’d tackled our first descent on fresh legs. “On your way back this will be your last uphill before the finish.” Then that hill was behind me, and I wanted to hug the bundled-up couple who informed me I had a quarter mile to go. Oh, what a feeling.

A wave of awestruck pride washed over me on spying the lime green FINISH banner directly ahead. I high-fived Steve, then Katie, and then I spotted it—the official timer clock perched next to the finish line, dispassionately reducing the blood, sweat & tears of each finisher to six unique digits. Mine were 09:54:30.

I’d broken 10 hours.

Holy SHIT.

Finish time

A mammoth accomplishment
Gratefully I accepted my first-ever finisher buckle—embossed with woolly mammoth mascot—then wrapped a beaming Katie in a huge embrace that was 50 miles & 10 hours in the making. Quickly I changed into warm dry clothes before staking out a spot at the finish to wait for Dan. He emerged from the woods a short time later, arms raised triumphantly in understated celebration. An animated Otter followed 50 minutes later, spiking his water bottle just short of the finish line before flying across, wings up. As he rode his adrenaline high into the finish area where Lisa awaited, I heard someone nearby tell their friends, “That was the fellow who did the beer bong.” And with that, Otter forever became a cult hero among the Ice Age faithful.

Runners & crew reunited in the finish area, where we piled our plates high with food and giddily relived the past 11+ hours. Only after wrapping myself in two blankets (kindly provided by Lisa) did I stop shivering, an unfortunate side effect of having run for 10 hours in cold weather with very little body fat. As the official clock neared the 12-hour time limit, we creakily stood to cheer the final few finishers across the line, one of whom generated some last-minute drama by face-planting less than 100 feet from the finish.

Whereas in Boston I wished I could bottle the experience, at Ice Age I wished I could bottle both the experience and my performance. I’m not sure I could run a more steady race than this one. It was as though I’d come to Kettle Moraine expecting to have to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, only to find on race day that all six sides were the same color.

9xbpxu9rpmfi4

Otter channels his inner Rob Gronkowski

I want to say I endured tremendous suffering, and experienced epiphanic moments of clarity that come with taxing the human body to its limits. But I didn’t. I want to say this was my toughest running challenge yet. But it wasn’t—that title still goes to the 2012 Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, where a freak heat wave taught me the true definition of endurance. And I want to say I left it all out on the lush trails of Kettle Moraine, emptying the tank and giving all I had to give. But I can’t—and in fact, less than 48 hours after Ice Age my legs felt as though I’d actually taken the weekend off. Empirically speaking, 10 slower hours on soft dirt is much more forgiving than 3½ faster hours on concrete.

Ice Age was a confluence of many factors that added up to an awesome race— among them an inspiring course, perfect weather and (maybe more anything) unmatched comradery. It certainly helped that one of those comrades was an eager fount of ultrawisdom, since Otter’s pre-race advice & enthusiasm—beginning months in advance—played a key role in my arriving at the Nordic Trailhead feeling relaxed and ready. As Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” On Saturday, the three of us knew what the hell we were doing.

Jeff&Me_postrace

Race Director Jeff Mallach (no thanks to my iPhone lens, which fogged over in the cold)

But as important as redemption was for both of my companions, I can’t help believing that Otter’s triumph carried with it more personal meaning. Otter lost his father just a month before Ice Age, and though I never met David Otto, the legacy of the father shines brightly in the warm, empathetic and incredibly funny man his son has become. I’m guessing the chance to process the emotional whirlwind of the previous month on his own terms, in the welcoming woods of southern Wisconsin, was as powerful and cathartic a motivator as any finisher buckle or quest for redemption could ever be.

The three of us left Wisconsin—state #12 on my 50 states journey—with nothing left to prove. So then what’s next? At 43 states and counting, closing out his own 50 states tour remains Dan’s priority, having put that goal on hiatus to train for Berlin last year and Ice Age so far this year. Otter has yet to settle on his next big challenge, but if I were a betting man I’d lay good money on a 100K, 100-miler or—who knows?—maybe even a multi-stage Desert Challenge in his future.

Lisa & Otter celebrate

50 miles later, I’m not sure that’s where Lisa’s nose wants to be

Me, I’m still on an Ice Age high as I write this over a week later. That said, I’m already looking toward the next challenge and have two other 50+ milers in mind, including a 56-miler in South Africa that’s calling my name. But not immediately. And next time I’ll be under no delusion, knowing I’ll face considerably more resistance than I did in Kettle Moraine. But for now I need time to process the experience, to let the reality of our group accomplishment sink in and to revel in it. Otherwise what’s the point? If this were a high school yearbook, I might say Ice Age was 2 good 2 be 4 gotten.

Because the truth is, while I love running road races—there’s nothing like the thrill of a World Marathon Major, and both London & Tokyo await—I’m at home out on the trails, where my mind feels uncluttered and my body performs its best. I don’t need screaming spectators or deafening bands to motivate me; on the contrary, the profound quiet of Kettle Moraine State Forest inspired me all day long in a way that few stretches of raucous road outside of Boston ever could. Give me a start & finish line, two excellent running buddies and an all-star crew, and I can run all day.

And now I know that.

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished!

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a runner looking to make the leap to the 50-mile distance, do yourself a favor and check out the Ice Age Trail 50. It’s the perfect course for 50-mile newbies, a reasonably challenging hybrid of runnable flats and hikable hills. Well-groomed dirt and grass trails make up the bulk of the terrain, which isn’t particularly technical despite numerous rocky ascents & descents (gaiters will help keep those rocks out of your shoes). And speaking of ascents, there are a few relatively steep hills but nothing monstrous, so if you strengthen your core muscles and shore up your power-hiking skills during training, you should be fine.

Kettle Moraine State Forest is a gorgeous venue for the race, particularly in mid-May when spring has sprung and when heat & humidity are less likely to be a factor. If you’re lucky, you may even get the perfectly cool temperatures we got, and two awesome running buddies to join you. I can even recommend the Lake Lawn Resort in nearby Delavan, an easy 25-30 min car ride from the start line, if you’re looking for convenient non-camping accommodations.

The only downside to Ice Age is the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, though this only became a problem with a handful of runners who­—for whatever reason—came barreling down the center of the trail refusing to yield the right-of-way. This could have resulted in some nasty collisions had the rest of us not been hypervigilant and quick to step aside. As with any event, though, it’s tough to police assholery.

Katie&me_finish

Me, the finish and the reason I reached the finish

PRODUCTION: Race-day production was top-notch. Despite being one of the largest 50-milers in the country, Ice Age reminded me why I miss low-key trail races. The course was clearly marked with yellow (50M) and/or orange (50K) flags at every turn, aid stations were well-stocked and well-spaced (the longest interval between stations was 5.1 miles, and that was at mile 9), and without exception the volunteers were nothing short of brilliant. After all, these folks were selflessly sacrificing an entire day of their lives so the rest of us could work through personal issues run an absurdly long way. I introduced myself to Race Director Jeff Mallach after the race, and he seemed genuinely surprised and appreciative that we’d made the trip from California just to run his race.

The only potential issue—and one I never encountered personally—was a shortage of medical personnel & supplies on the course, e.g. when Steve drove the fellow who’d sustained a bloody gash beside his eye back to the start/finish area for medical attention.

SWAG: How to argue with my first-ever ultra buckle? The Ice Age buckle with its woolly mammoth logo is one good-looking piece of hardware. Credit to RD Jeff Mallach for not subscribing to the “Bigger is better” mentality—as with other things, garishly large medals smack of a race trying to make up for something. And though the long-sleeve tech tee may be a bit bright, its lime green color will go a long way toward making me visible to oncoming traffic on my training runs.

Read Dan’s excellent Ice Age recap HERE.

For a different perspective, which will make you want to either sign up for this race immediately or flee in the other direction, check out Jeff Lung’s recap of the 2012 Ice Age Trail 50 HERE.

Read Otter’s recap of the 2013 North Country Run, his first 50-miler, HERE.

Ice Age buckle

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
May 14, 2016 (start time 6:04am)
50 miles in Kettle Moraine State Forest, Whitewater, WI (state 12 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 9:54:30 (first time running the Ice Age Trail 50), 11:54/mile
Finish place: 95 overall, 15/40 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 297 (208 men, 89 women)
Race weather: cold & cloudy at the start (temp 39°F) and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,472 ft ascent, 2,510 ft descent through 41 miles
Elevation change (Strava, based on Otter’s Suunto data): 6,762 ft through 50 miles
~6,000 calories burned, ~2,000 calories replaced

Ice Age splits

It’s all fun & games until the Garmin dies at mile 40.93 (actually, it was all fun & games after that, too)

The “Marathon” race from Ashland to this city, held under the auspices of the Boston athletic association yesterday… proved a great success and is an assurance of an annual fixture of the same kind.
The Boston Globe, 20 April 1897

Boston Marathon finish line

I’d made it to Mecca.

Not the Holy Land to which devout Muslims make their annual pilgrimage, but the one to which devout runners make theirs. I’d made it to Boston.

Ok, so technically that wasn’t true — not yet. As Katie’s childhood buddy Paul and I meandered through the Athlete’s Village awaiting the start of the world’s most prestigious marathon, the truth was that I’d made it to Hopkinton, a town conveniently located 26.2 miles west of the finish line in Boston. Now that the hardest part — the months of high-mileage weeks, long training runs and marathon-pace workouts required to get here — was over, the long-anticipated last step in my journey to Boston Marathoner was about to begin.

As sacred as Mecca is to Muslims, I’m not sure many would eagerly run the last 26.2 miles to get there.

Boston Marathon course elevation profile

But eager was just one of the raw emotions crackling like unseen currents of electricity through the Athletes’ Village — unseen yet unmistakable, like the metallic scent of ozone before an electrical storm. And all of us good conductors. Eager. Nervous. Cheerful. Stoic. Adrenalized. Ready. In some corners, a dash of nauseous and a smidgen of scared. Some runners chatted as they waited in line for the porta-potties; others splayed out on the shaded grass under the tents, conserving energy; still others sat absentmindedly reading the ingredients on their race-day packets of yummy GU.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and first on the bus. — Benjamin Franklin, philosopher, politician, Boston Marathoner
Katie’s and my iPhone alarms had chimed simultaneously at 5:45am, nearly two hours after I’d first bolted awake, my mind instantly alert to the fact it was Marathon Monday. Feeling cold, I’d realized I was drenched in sweat thanks to our hotel room’s faulty thermostat. Bad omen #1 on a day when my hydration needed to be dialed in.

I’d dressed & packed quickly, donning the Goodwill hoodie & pants I’d brought in anticipation of a comfortably cool wait in Hopkinton. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and like an excitable runner on the first downhill, it too had started too fast. By the time Paul and I deboarded at the Athletes’ Village after the easy 45-minute bus ride from the Boston Common, sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s greeted us. Ideal weather for watching the Boston Marathon, not so much for running it. Coming from SoCal though, where I regularly train in 70+ degree temps, I wasn’t overly concerned. Maybe we’d still get lucky as in 2011, when an epic tailwind propelled Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya to a course record 2:03:02 and Ryan Hall to an American record 2:04:58.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Boston Marathon Athletes Village

Paul & I kill time at the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton

Though teeming with runners, the smartly laid-out Athletes’ Village offered plenty of elbow room compared with the crush & sensory overload of the pre-race expo, which was the most jam-packed expo I’ve ever attended (with Berlin a close second). Though conveniently located adjacent to the finish line on Boylston, the Hynes Convention Center is a smaller space than either McCormick Place in Chicago or the Javits Convention Center in New York. Definitely not a place for claustrophobics. Luckily bib pickup was in a separate & much less crowded hall than the exhibitor booths, leaving each runner to decide whether & for how long they’d brave the expo itself.

This year’s race would be unusual in its dearth of big names on the American side. Rather than competing at Boston, our country’s best marathoners will instead be representing the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Rio. For that reason, sightings of Meb, Shalane, Desi & Amy were limited to weekend expo appearances and — for those of us who’d planned ahead and snagged tickets — throwing out the first pitch before Saturday’s Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

Fenway Park panoramic view

Welcome to historic Fenway Park, only 16 years younger than the Boston Marathon

U.S. elites (Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy) throwing out first pitch at Fenway

Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy prepare to throw out the first pitch(es) (photo: Shalane Flanagan)

Group carbo-loading at Mike's Pastry in Boston's North End

The all-important Sunday night group carbo-loading session (L to R: Paul, me, Sandy, Katie, Jenny)

Adding to the festive atmosphere of the race, the B.A.A. would be celebrating 50 years of women running the Boston Marathon — 50 years since Bobbi Gibb (this year’s Grand Marshal) made history in 1966 by banditing the race, six years before women were officially allowed to run. This year’s women’s winner, Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia, would later recognize this landmark occasion by presenting Gibb with her trophy after the race — a classy microcosm of the entire weekend.

50 Years of Women logo at Boston Marathon

Showtime! The PA in the Athletes’ Village called on all runners in Wave 2 (our wave) to line up for the stroll to the start line. Dormant butterflies in uneasy stomachs fluttered to life. Our qualifying times — which this year needed to be 2 minutes, 28 seconds faster than the official B.A.A. standards for acceptance — placed Paul and me squarely in Wave 2, though in different corrals. So after exchanging “good luck”s, we joined our respective corrals for the 0.7-mile trek to the start, me chatting all the while with a 3x Boston finisher from Cincinnati who’d qualified this time around at the Indy Monumental Marathon.

Volunteers were handing out cups of water near the start, and with the sun now high in the sky I was already sweating as I approached Corral 5. Bad omen #2.

Heading to Boston Marathon start corrals

The anticipation builds during the 10-minute walk to the start line

As I stretched my calves, I took a moment to reassess my time goals. On a warm day and on a rolling course like Boston which I’d never seen much less run, sub-3:30 would be a jog well done. More than anything, though, I wanted to seize the day as much as possible — who knew if or when I’d make it back. Which was one reason I’d chosen to carry my iPhone to take pictures, the other reason being the handy Share My Run app I’d be using so Katie and my sister Sandy (in her first visit to Boston) could follow my progress in real-time.

Before my excitement had time to crescendo, the 120th running of the world’s oldest continuous marathon had begun. Carried inexorably across the start line in a parade of brightly clad bodies, I settled in with the other 27,486 runners bound for Boston, bracing myself for the opening salvo I’d heard so much about — the fast downhill out of Hopkinton.

Boston Marathon start in Hopkinton

The streets of Hopkinton were hoppin’ on Patriots Day

Rarely do I Garmin-gaze like I did during those first three miles. Based on past experience and the warnings I’d heard all weekend, I was determined to stay in my shoes and not start too fast. I’d noted on a wristband my desired pace-per-mile — 7:54, 7:49, 7:25 — so when my Garmin chimed in with a 7:52 followed by a 7:49 followed by a 7:33, I was feeling good.

Except I wasn’t. By mile 3 in Ashland, I could already tell my breathing was labored and my heart rate elevated — on a largely downhill stretch. And I’d yet to find the easy rhythm I typically fall into by mile 3. Too much of my attention was focused, not on the cheering spectators already lining both sides of the course, but on checking my pace and not stepping on/elbowing others in this 26.2-mile caravan. On the narrow suburban streets, running a straight line proved impossible as other runners frequently cut in front of me trying to find personal space or access the aid stations.

Boston Marathon finish line sign

(Left) Go fo(u)rth & conquer: Boston was also World Marathon Major #4; (Right) Fellow Antarctica finisher & French RaceRaves evangelist Didier notched his 5th WMM in Boston

I have not yet begun to fight. — John Paul Jones, naval war hero & runner
Despite my own issues, the locals lining the course did everything they could to verbally propel us forward, with their unflagging cheers and personal touches that make Boston the one-of-a-kind event it is. I heard no fewer than half a dozen cheers for RaceRaves (the shirt I was wearing) throughout the day, and though I neither saw nor met her I know I was running near Molly for the better part of a mile.

Several groups were clearly out to make a day of it, with smoke billowing from their grills and sprinklers set up to help cool overheated runners. Both kids and adults cheered while simultaneously bouncing on mini-trampolines. And the musical highlight of the course was Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” — embraced & adopted by Red Sox fans for their 8th-inning singalong — twice in the first seven miles, making me wonder just how many times we’d be hearing it in the span of 26.2. Luckily, twice would be enough.

Most of the course is distinctly and charmingly suburban New England. Granted, Hopkinton looks like Ashland looks like Framingham looks like Natick — but running Boston isn’t about the scenery, and I scarcely noticed the unchanging backdrop of white picket fences and calligraphic trees still in search of spring’s first kiss.

Somewhere along the way I caught up with the unmistakable duo of Team Hoyt. After Rick Hoyt was born with cerebral palsy, he and his father Dick began racing in 1977 and completed every Boston Marathon together — with Dick pushing Rick in his wheelchair the full 26.2 miles — until Dick hung up his racing shoes for good following the 2014 race. Team Hoyt member Bryan Lyons accepted the mantle from Dick and now continues the tradition of pushing Rick in his wheelchair. I applauded and cheered them on as I passed, feeling distinctly humbled to be running alongside such inspiring & beloved icons.

Team Hoyt in Newton at mile 16 of Boston Marathon

Team Hoyt rolls through Newton

As my pace slowed gradually over the next several miles and I realized sub-3:30 would be an epic struggle, I exchanged more high-fives with spectators, including one tiny fellow whose dad called out a “Thank you” to me for my detour. Spectators, supporters and volunteers thanking me for running their marathon — this was a theme repeated all weekend and one that gave me goosebumps pretty much every time I heard it.

Tom Grilk, Executive Director of the Boston Athletic Association, said it best in the title of his 2014 TEDx talkIn Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

As I neared the 13.1-mile mark in Wellesley, I found myself solidly wishing I’d qualified for the Boston Half Marathon. Though I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, my breathing was ragged and my energy levels were fading fast. So Wellesley College couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which lines the right side of the course in mile 13, is the hands-down highlight of the Boston Marathon. As vociferous as the rest of the course is, Wellesley makes the other 26 miles feel almost monastic. Donald Trump and Captain America could have been exchanging punches on the left side of the road and I doubt anyone would have noticed. Awesomely and profanely raucous, if anything could make you forget you’re running a marathon, it’s the women of Wellesley. Where else in the world can you ever get free kisses from strangers you might actually want to kiss??

I opted to stay left of the double-yellow line to soak up the scene and avoid any overexuberant runners dive-bombing into the screaming throngs of coeds. I wasn’t disappointed — not only by the volume, but by the signage. Like Ulysses to the song of the Sirens, I nearly found myself drawn irresistibly to two signs that read “KISS ME I’M GAY” and “KISS ME OR I’LL VOTE FOR TRUMP”. Not to mention the handful of signs — “CHECK THAT ASS AS YOU PASS” may have been the tamest — suggesting that someone’s parents weren’t running this year’s marathon.

“BOSTON STRONG” and “RUN WICKED FAST” signs filled the rest of the course, complemented by the occasional other memorable sign like “DO EPIC SHIT” and “RUN! THE KENYANS ARE DRINKING YOUR BEER!”

Sandy Pitcher & Mike Sohaskey at Boston Marathon finish

Ironically, the missing sibling is our 2x Boston Marathoner brother

These are the times that try men’s souls. — Thomas Paine, statesman & marathoner
After Wellesley every mile became a struggle. So I was much relieved to reach Sandy, Katie and our friend Albion waiting at mile 16 in Newton, at the bottom of the steep downhill that empties into Newton Lower Falls. There they waited less than ¼ mile from my Dad’s boyhood home. I checked in briefly, stretched my legs and pushed onward, warning Katie it would be a while before I rejoined them at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 16 in Newton at Boston Marathon

Looking better than I felt in Newton Lower Falls

Even the psychological lift of counting down single-digit miles from 16 provided little (if any) physical boost. I wasn’t hungry, having eaten my usual meal before the race — plus I’d run plenty of 16+ mile training runs at marathon pace with minimal nutrition. I wasn’t thirsty, having made frequent use of the aid stations. And my quads & hip flexors weren’t hurting, still feeling strong without any apparent tightness. I simply had… no… energy. And a body that didn’t want to cooperate.

I tried to take solace in the fact that, since Boston doesn’t have pacers, at least I didn’t have to watch each successive pace group pass me.

Trying to draw inspiration from the tireless crowds, I shuffled up each of the four Newton Hills, which culminate at mile 20 in the most infamous hill in all of road racing, Heartbreak Hill. An increasingly stiff headwind greeted us as we climbed, though luckily the mercury had progressively dipped since Hopkinton.

(If you don’t know the story of how Heartbreak Hill got its name, turns out it had nothing to do with the hill’s steepness — read all about it HERE.)

The Boston course includes only five turns along its entire 26.2 miles, and here we made the first of these, a sharp right turn by the firehouse in mile 18 just before the second of the Newton Hills.

View from Boston Marriott Cambridge

View across the Charles River from our hotel room at the Boston Marriott Cambridge

On any other day I would have been bent but not broken by this 5-mile stretch, with four successive inclines of moderate but not intimidating steepness (most trail runners would scoff at the use of the term “hills” to describe them). Unfortunately, this wasn’t any other day. Even with the sheer wall of spectator noise pushing runners up Heartbreak, by the time I reached the mile 21 marker I was moving so slowly that the wheels were in danger of falling off if I didn’t take a walk break. And suddenly, the thought of running the Big Sur International Marathon (as part of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge) in six days left me queasy. One race at a time, one step at a time…

It was like an out-of-body experience, and I felt like a first-timer in this my 20th marathon. In fact, Boston was the first time since Crazy Horse 2011 — my second marathon — that I’d stopped to walk during a road race, that’s how bizarre this day was. I hadn’t even stopped to walk after twisting my ankle at mile 17 of the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon. By the time I crested Heartbreak Hill, though, I had no choice. So for the next few miles, as the course followed a downhill-yet-still-rolling trajectory — past the screaming Eagles of Boston College, through Brookline and into Boston at last — I walked briefly at each mile marker, high-fiving spectators and regaining my momentum in short bursts.

Through all the misery of those last ten miles, I kept flexing the one set of muscles I could still control — I refused to stop smiling, even as I passed an increasing number of cramped-up runners trying desperately to stretch out their failing calves & locked-up quads. And was it just me, or was the number of medical tents increasing as well?

Citgo sign at mile 25 of Boston Marathon

The Citgo sign high in the sky signals you don’t have much fahthah to go

The finish is coming! The finish is coming! — Paul Revere, patriot & Boston Marathon finisher
At mile 25, with the beckoning Citgo sign now dominating the skyline and the roars from the onlookers intensifying, both mind & body sensed the finish line within reach. The “ONE MILE TO GO” marker painted on the ground in Kenmore Square provided one last shot of adrenaline, and I glanced up to see the familiar green outer walls and light towers of historic Fenway Park off to our right.

Mike Sohaskey with one mile to go at Boston Marathon

One mile to go in Kenmore Square!

Even in my exhausted state, I recognized the moment when it arrived. I’ve never wanted a tattoo, but if I ever get one I know exactly what it will say — right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The final two directions every Boston runner hears, and the six celebrated words that tell you, I am this close to finishing the freaking Boston Marathon.

As I made the left turn onto Boylston, I glanced off to my right to see my buddy Neil from Minnesota, whose wife Jody had run a great race, cheering me on. I gave him a euphoric thumbs-up and turned my attention directly ahead of me, to the blue & gold pearly gates finish line arch 300 yards in the distance. Ironically, this home stretch was the only time all day when I legitimately wanted to slow down, and I took the time to bask in the moment and to soak up every last cheer from the thunderous walls of human sound urging us toward the finish. And I seriously would have high-fived every person on Boylston if I could have.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 26 of Boston Marathon

Feelin’ the magic of Boylston Street (photo: Neil Hetherington)

Eventually I ran out of room and had to cross the finish line into Copley Square, finishing my first Boston Marathon and my best worst marathon ever in 3:48:36. Even as competitive as I am, I can live with that result — because Boston (especially the first time) is all about the experience, and luckily I hadn’t set my sights on requalifying this year.

Clearly I still owe the course my best shot — though not immediately, as I’d like to step back and let the magic of this year’s experience sink in before I chase another BQ. And I have other racing goals to pursue in the meantime. But boy, it’s easy to understand how chasing (and re-chasing) the high of that qualifier year after year could easily become a full-fledged addiction. Heroin ain’t got nothin’ on the Boston Marathon.

Boston Marathon finish line shot

Mission accomplished — looking back on Boylston from under the finish arch

Turns out even the elite times were slower than usual, with no men breaking the 2:12 mark and only one woman cracking 2:30. And I heard more than a few horror stories of runners ending up in the medical tents with cramps or worse. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d misplaced my running mojo this year.

And yet I’m still puzzled by the fact that my day went south so quickly, and with so little help from the course itself. I would say it’s something I need to figure out and correct pronto, but then again I may never know exactly what went wrong on Marathon Monday. After all the solid training, preparation & tapering that preceded Boston, how could I have begun the day with an elevated heart rate? I have my suspicions — maybe filling every waking moment in the two days before the race wasn’t a great idea. Or maybe waking up in a cold sweat on race day was an even worse omen than I knew.

Boston Common post-Boston Marathon

The Boston Common after a very uncommon day

In any case, Boston reinforced the lesson I continue to learn time and time again: the marathon is the ultimate “tough love” teacher, and the lessons it teaches are humility, adaptability and don’t you dare give up-ity. Anyone can finish a race when they’re feeling good & running strong — but if you have a weakness the marathon will find it, exploit it and beat on it until you’re ready to throw in the towel. And then kick you in the gut a couple more times, just for good measure. It’s like a bully who turns you upside-down, shakes all the money out of your pockets and then takes your clothes just because, leaving you out in the middle of nowhere naked in the dead of winter. Laughing all the way.

As I shuffled triumphantly through the finish chute, Dad’s smiling voice — Boston born & bred — filled my head: Can’t do any bettah than that. And I could feel his hand on my shoulder, proudly confirming what my depleted body already knew and what I’d worked so hard to hear.

At Boston Marathon Expo

Post-race drinks are on me! — Samuel Adams, brewer & patriot
Sheer exhaustion was probably all that prevented me from tearing up as yet another smiling B.A.A. volunteer hung the coveted unicorn medal around my neck. I’d honestly never given much thought to the unicorn as the universally recognized symbol of the Boston Marathon, but it’s perfect — wild & ferocious, forever elusive yet endlessly pursued by man for its mythical power, beauty and ability to heal sickness.

Paul had run an excellent race (3:18:07), and he and his wife Jenny were already headed back to their hotel when I texted them, in between posing for the MarathonFoto minions. Reveling in the slow, deliberate stroll out of the finisher’s area, where volunteers continued to thank us for running Boston, I eventually reached the perimeter of the Boston Common where Sandy and Katie were waiting.

Boston Marathon finish line family hug
En route I was greeted by a group of four college-age fellows in Red Sox and Patriots gear, one of whom embraced me while another proclaimed loudly how totally awesome I was. Much as I would have loved to respond with a rapid & witty retort, all my fatigue & surprise would allow was a weak “No, YOU guys are awesome.” Anyone else, anywhere else, on any other day and I would’ve assumed I was the victim of a practical joke or hazing stunt. But on Marathon Monday in Copley Square, these guys were 100% sincere — and I was 200% appreciative.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Mile 27 sign

Tapering for Big Sur

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho with Red Sox World Series trophies

Still plenty of room on that table for a 4th (and 5th) World Series trophy

The post-race party that night at Fenway Park (sponsored by Samuel Adams, of course) was the perfect nightcap to a Patriots Day that I wish I could bottle and share with every runner & non-runner I meet. Feeling down? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Overworked? Insecure? Crack open a bottle of Marathon Monday, breathe deeply and let one of life’s most amazing experiences wash away all negativity.

Hear the cheers. See the high-fives. Feel the gratitude. Everyone, from the most hardcore runner to the most sedentary bystander, coming together with a common purpose — to celebrate, support and inspire everyone else. A common humanity you have to feel & see to believe, shaped by 120 years of history and two bombs that showed the world — with all eyes watching — what it means to be Boston Strong. In this town, everyone takes this day to heart.

Because in Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

Mike Sohaskey with Boston Marathon medal 2016

Tips & Tricks for Boston Marathon weekend:

  • You can score a discount on Adidas official Boston Marathon gear by signing up for their email list as a first-timer, and they’ll probably send you another coupon with your first order (e.g. $30 off $100 or more). I signed up for their email list back in January and have yet to receive a marketing email from them.
  • If you can, wait until Sunday late morning/early afternoon to hit the expo — it’s SO much easier & more time-efficient than braving the Saturday madness (I can’t vouch for Friday).
  • No matter when you hit the expo, take a few minutes to watch the street-view video of the course with elevation profile and expert analysis from elites, past champions, and others.
  • At least 100 additional porta-potties with minimal wait times await you in the corrals at the start line, so if you can wait I’d think twice before standing in the long, slow lines at the Athletes’ Village.
  • The Marathon Sports retail store on Boylston typically offers free medal engraving the day after the race (this year the time slot was 10:30am – 2:30pm).
  • For more helpful tips from a 12-time Boston finisher, check out Scott Dunlap’s post, “Running The Boston Marathon? Here Are Some Tips and Things To Do”.
8 towns of the Boston Marathon

Click on image for a larger version, sun streaks and all (source: Adidas RunBase, Boston)

BOTTOM LINE: Boston is a pretty cool race. And Tyrannosaurus rex was a pretty cool lizard. I’m flattered and appreciative that you’re reading this, but if you’re scanning blog posts & reviews to decide whether or not to run the Boston Marathon, we need to talk. Boston is hands-down (and it’s not close) the coolest race in the country, if not the world. Chicago has a similar feel in terms of race magnitude, community support/civic pride and an historic sports venue in Wrigley Field, but Boston is without rival. And unfortunately, the Cubs’ season typically ends well before race day in early October (oh no he di’int!).

So if you’re fast enough to run Boston, do it — early & often. If you’re on the cusp of being fast enough to qualify, train your butt off now before they tighten the qualifying standards again. And if you’re simply counting on attrition to qualify when you’re 80, hit up some family/friends/unguarded piggy banks and raise the $5,000 minimum needed to enter as a charity runner. No matter how you get to Boston (short of cheating the system and calling attention to yourself on Facebook), you won’t regret the effort.

Not surprisingly, Race Director Dave McGillivray said it best when asked what he does for a living: “I help raise the level of self-esteem and self-confidence of tens of thousands of people across America every year.” Now there’s an elevator pitch.

Boston Marathon finish line selfie
PRODUCTION:
Spot-on flawless, from start to finish. Every race of any size could learn a lot simply by standing on the sidelines observing Boston Marathon weekend. McGillivray and his team are master choreographers, and it’s almost laughable (& unfair) to compare any other marathon to Boston. The genius of the production is that it’s airtight and yet never in your face to spoil the experience. And unlike Berlin, the porta-potties in Boston had toilet paper! The only potential downside to race weekend was the overcrowded expo… but even that can be avoided by waiting until Sunday afternoon to attend. Four thumbs up (I’m borrowing Katie’s) on a job masterfully done.

SWAG: No finisher’s medal outside the Olympics is more coveted or more instantly recognizable than the unicorn earned by Boston Marathon finishers. I was awestruck as the friendly B.A.A. volunteer hung the blue-&-gold ribbon around my neck, and that was when the reality of my achievement really hit home.

In addition, the official Adidas long-sleeve race shirt isn’t your typical wear-once-and-donate race tee, but like the medal itself a classic blue & gold that fits well and which I can imagine wearing until the sleeves fall off. Everything about this marathon screams “attention to detail”, even if Adidas has (for better or worse) boldly steered away from the classic color scheme and gotten a bit sassier with the colors of its celebration jackets in recent years. I definitely didn’t envy the women their teal-&-pink jacket this year (look it up if you don’t believe me).

2016 Boston Marathon medal, finisher's shirt & bib

RaceRaves rating:RaceRaves-rating
FINAL STATS:

April 18, 2016 (start time 10:25am)
26.41 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, MA (state 11 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:48:36 (first time running the Boston Marathon), 8:39/mile
Finish place: 13,459 overall, 1693/2504 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 26,639 (14,471 men, 12,168 women)
Race weather: warm & sunny at the start (temp 69°F), cool & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 539 ft ascent, 983 ft descent

Boston-splits_BCH

I often lose motivation, but it’s something I accept as normal.
– Bill Rodgers

Cactus silhouette

Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka – the three sister stars of Orion’s Belt twinkled in their full glory, as if all vying for the same celestial suitor. Untouched by the electric glow of urbania, the predawn sky tantalized. And I stood awestruck by its vastness, its grandeur, its silent promise of infinite secrets and infinite truths –

“… get up at the ass crack of dawn to wait in line for a bus,” a voice behind me cleaved the silence.

Instinctively I glanced over at the speaker & her companions, their focus clearly on more terrestrial matters. And I smiled wryly, amused that anyone who runs 26.2 miles for fun would be so discomforted by a common race-day ritual. This likely wasn’t the first time she’d stood in line on a chill morning, awaiting the buses that would shuttle her and her fellow runners to the marathon start line. With the starter’s pistol primed to fire at 7:00am, a 30-mile bus ride uphill meant an early wake-up call even by typical runner’s standards.

Unfortunately my own wake-up call had come courtesy of my traitorous mind. I’d fallen asleep around 10:00pm, only to awaken inexplicably sometime later, wide awake and unable to fall back to sleep. Katie’s soft, regular breathing shaped the darkness beside me. Convinced my alarm (set for 4:15am) would chime soon enough, I lay in bed resting and waiting… and resting… and waiting…

Finally I rolled over, squinted through sleepy eyes at my iPhone’s home screen and braced myself for the bad news.

3:05am. Crikey, I thought (in my dreams I’m a crocodile hunter). State #10 was off to a rough start, and I wasn’t even out of bed. Here’s to the pre-race power nap.

Mike Sohaskey at Tuscon Marathon Expo

This one’s a shoe-in for my favorite race expo picture

So I used the 50-minute bus ride to the start line to conserve my energy, consume my breakfast and compare travelers tales with the 50-stater from Missouri sitting next to me. Modern remakes of classic holiday tunes filled the air, the bus driver apparently of the mindset that if he loved holiday music at 5:30am, well then who didn’t love holiday music at 5:30am?

Clearly a morning person, our bus driver.

Luckily for me the Tucson Marathon wouldn’t be a Boston Qualifer try, or a PR attempt, or really anything more than a conveniently timed excuse for a quick visit to a nearby state before the end of the year. So it was that as our bus pulled to a stop just before 6:30am in the dusty town of Oracle, I felt none of the pre-race nerves that typically accompany me to the start line of a marathon. In retrospect now I know: this was, if not a bad sign, definitely not a good sign.

The periwinkle sky brightened as I cycled through my warmup routine, listening to the familiar buzz of pre-race rituals around me. And I realized that cool breeze notwithstanding, the desert was warming up about as fast as I was.

Maybe I missed the National Anthem while handing off my drop bag, but the next thing I knew a female voice (presumably Race Director and ultrarunning legend Pam Reed) was declaring over the PA, “We’ll get started in 10-9-8…” Her count reached zero, an airhorn blew and the sun peeked over the horizon just in time to spy a swarm of runners begin their 26-mile journey toward Tucson.

Mile one rolled a bit before its first steep descent. This initial descent is clearly shown on the course elevation profile available on the race website, though a warning about that official profile: compare it to my Garmin’s own GPS tracing, and it’s like someone injected botox into the official elevation profile to smooth out the wrinkles, i.e. the less conspicuous bumps and dips on the course. Those bumps & dips may look insignificant to the untrained eye, but your trained legs will tell you otherwise.

Tucson elevation profile_official

Tucson elevation profile_Mike Sohaskey Garmin

The official course elevation profile (top) and my own Garmin course profile (bottom)

Cautiously I held myself in check as runners shot past me, as if chased by angry wasps. If I was going to blow out my quads, I hoped to wait until at least mile 20. After a steep ¾-mile descent the course continued to roll for the next several miles with little to see other than a few mom-and-pop businesses and a couple of Circle K convenience stores. In true small-town fashion, every building in Oracle seemed to bear the same first name: Oracle Public Library, Oracle Ridge School, Oracle Union Church, Oracle Ford, Oracle Inn Steakhouse & Lounge.

The highlight of this nondescript stretch was my pausing to retrieve sunglasses for a runner ahead of me who slingshotted them off her head while doffing her sweatshirt.

After 30 minutes I popped my first Shot Blok in my mouth, and was immediately reminded of my desert surroundings as my salivary glands worked feverishly to produce enough liquid to break it down. It was a slow and arduous process, and I resolved to limit my Shot Blok intake rather than risk dehydrating myself trying to get 33 calories at a time into my system.

Corporate America greeted us in the form of the Oracle Ford dealership as we turned onto Hwy 77, and the next 3 miles continued their gradual descent along the left shoulder of Hwy 77. At this point, after the first five miles of Oracle, the realization struck me that the recurring theme of the Tucson Marathon would be its largely uninspiring course. True, we could see semi-impressive peaks in the distance ahead of us… but those peaks never seemed to get any closer, and running alongside the flow of highway traffic felt more “outskirts of the city” than “one with Nature”.

Tooth sculpture in Oracle

9 out of 10 dentists surveyed recommend your teeth not look like this

The most inspiring points of the course were easily miles 5.5, 7, 14.5 and 19 – but then again, you’ll probably not have Katie waiting to cheer you on at those points.

Despite the sameness of my surroundings I was feeling good, logging miles in the 7:25-7:45 range, and two brief snippets of conversation kept me entertained as we approached mile 10:

Conversation #1:
Fellow 1: He had a 3.0 last semester, so I told him I’d buy him a car if he hit 3.5 next semester.
Fellow 2: That sounds like a pretty fair deal.
(You think? Wanna be my dad?)

Conversation #2:
Runner 1: How’s the calf?
Runner 2: It was tightening up pretty bad on Friday so I went to Massage Envy, and all they had was this chubby guy working, Friday night 8:00pm and all. (Editor’s note: Not sure what the masseuse’s body type had to do with the story or the shift he was working). It was pretty touch-and-go at the start, being naked in front of another guy and all, but he was ok.
(I wanted to suggest that “Touch and Go” would be another great name for a massage studio, but with over 16 miles still ahead of us I chose to conserve my energy.)

Flags

At mile 10 we swung a left turn off Hwy 77 and headed east directly into the rising sun, on a two-mile out-and-back to the Biosphere – no, not the Pauly Shore movie (that would be “Biodome” for you lucky enough not to remember), but rather the University of Arizona’s Earth systems science research facility dedicated to addressing “grand challenges that affect the quality of life and the understanding of our place in the universe.”

Speaking of quality of life, mine was slowly diminishing as I worked my way along rolling hills toward the Biosphere. While the official course profile shows miles 10-12 as smoothly uphill and miles 12-14 as smoothly downhill, again my Garmin tracing reveals the truth – a rolling profile that, given the energy needed to switch regularly between “up” and “down” gears, made for a tougher four miles than expected.

As we approached the Biosphere and the mile 12 turnaround, “Born To Run” by Springsteen – the only pre-recorded musical entertainment on the course – blasted from the PA, together with the voice of someone’s young (I’m guessing 5-year-old?) daughter, who held forth on how runners should go about running and drinking water at the same time. Yes, this was the highlight of the Biosphere out-and-back.

Passing the midway point, I glanced down at my Garmin to see a time of 1:42:xx. Not good enough to inspire, knowing I wasn’t about to negative-split this course, but not bad enough to give up on either. In a wicked bit of foreshadowing, my first-half time left me feeling a whole lot o’ nothing.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

I take solace in the fact I’m ahead of the fellow in the “Pikes Peak Road Runners” shirt

Turning back onto Hwy 77, I wasn’t looking forward to six more downhill miles on the shoulder of the road, with only the distant unchanging hills for distraction. After all, a succulent is a succulent is a succulent, and neither sagebrush nor chaparral make good running partners.

Maybe it was the fact that I could see practically into Mexico, with nothing left to the imagination and nothing to distract from my mounting fatigue. Maybe it was the second-hand exhaust of passing cars (it’s true that running behind cars will leave you exhausted) Maybe it was the 3+ hours of sleep. Or maybe – and I’d never considered this possibility – maybe without a well-defined race goal, I’d left myself with no compelling reason to dig deep once fatigue inevitably set in. After all, what did it matter whether I finished in 3:25 or 3:45? Without the BQ goal that brings so many runners to Tucson in December, both numbers felt essentially the same.

Whatever the reason, by mile 16 I was ready to call it a day. With the rumble strips (i.e. those grooves in the road that wake you up pronto when you fall asleep at the wheel and float onto the shoulder) as my constant companion, I kept my head down and simply followed the Running 101 textbook – one foot in front of the other.

I ran through the desert on a course all the same…

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 19 (91) of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Dyslexic runners unite! at mile 19

During a marathon I usually try to direct my focus outward, toward something other than my own suffering. Miles 16-21 at Tucson, though, were truly a No Man’s Land of mind-numbing same-itude – a monotonous grind highlighted by the rumble strips to my right and the sun now staking its claim overhead. The 3:30 pacer breezed past me at mile 20, his small group of disciples hanging on his every stride. I resolved to take more frequent advantage of the aid stations, as I continued to pop a Shot Blok every 30 minutes or so despite feeling nutritionally sated.

Honestly, the best way to describe the last ten miles at Tucson was that I just… lost… interest. Admittedly much of the blame falls squarely on my shoulders – my training had been on cruise control for several months, and my near-PR performance at November’s inaugural USA Half Marathon had felt like the cherry atop my 2015 racing sundae. But rather than end the year on that high note, I’d opted to squeeze in one more nearby state before the holidays. And so in the absence of external motivation (cheering spectators, rousing scenery etc.), I found myself digging deep into my well of internal motivation, only to discover it was bone dry. As though I were running in a desert.

Even the sparse spectator signage seemed to share my ennui, with oft-recycled messages like “One day you will fail. Today is NOT that day!” and “Nice job, random stranger!” And around mile 19, in one last nod to the uniformity of our surroundings, Hwy 77 turned into – what else? – Oracle Road.

Taiko drummers at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Taiko performers beat the drum slowly at mile 21

The fast-approaching, rhythmic beat of taiko drummers was (literally) music to my ears, signaling as it did the end of mile 21 and our escape from the unremitting downhill of Oracle Road. Turning left at the drummers, we entered our first residential neighborhood of the day and my mind relaxed almost immediately, as though the relentless drip, drip, drip that had been striking the same spot on my forehead for the past 7 miles had finally ceased. The course leveled out underfoot, and despite the glare of the eastern sun, even tract housing in various shades of desert brown was a sight for sore eyes.

Mile 23, and turning left onto Edwin Road, I immediately spied the steep uphill jag that stands out like a spotted zebra on the course elevation map. Sadly my pace didn’t slow much as I shuffled up the hill, where I was rewarded with the best view of the day all around me. You know when you’re riding in the front car of a roller coaster that reaches the top of a steep climb (clack, clack, clack) and then hesitates briefly, just long enough so you sense the freefall to come? I felt that same moment of anticipation before letting gravity and my remaining adrenaline carry me down the other side of the hill.

Mile 23 hill on Edwin Road - Tuscon Marathon 2015

A hill with a view – mile 23 and the psychological high point of the course

Curiously, as sluggish as I was in the last 5 miles, very few runners passed me. Apparently my misery had plenty of company.

My mind wandered back to the night before, when Katie had flipped open the hotel’s Guest Services book to the page that described the spa. “Ooh, they have a craniosacral thing,” she reported. “It utilizes light touch therapy that enhances the flow of cerebral spinal fluid through your head and spine. You may experience an easing of the restrictions in the nervous system and more mobility.” I’d laughed at the time but now, shuffling through mile 24, more mobility sounded awfully appealing – bring on the craniosacral thing!

Entering the death march of mile 25, I noticed a couple of runners alternating between running and walking a few feet at a time. And I resolved that my one victory on this day – aside from simply finishing – would be to run every step from start to finish. And not due to some misguided sense of pride or purpose, but because walking would have meant being out on the course even longer.

When at last I crossed under the finish arch at the Golder Ranch Fire Station after 3 hours 37 minutes 52 seconds, the word that best described me was depleted. As grateful as I was to the firefighter who hung the medal around my neck, I was even more grateful for the bottle of water offered by a friendly volunteer. I chugged it and looked around for another. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d felt this thirsty after a marathon… and it dawned on me just how much of a physical toll the dry air & desert heat had exacted.

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving a Tuscon cactus?

Race-day lesson #73: Not all spectators want or need a high-five

I met up with Katie and diffused around the finish line, my legs tightening quickly and the muscles of my middle back sore from breathing the thin air. I wasn’t sure whether to sprawl out on the ground or keep moving – neither seemed a comfortable option. I made several visits to the well-stocked food tent for oranges, bananas and water, again not something I typically do after a marathon. But it wouldn’t be until I got out of the sun and collapsed on the bed in our hotel room that I’d really start to feel like myself again.

In the end, no well-defined race goal + an uninspiring course = a race that will live in infamy, and another addition to my ever-growing list of marathon lessons learned.

The highlight of my day was meeting Race Director Pam Reed, who was buzzing with energy around the finish area – restocking supplies, emptying trash cans and seemingly doing whatever was needed to take care of her runners. I thanked her for overseeing a well-produced race, and marveled at the fact that a two-time overall winner of “the world’s toughest foot race” – the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley – and one of the planet’s greatest endurance athletes was working her butt off to ensure I had everything I needed after running 26 miles in 60-70°F heat.

The post-race afternoon was spent decompressing, me exploring the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort where we were staying, while the finest support crew in the land treated herself to a well-deserved massage.

Checking out of the hotel the next morning, I noticed a small heart tattooed on the inside of the front desk agent’s right arm, with a pink swath of tissue across the heart where a name once lived. A once-promising relationship reduced to scar tissue, I thought. Relationships come, relationships go, and when it happens I guess the healthiest response is to dust ourselves off, learn from our mistakes and move on as quickly as possible.

And in this case, not a moment Tuc-soon.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Tuscon Marathon finish

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a focused downhill runner seeking that elusive Boston Qualifier, then dry desert air and barren scenery aside, Tucson may be your ideal marathon. But if you’re like me and much more comfortable going up (or staying flat) than coming down, you may want to think twice before committing to this one. And if you are looking for a late-season BQ-friendly course that’s significantly easier on the quads, I’d recommend the California International Marathon which happens to fall on the same weekend as Tucson.

Beware too the artificially smooth course elevation profile on the race website, which omits many of the smaller rolling hills that will drain the life incrementally from your legs.

On the other hand, mile 23 hill aside, Tucson is much more intriguing as a speedy half marathon, where quads be damned you can throw caution to the wind and use the first 9+ miles of downhill to your PR’ing advantage. For those considering the 13.1 distance, I’d suggest you check out Dan’s excellent post on his own Tucson Half experience.

And if you’re looking for race weekend lodging, look no further than the first-class host hotel. The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort offers reasonable rates and quiet, comfortable rooms, with the added convenience that the pre-race expo is held in one of the hotel conference rooms.

Sunset on grounds of Hilton Tuscon El Conquistador resort

Sunset on the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador

PRODUCTION: Race Director Pam Reed ensured that everything about marathon weekend operated like a well-oiled machine. Speaking of which, any event that uses buses to transport runners to the start – and does so with nary a glitch – earns extra points on my scorecard. This is no Rock ‘n’ Roll event, and that’s a good thing – the course lacked spectators and entertainment for the most part, while oncoming traffic provided the only consistent white noise along with the occasional waft of exhaust fumes. The expo was quick to navigate and had a small-town feel, including a wild-haired Doc Brown-looking fellow peddling “Magic Stuff” ointment at the corner booth. And the post-race spread, which included local sponsor Damascus Bakeries flatbread roll-ups, seemed sufficient to satisfy any but the most epicurean finisher’s palate.

SWAG: The official 2015 Tucson race shirt is an attractive (albeit bright) royal blue short-sleeve tech tee, while the finisher’s medal is a small and cartoonishly rendered red cactus that, if I were to learn had been designed by the local 3rd grade class, I’d think was really cool. Instead, it strikes me as more afterthought than thoughtfully considered keepsake.

Tucson Marathon 2015 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating_Tucson

FINAL STATS:
December 6, 2015 (start time 7:00am)
26.28 miles from Oracle to Tucson, AZ (state 10 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:37:52 (first time running the Tucson Marathon), 8:17/mile
Finish place: 147 overall, 27/60 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 669 (378 men, 291 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 54°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 436 ft ascent, 2,140 ft descent

Tucson Marathon splits

These are referred to as positive splits, as in “I’m positive these splits are terrible”

I love it when a plan comes together.
– Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, The A-Team

Staging Area at the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon
This is probably normal for most of these folks,
I thought wryly as Katie and I made our way under a slate gray sky toward the start line for the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach MarathonThey’re hard-wired for 6:00am track workouts and 5:00am long runs.

With the official start time of 6:00am just minutes away, restless runners milled around what I had to believe was Ojai’s downtown district.  The muted light of a cloud-covered sunrise gently caressed the Spanish-influenced Post Office Bell Tower, whose four-story stature dominated the Ojai “skyline”.

The familiar bounce of “Happy” – these days the go-to musical stimulant of race organizers – diffused at low volume over the gathering throng.  At the same time my own stimulant of choice, the 5-Hour Energy coursing through my bloodstream, kicked in bringing with it a moment of clarity: this was damn early to be running a marathon.  Unlike most runners I’m predisposed to the Dark Side, meaning I’m a night owl and the majority of my training happens later in the day.  Though if two runDisney races in the past six months had prepared me for anything, it was an early start.

Circadian rhythms aside, the common bond between me and so many of my fellow early risers in Ojai was what you might call our “race-on” d’être, our reason for being fully lucid at this ridiculous hour on a Sunday:

Boston.

Sunset over downtown Ventura

Sunset over downtown Ventura

From the mountains…
Pharrell Williams faded out in preparation for the national anthem, of particular significance on this Memorial Day weekend.  Per my usual modus operandi we’d arrived 15 minutes earlier, and as “The Star-Spangled Banner” drew to a close I squeezed into the restless start corral and scooz-me-thankoo’ed my way toward the sub-4:00 pacers grouped near the front.

I reached my mark with perfect timing, just as the starter’s countdown reached zero and the stampede of lithe human cattle charged forward – away from our final destination in Ventura.  The first mile+ would be a nice flat out-and-back along East Ojai St (seemingly Ojai’s “main drag”), during which I’d focus on settling in and not flying off the start line like a Walmart shopper on Black Friday.  My target was roughly an 8:00/mile pace for the first three miles.

This would be my first PR attempt of the year, and unlike my only other 2015 marathon, I wouldn’t be making 19 photo stops along the way.  All my training for the past four months – the regular 60+ mile weeks, including a 31-day stretch in March/April during which I totaled 285.5 miles – had been focused toward this day, and toward securing a no-doubt-about-it Boston Qualifier time after two admittedly disappointing 2014 attempts in Berlin and at the California International Marathon (CIM).

Without rehashing The Rime of the Boston Qualifer from my Berlin post, I’ll say that with an official age-group qualifying time of 3:25, I needed to escape the near-miss purgatory in which I found myself after a 3:24:14 in Berlin and a 3:24:15 in Sacramento.  With that in mind, my goal for the morning would be a sub-3:23, and the closer I could get to 3:20 the better.

With no marathon looming for her the next day, Katie was drinking for two

With no marathon on her Sunday docket, Katie was drinking for two

Falling in step with the herd of happy runners (Pharrell had done his job!), I felt far removed from my most recent PR in Berlin. Ojai is very much a laid-back hippie/artsy mountain town, lying as it does just south of the group of peaks known as the Transverse Ranges.  It’s a Shangri-La kind of place that attracts groups of bikers looking for a convenient rest stop between long stretches of open road, and where “LIVE BAIT” signs dominate convenience store windows.

Thanks in part to the 6:00am start time, the morning’s weather looked to be cooperative.  Granted the SoCal sun would quickly have its way with the overmatched clouds, but starting temperatures hovered in the mid-50s, and the route from mountains to beach promised frequent shade.  As a bonus, the ocean headwind would be a non-factor early in the day. Weather is always the single biggest variable with the potential to spoil the best-laid plans on race day.  So this was a good sign.

Further helping my cause would be the course itself.  Mountains 2 Beach is one of California’s most celebrated Boston Qualifying races, meaning every year a high percentage of its finishers qualify for Boston.  This quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since runners on the cusp of qualifying for Boston tend to seek out races that offer the highest odds of success, which in turn leads to a high percentage of BQ finish times and enables the race to market itself as “BQ friendly” to the next year’s flock of BQ hopefuls.

Before I’d run a single step through Ojai, I was a big fan of Mountains 2 Beach.  Granted it was already on my short list of must-run SoCal races, but even so, everything leading up to race day appealed to me – from the just-right number of pre-race emails, to the tiny low-key outdoor expo at Ventura High School, to the much-appreciated lack of in-your-face social media (including no Twitter handle).

Adding to my M2B crush was the discovery that the pacers would be running at two minutes under their official Boston Qualifying time (e.g. a 3:23 pacer for runners with a 3:25 qualifying time).  This was a smart and mindful tip o’ the cap to the realities of BQ’ing in the year 2015. Be still, my beating heart…

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 9

Returning to the Ojai Valley Trail at mile 9

As my Garmin chimed the end of mile 3, my average pace stood at a comfortable 7:52/mile, a successful start that required riding the brakes for the last ¾ mile of downhill.  At mile 3 we reached the Ojai Valley Trail on which the bulk (nearly 15 miles) of the race would be run.  I was ready to stretch my legs, and I carefully passed the bloated 3:23 pace group that spanned the narrow trail.  Now all I had to do was keep them behind me for the next 23 miles…

Luckily those few seconds would be the only crowded moment on the course, and the only time all morning I’d have to work to circumnavigate anyone.

The race itself reinforced my warm fuzzy feeling that this was a marathon for runners by runners, with none of the distractions that typically qualify as on-course entertainment: no bands, no balloons, no cheerleaders, no extraneous nothin’. Even the few spectators along the Ojai Valley Trail (where Katie would make five appearances in a 7-mile stretch) knew the score, as evidenced by one succinctly worded sign just after mile 4:

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22

Notably, M2B is the only race I’ve run where the bystanders may have been faster than the runners, as the number of spectators sporting Boston Marathon shirts and jackets on this day would make Ojai & Ventura feel like Boston West.

It turned out our first visit to the Ojai Valley Trail would be more of a sneak peek, since just before mile 5 the course looped back for a 4-mile tour through the residential neighborhoods of Mira Monte, Meiners Oaks and Ojai.  This peaceful stretch contained the only advertised “uphill” on the course, a gradual 160-foot rise between miles 5 and 7 with two sharp jags thrown in that hardly registered on my Garmin, and which were immediately followed by equivalent descents.

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 10.5

The 3:23 pace group cruising along at mile 10.5 (photo credit Katie, skillfully captured from Starbucks)

… to the prairies…
As the sun burned off a few residual stubborn clouds, we completed our residential loop and rejoined the Ojai Valley Trail for the 13-mile, 700-foot descent that defines Mountains 2 Beach. The déjà vu feeling of having recently passed this way was confirmed by the updated spectator sign that awaited us:

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22 17

Though I’m not much of a downhill runner, the upcoming descent would be gradual enough that I intended to take full advantage, to find out just how fast I could get to Ventura.  I also knew that by the time I reached Ventura at mile 22, I’d be facing 4+ miles of largely exposed beachfront running, with the sun already high in the sky.  So I intended to do as much damage as possible (to both the course and my quads) over the next 13 miles.

On that note, I’d recommend a minor edit to the course description on the M2B website, based on my personal experience:

Over the 26.2 miles you will see beautiful mountain peaks, the Ventura River Basin tops of your shoes and the backs of other runners, the gorgeous Ventura Promenade, and the world renowned Ventura Coast line.

In reality, the paved trail from Ojai to Ventura follows a pleasant but relatively nondescript tree-lined route past sun-charred grasslands and fenced-off industrial yards, punctuated by a smattering of commercial zones and the occasional playground or RV park.  The highlight of the 13 miles was the quaint arched wooden footbridge over lethargic San Antonio Creek, which apparently connects with the Ventura “River” (a term I use generously, in the face of California’s ongoing drought).

San Antonio Creek footbridge on Ventura River Trail

The San Antonio Creek footbridge at mile 14, taken during pre-race reconnaissance

My preparations for M2B had included a training first: pre-race reconnaissance.  I’d actually run 20 miles of the course back in March, including the entire stretch along the Ojai Valley-turned-Ventura River Trail to get a feel for the descent.  So having been here and seen the sights before, I was content to keep my head down and power forward with the 3:13 pacer far ahead and the 3:23 pacer (hopefully) at my back.

One key change to my training cycle this time around had been a focus on fine-tuning my race-day nutrition, to help me push through the inevitable Wall and minimize the post-mile 20 lethargy I’d experienced at Berlin and CIM.  My M2B strategy would be to carry six unwrapped Clif Shot Bloks in each pocket and munch one religiously every 15 minutes – perfect timing for a sub-3:30 marathon, and a rate of intake I knew my stomach could handle.

On that note, a brief digression: I don’t understand why so many runners favor gels over Shot Bloks.  Isn’t a marathon hard enough without fighting your food?  Consider:

  • Gels are more difficult to access and dispense, like trying to squeeze (and eat) the last of the toothpaste from the tube while you’re running.  I realize there are gel dispensers you can buy to avoid this step, but rarely do I see non-ultrarunners carrying one.  On the other hand, pop a Shot Blok in your mouth and it smoothly dissolves over the course of a minute or two, without your looking like you belong in an Oatmeal cartoon.
  • Gels are messy, have the consistency of gritty paste and leave your fingers stuck together… which is great if you’re trying to relive those nostalgic “toddler years” mid-race.
  • Gels inevitably require water to choke down, unless you’re a camel (despite consuming 12 Shot Bloks, I needed only two gulps of water during the race).
  • Gels require more packaging since calorically speaking, two gels = one package of Shot Bloks.

So if you can offer up a legit defense of gels over Shot Bloks, I’d appreciate your enlightening me in the Comments below.  Otherwise, I’ll assume that running 26.2 miles by itself isn’t enough of a challenge for you.

That downhill looks so much more intimidating graphically than it felt in the moment

That downhill’s all fun & games until someone blows out their quads

Just before my next Katie sighting at mile 16, I fell in step with a group of three fellows (two may have been brothers) who clearly knew other and were cruising along at a 7:30-7:35/mile pace.  For the next 5 miles theirs would become my ideal “Goldilocks” pace: not too slow, not too fast, but juuust right.  It was nice to let someone else worry about pacing for a while.

At one point in mile 18 the smell of horse or cow done-it wafted across the trail, prompting the chattiest of my three running companions to remark cheerfully, “I can smell Boston!”  I was about to suggest the smell might come from a unicorn, when another runner whom we were passing at the time retorted matter-of-factly, “I can smell shit.”

Like a bulky sweatshirt, the sense of humor is one of the first items to be cast aside during a marathon.

With me lagging slightly behind to avoid the chatty fellow’s stabs at conversation, our foursome remained in lock-step until about mile 20.  At that point Chatty dropped off the pace and the other two began to pull away to varying extents, until by mile 23 we were strung out in a line of three, each trailing the fellow ahead of him by about 20 seconds.

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 23

With views like this at mile 23, I almost forgot my quads had stopped working (sweet backdrop, Katie!)

… to the oceans, white with foam
Not surprisingly, the persistent downhill had a similar effect as all my stops and starts at January’s Disney World Marathon: by the time we reached sea level at the Ventura Promenade in mile 23, my upper quads (i.e. the muscles that lift my legs) were pretty much shot.  I saved one last smile for my final Katie sighting in mile 23, then put my head down and motivated myself forward by imagining the 3:23 pacer gaining ground behind me.  Nothing like a healthy dose of self-imposed fear to liven up the final stages of a marathon.

With my quads in imminent shutdown mode, my stomach – damn their proximity, they must have been talking! – began its own discomforting protest, and I tried to ignore its belly-aching while willing myself forward one stride at a time.  Clearly a sub-3:20 finish was a goal for another day – right now it was time to salvage every precious second I could.

In trying to describe the end stages of a marathon to a non-runner, and explain how much longer the last four miles seem relative to the first four, I’d borrow the analogy Einstein used to describe relativity:

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Einstein’s “pretty girl” is the first four miles of the marathon; his “hot stove” is the last four.

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon homestretch

Mile 26.2 in progress

Likewise, one truth always strikes me as I grit my teeth through the brutal finalé of every marathon.  You can be the most chiseled triathlete or the doughiest first-timer; you can sport a buzzcut-with-visor-&-Oakleys or the most wildly uncoiffed mane; you can boast a tapestry of Ironman tattoos or perfect blemish-free skin.  At mile 24 of a marathon, none of it matters.  Because by that point, EVERYONE is suffering.  And we’re all in it together.

The marathon is all about equal opportunity discomfort, and aside from death it may be the next great leveler.  No doubt ultramarathoners feel the same about their distance of choice.

Finally, though, I heard them – surf angels singing on high as I reached the final right turn back onto the Ventura Promenade and the mile+ home stretch.  In the distance the finish line beckoned impatiently.  By now the direct sun was starting to take its toll, and I was amazed at how completely unable I was to pick up my pace.  No más, pleaded my quads.  I imagined I could hear the thundering footfalls of the 3:23 pacer charging up behind me.

The sight of several medics securing another runner to a stretcher, which I let myself view only in my peripheral vision, did nothing to ease my mind.  Though talk about happy endings – without its owner, his bib and timing chip still managed to finish 2:43 behind me:

Post-race on Facebook

Somehow I summoned one final surge past another struggling runner before jubilantly crossing the finish line to the familiar sound of the race announcer butchering my last name over the PA.  And “Shwopokowsky” never sounded so good. I’d beaten the 3:23 pacer to the finish, and my Garmin looked mighty handsome sporting its shiny new PR time of 3:22:07, nearly three minutes inside my official Boston Qualifying time.  Granted nothing’s certain until Boston registration opens in September, but just to be safe I’ve cleared my schedule for Patriots’ Day 2016.

For now, though, it was time to celebrate.  I thanked the friendly volunteer who hung the medal around my neck (what’s up with finishers who grab the medal and carry it?), then turned back toward the finish to soak in the moment and several more just like it.  Never before had I heard so many exuberant whoops and joyous shouts in a finish chute, as newly minted Boston Qualifiers laid bare their raw and exhausted emotions with friends & family.

Those, of course, were the lucky ones – I also witnessed two runners cross the finish line and immediately collapse into the arms of their fellow runners, who lent a shoulder and escorted their seemingly incoherent mates (hopefully) to the nearby medical tent.

Boston excepted, Mountains 2 Beach is a finish line like no other.

Mike Sohaskey & AREC VP & 3:23 pacer Gil Perez

Speedy guy and motivational pacer Gil Perez

Then I located Katie – never far away, to be sure – and wrapped her in a huge n’ sweaty hug, as we confirmed that neither of us had plans for next April 18.  Turns out she’d scored her own PR at M2B, showing up at EIGHT separate locations along the course.  Sure, one of them had been a Starbucks across from the Ojai Valley Trail where she could comfortably view the course and watch me pass, but still… the Quicksilver kid in the new Avengers movie had nothing on her.  She was everywhere.

I thanked Gil the 3:23 pacer (who’d finished in 3:22:47) for keeping me motivated, and learned he’s also the VP of my brother’s running club down in Long Beach.  Then we caught up with Race Director Ben Dewitt and congratulated/thanked him for producing a brilliant race that his finishers (passed-out guy on the stretcher maybe excluded?) clearly enjoyed.  And I made sure to ring the Boston Qualifiers gong he’d set up for the occasion, a much more satisfying exercise than the BQ bell I’d rung after my 3:24:15 at CIM.

Boston Qualifying Mike Sohaskey at Mountains 2 Beach Marathon

That mallet’s for the Boston Qualifiers gong behind me

My biggest enemy at M2B turned out to be not so much the long downhill itself – had the finish line awaited at the end of the Ventura River Trail, I might have had a legitimate shot at 3:20.  Rather, trouble arose when my used-up quads transitioned from 13+ miles of faster downhill to 4+ miles of flat.  Though I understood in theory the perils of downhill running, still I underestimated its cumulative effect on my cadence over those last 4 miles.  My legs simply refused to turn over anymore.

Can I top a 3:22:07? I think I can.  Maybe on a flat or slightly downhill course in cooler weather – which now that I think of it, is a perfect description of CIM in December.  And which would also enable me to qualify for Boston 2017.  I sense another plan coming together…

Katie returned from feeding the parking meter to find me sprawled out on the warm beach, reveling in my best Personal Best yet.  The crash of aggressive surf taking out its frustrations on the shoreline filled one ear, while the squeals and whoops of excited finishers filled the other.  At that moment, I could easily have fallen fast asleep right there on the sand.

And the only sound missing was “Happy”.

Mike Sohaskey - after qualifying for Boston at Mountains 2 Beach Marathon

Another weekend, another PR for the RaceRaves shirt

BOTTOM LINE: Mountains 2 Beach is an all-around awesome race, and one of the gems of the California marathoning scene in only its 5th year.  Based on the laughter and smiles at the post-race festival, Boston hopefuls and non-hopefuls alike enjoy this event.  With its fast and spectator-friendly course, first-rate production and laser-like focus on helping its runners qualify for Boston, M2B very much strikes me as CIM with warmer temperatures and better scenery.

The race perfectly complements its low-key venue.  The outdoor expo at Ventura High School was easy and quick to navigate, though late arrivals on Saturday should expect a bit of a wait to collect their number.  Apparently there was a pre-race pasta dinner available for $10 at Ventura High, though given my experience in Alabama I figured the night before a PR & BQ attempt would be a bad time to poke the bear.

Whereas many races give lip service to their runners while bending over backwards for their sponsors, Mountains 2 Beach in every way feels like a race organized by runners, for runners.  Admittedly I’m pleased I could support the title sponsor (Berkeley company Clif Bar) with my choice of race-day nutrition.

And reinforcing the “by runners, for runners” vibe of the weekend, the decision to have pacers run at two minutes under their official Boston Qualifying times was a genius call.

In case you can’t tell, I’d highly recommend this race… unless your own choice of races hinges on a strong social media presence.  Then you’re out of luck.  #justrun

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Mountains 2 Beach Marathon finish line
PRODUCTION: I loved the “show up, run fast” mindset at Mountains 2 Beach.  If you favor low-frills yet extremely well-produced events that finish alongside the Pacific Ocean, this is your kind of race.  If, on the other hand, you prefer screaming spectators and raucous on-course entertainment, you’re likely to be Ojai-ly disappointed.

Despite the fact that I tend to ignore aid stations and only grabbed two quick sips of water at M2B, there seemed to be plenty of aid stations serving both water and Fluid, the electrolyte drink of choice.  The name “Fluid” made me smile, sounding as it does like the ambivalent beverage equivalent of Soylent Green (though I doubt Fluid is people).

Luckily my innards behaved, since bathrooms along the course were few and far between.  If there were porta-potties I didn’t notice them, and the only facilities I remember were the public units in Foster Park near mile 16.

The cozy post-race festival in Promenade Park included more sponsor tents than the pre-race expo plus a beer garden, Boston Qualifiers gong, massage tent, medical tent and stage featuring a live band, all conveniently encircling an open grassy area where runners basked in the SoCal sun and their post-race glow.  All in all, a very nice arrangement.

SWAG: The race tee was a simple gray Greenlayer technical tee that, like other Greenlayer apparel I own, doesn’t fit particularly well.  The finisher’s medal, though, makes up for its less swaggy cousin with its attractive part-metal, part-stained glass design.  And I’d swear I can hear the ocean when I hold it up to my ear.

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon medal

RaceRaves rating:
RaceRaves rating

FINAL STATS:
May 24, 2015
26.26 miles from Ojai to Ventura, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:22:07 (first time running the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon), 7:42/mile
Finish place: 244 overall, 51/157 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 1,602 (802 men, 800 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy at the start (temp 55°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 243ft ascent, 977ft descent

Mountains 2 Beach mile splits

Walt Disney quote - BlistersCrampsHeaves.com

What if I were to tell you that somewhere:

You’d probably assume I was either making these up, or researching a book on “Life in these crazy United States”.  Except that, well, all of them happened in just one state.

Florida.

Ah, Florida – our nation’s fortress of freakery, bastion of the bizarre and theater of the absurd.  As sheer lunacy goes, Florida makes California look like Sunday morning at the bingo parlor.

Luckily though, even Florida follows the Law of Conservation of Crazy – meaning that while most of the state wallows in wacky, the rest of us will always have Walt Disney World.  And we runners looking to cross a finish line in all 50 states (even Florida) will always have the Walt Disney World Marathon.

Sorcerer's Hat in Disney's Hollywood Studios

The iconic Sorcerer’s Hat in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (though not for long, they’re taking it down!)

No other marathon elicits such fanatical loyalty and across-the-board glowing recommendations as Disney’s 26.2-miler (as I write this, it’s among the most reviewed events on RaceRaves).  Disney holds a series of wildly popular themed races at both its Florida and California parks throughout the year, but only their January edition includes the full marathon distance.

And that’s not all it includes. As a company that’s never shy to give their paying fans what they never knew they wanted, Disney has taken this mindset to the extreme with what they brand as the “Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend”.  For those runners who embrace the three M’s – miles, medals and Mickey – runDisney offers a 5K race on Thursday, a 10K race on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday.  And while you could run just one of those distances, the folks at runDisney know you better than that.  For you the Disney devotee, they’ve created two additional profit-making opportunities:

  • the Goofy Challenge, for runners who complete the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday (39.3 total miles), and which includes its own special finisher’s medal;
  • the Dopey Challenge, for runners who complete all four distances on four consecutive days (48.6 total miles), and which includes its own special medal as well as the Goofy Challenge medal

Perhaps the most striking example of the loyalty Disney inspires is that while the marathon and half marathon sold out quickly this year, the Dopey Challenge (now in its second year) sold out immediately and was the first “distance” to do so.  Never mind that when you crunch the numbers – something visitors to any Disney property should know better than to do – the Dopey Challenge with its six medals costs nearly $11 per mile, a return on investment even the folks at the New York City Marathon (at $9.73 per mile for 2014) can’t claim.

The Magic Kingdom Park collage

Scenes from the Magic Kingdom (clockwise from top): entrance; Tomorrowland; Town Square Theater; one Mike idolizing another; Pete’s Dragon in the Main Street Electrical Parade; Cinderella’s Castle

Thing is, I’ve never once heard a WDW Marathoner go all “Brokeback Mountain” on the Mouse: “I wish I knew how to quit you, Mickey.”  And I’ve yet to meet a Dopey Challenge finisher who said, “What a disappointment, I should’ve put that money toward four other races instead”.  Maybe the pixie dust sprinkled around its parks allows runners to rationalize beyond their wildest dreams. Or maybe, just maybe… that magic is real.  And maybe, like their sedentary counterparts, when it comes to Disney hundreds of thousands of brainwashed zealous runners can’t be wrong.

I was about to find out – though in my case I’d be running on Sunday only.  Disney World isn’t a place I normally equate with hardcore runners, but I used plenty of air quotes over the weekend in Orlando while talking to Goofy and Dopey Challengers, feeling the need to explain that I was running “just” the marathon.

On Friday evening, within an hour of our plane touching down in Orlando, Katie and I were strolling the halls of the pre-race expo at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.  Nearly 70 races into my running fetish, I’ve definitely reached the stage where an expo is an expo is an expo.  That, coupled with the fact that I’d seen many of these same booths two months earlier at the Avengers Half Marathon, meant that one quick go ‘round and we were out of there.

One thing that struck me about the two Disney expos I visited is that an unusually high percentage of the booths are geared toward looking good.  Yes, many runners tend to err on the side of color coordination, but nowhere else have I seen such a diverse collection of blinky, frilly, sparkly, colorful outfits and accessories designed to always keep you looking your start-line best.  Even the New Balance booth featured limited edition Disney running shoes. And as in Anaheim, there was the lonely-looking duo manning the Florida Hospital Celebration Health booth – because who among us doesn’t want to talk resort-style, not-for-profit healthcare at a race expo?

WDW Marathon Weekend Expo floor 2015

This is where the (pre-race) magic happens

Saturday afternoon we spent like all smart runners do the day before a marathon – on our feet, exploring the Animal Kingdom.  I’m admittedly anti-zoo, but I figured if anyone would do hostage-taking right it would be Disney.  So I wanted to give the Animal Kingdom a chance, simply because I think that if done correctly it has a lot to offer in the way of education and appreciation.  Granted I was still saddened and disappointed by the relatively small enclosures afforded the animals to “roam,” but to a man the employees (“crew members”) showed unambiguous awe and respect for their charges while urging environmental conservation.  And where else in their lifetime will most Americans have the chance to experience in close proximity the beauty and grandeur of a rare Sumatran tiger or endangered white rhino?

My primary complaint against the Animal Kingdom actually came outside the park itself.  As we sat inhaling the sickening exhaust of the tram carrying us back to the parking lot (thankfully this wasn’t a humid 100-degree summer day), it occurred to me that a multibillion-dollar company that preaches environmental protection should probably put its money where its mouth is and invest in some electric trams.

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom (clockwise from upper left): white rhino; western lowland gorilla; okapi (more closely related to the giraffe than the zebra); Everest Expedition ride; meerkats; Sumatran tiger

Sunday morning arrived much too quickly, as will happen when you’re staring down the barrel of a 5:30am starter’s pistol.  I’d slept soundly for almost three hours, followed by a final restless hour spent trying to convince my mind it was still asleep.  Unfortunately, even on minimal sleep the mind knows when a challenge awaits, and so I had no choice but to lie quietly until my iPhone chimed in mercifully with its 3:30am wakeup jingle.

After dressing (“Where – is – my – super – suit?“) and mixing my usual race-day fuel of granola/yogurt/peanut butter, we hit the road for the short drive in the dark to the Disney campus, where after a bumper-to-bumper 45-minute wait on Buena Vista Drive, we pulled into the Epcot parking lot. Assuming I’d have minimal elbow room in the corral, I cycled through an abbreviated warmup routine and then embraced my inner moth, the harsh electric lights in the distance luring me onward.

Epcot's Spaceship Earth aglow with WDW race-day anticipation

Epcot’s Spaceship Earth aglow with race-day anticipation

Passing a jumbo screen on which the start line MC was interviewing Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray, Katie and I parted ways.  Then I picked up my pace and jogged the remaining ¾ mile to where the corrals awaited.  Along the way I passed a DJ blasting “Gangnam Style” for the migrating masses (presumably to expedite their migration) – topical no, but at least it wasn’t the “Cha Cha Slide” or “Macarena” that Dan reported hearing at the 2013 race.

Then I was sliding into corral “C”, and here my only real competitive fire of the day flared briefly – corral C?  With bib #696 and a projected finish time of 3:30?  I turned to glance back at the 13 corrals awaiting their turn behind us, the image of which evoked my favorite t-shirt from Friday’s expo:

"In a Corral Far Far Away" Disney t-shirt

Why wouldn’t Peter Pan make a good pilot?
Because he’d never never land.

Epcot to the Magic Kingdom (start to mile 7, i.e. the “Happy” miles)
My timing was impeccable. I barely had time to catch the not-so-gentle waft of Ben Gay before the final countdown (courtesy of Mickey Mouse) began, and the first set of fireworks lit up the sky to start the wheelchair race.  Moments later we slow-footed corral C types were stretching our legs along darkened Epcot Center Drive, as periodic fireworks continued to light the pre-dawn sky behind us.

One of the coolest details of the race start was the fact that the back-of-the-packers in corral P were given the same enthusiastic fireworks sendoff as the frontrunners in corral A.  It was Disney’s unmistakable way of letting every runner know, You matter.  And it was one of the small yet significant details that makes Disney… well, Disney.

Walt Disney World Marathon start line fireworks

Across the grassy median on the other side of Epcot Center Drive stood a long line of shadowy spectators, and from their ranks arose Katie’s disembodied yet unmistakable cheer.  For a moment I felt more like a professional athlete or a museum exhibit than Joe Schmo runner, with the onlookers positioned so far away from the course.

If you’re looking for a course description, the WDW Marathon can be summarized as plenty of flat, non-scenic stretches of road punctuated by theme parks and character appearances.  And while “non-scenic stretches of road” may not sound like a glowing endorsement, what made this race orders of magnitude better than Disneyland’s Avengers Half was that Disney World – with its four parks plus Speedway plus ESPN Wide World of Sports – has its own sprawling campus.  Meaning the marathon is run entirely within the boundaries of Disney World, eliminating the OC strip malls, church parking lots and neighborhoods that are a necessary evil of every Disneyland race.

So all the roads on the WDW marathon course are well-paved, peaceful and traffic-free (especially at 6:00am).  Not to mention wide open – I can’t vouch for corrals I-P, but throughout the race I had plenty of room to run, only sensing the crowds when I negotiated my way to the side of the road for character photos. Definitely preferable to the constant crush of a Berlin or NYC.

Toy Story three-eyed aliens

The starting corrals were the only crowded part of the course (yes Disney, I may have doctored this image a bit)

I ran in my comfortable bubble, determined to enjoy the moment while keeping my pace around 8:30/mile.  Even allowing for a few photo stops (iPhone in hand), 8:30/mile pacing would leave me in position to finish in under 3:45.  And there you have it – my carefully conceived race strategy for this day.  Bring on the Seven Dwarfs!

The first 5 miles between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom passed quickly, thanks to distractions from Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz to my left, and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas at the cemetery gates to my right.  In between stops my mind filtered out everything but the hypnotic sound of runner footfalls in the crisp predawn air.

Mike Sohaskey with Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz

Don’t wreck me, bro!

Mike Sohaskey & Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Unfortunately Jack Skellington bailed just as I reached him and his ghoul-friend Sally

During this stretch I may even have sent a text or two to Katie and my brother as I ran.

Then we were entering the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella’s castle lighting the way directly ahead of us as screaming spectators (including Katie – hi Ho, hi Ho!), cheered us along Main Street USA.  I stopped to let her take a picture, momentarily throwing her off-guard since I’d never done that before.  This was one of the few sections of the course with appreciable spectator turnout, since it was also one of the few convenient dropoff points for the monorail that operates between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.

As we entered Tomorrowland I remarked to the fellow running alongside me, “I expect to come out of here well rested with my medal around my neck”.  Across the bridge and through Cinderella’s castle we ran, pausing to pose with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (make it quick, he can’t be late!) before exiting the Magic Kingdom on our way to the Disney World Speedway.  Along the way I interrupted Donald Duck and Goofy, who looked to be enjoying an early round of golf at the Magnolia Golf Course.

Mike Sohaskey with White Rabbit, Donald Duck & Goofy

Why does Goofy wear two pairs of pants to play golf?
He’s afraid he’ll get a hole in one.

WDW Speedway to Disney’s Animal Kingdom (miles 8 to 13, i.e. the “Sleepy” miles)
Shortly before the Speedway at around the 12K (7.4-mile) mark, I noticed the darkness lifting as the first tinge of blue caressed the morning sky.  This sudden realization knocked my circadian rhythms for a loop, with mind and body rebelling against the notion of running 26.2 miles on three-ish hours of sleep.  Luckily the moment passed quickly (with help from Mary Poppins and her Penguin Waiters), though a general lassitude would maintain its grip on me for the next several miles.

Stopping to show off my finest conjuring pose for Aladdin’s genie, it struck me that I was one of a surprisingly few runners stopping for photos along the course.  I mentioned this to the woman immediately ahead of me who was doing the same, and we agreed that we were here with one goal in mind – to fully enjoy the runDisney experience.

Mike Sohaskey with Mary Poppins & Aladdin

For someone whose interest in cars rivals his interest in dustballs (“Cars” was the first Pixar movie I skipped, “Cars 2” was the second), the lap around the Speedway with its classic cars had me wondering “Are we there yet?”.  We circled the track as the awakening sun made a brief appearance, before changing its mind and retreating back behind the clouds.  Exiting the Speedway I offered words of encouragement to an older fellow sporting a “Dallas Fire Dept” shirt, and settled in for the subdued 3-mile stretch along Bear Island Road leading to the Animal Kingdom.  But not before we’d pass (pregnant pause…) the mile 11 Wastewater Treatment Plant!

In true Disney fashion, even this unremarkable landmark was transformed into a course highlight by one of the coolest photo ops of the day, the Disney Villain & Villainess Squad. Fast forward a bit, and who else would you expect to see along Bear Island Road than the Country Bear Jamboree?  And where there were no characters, signs positioned at regular intervals along the side of the road shared everything you’d want to know about Disney World’s water reuse programs.  I even downed what I think was my first real in-race food ever (a banana), to test whether this would make a difference in my energy levels in the second half.

Villain squad

This section of the course was a microcosm of the WDW Marathon experience – an otherwise ho-hum stretch of road made memorable by Disney’s attention to detail.

Then it was time for my second visit of the weekend to the Animal Kingdom.  As we passed the Everest Expedition roller coaster, I was reminded of a blogger who’d gone on the ride not once but twice during the race.  Given that its sudden & speedy reverse ascent had nearly caused my stomach to reverse gears the day before, I was happy to keep my feet under me this time around.

The Animal Kingdom also signaled the midway point of the race – two parks down, two to go!

Where does Ariel go when one of her friends is missing?
To the lost-and-flounder.

Animal Kingdom to ESPN Wide World of Sports (miles 14 to 20, i.e. the “Grumpy” miles)
The next three nondescript road miles (sans character stops) were highlighted by “Happy” blasting from loudspeakers on the Osceola Pkwy overpass, just short of mile 16.  But as obvious as this setup seemed, I was surprised to find no Dwarf of the same name here – on hearing the music I’d automatically assumed he’d be hanging out to meet ‘n’ greet runners.  In fact the entire course was devoid of Dwarfs, one of the day’s few disappointments (Dopey Challenge runners would get to pose with The Man himself in the finish area).

Mile 17 leading to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex featured the only out-and-back section of the course, and here the speedier runners could be seen approaching from the other direction at their mile 21.

The ESPN Zone is well named, because I took the opportunity to zone out as we circled the Complex.  Rounding the running track with its cushioned polyurethane surface, my brain did a double-take thinking “Wait, is it time to speed up?”  Skirting the Softball Diamondplex and rounding Champion Stadium (spring training home of the Atlanta Braves), I stopped to argue a call with umpires Chip ‘n Dale before exiting the complex just before the mile 20 marker.

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don't wear pants

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don’t wear pants

Mile 20!  Might seem crazy what I’m ‘bout to say, but I’d been looking forward to mile 20 for the giant character marionettes lining the side of the road, expecting a repeat performance from the race’s 20th anniversary two years earlier.  Unfortunately that was then, this was now, and hopes are made to be dashed.  Nor had the organizers simply shifted the marionettes down the road two years to mile 22.  Instead, a giant video screen was set up to let tired runners waste valuable energy trying to get a momentary glimpse of themselves on camera as they rounded the corner back onto Osceola Pkwy.

Chalk up disappointment #2 of the day – though admittedly that’s more a function of me being a thankless, impossible-to-please a**hole than any fault of Disney’s.

Mike Sohaskey with Jiminy Cricket

I’d never actually been knee-high to a grasshopper cricket before

Why didn’t the pirate take his young child to the movies?
Because the film was rated “Arrr!”

Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Epcot (miles 21 to finish, i.e. the “Dopey” miles)
The final open stretch of tree-lined road followed.  Spectators at the WDW Marathon are sporadic and appear in clusters, due to the difficulty of accessing the course by either car or monorail.  So there were few spectator signs of note along the course, aside from:

  • the supportive “Blisters are braille for ‘Awesome’ “
  • the brutally honest “What were you thinking?” offered by one Disney crew member
  • the “Go faster! (that’s what she said!)” sign notable only for its curious incongruity (and the fact that a woman was holding it) – pretty sure that one wasn’t sanctioned by Team Disney’s corporate offices.

But just as every race has to have a winning runner, so does every race have to have a winning spectator sign.  And this day’s prize for most clever signage went to the woman holding up a picture of Dory (from “Finding Nemo”) with the caption, “I’ll never sign up for another… ooh, a race!”  Few signs make me laugh on the outside, but that one did.

Incredibles

Mike Sohaskey with Sully & Mike Wazowski

By the time we reached Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the frequent starts and stops were starting to take their toll, and I could’ve used Fix-It Felix’s hammer on my upper quads.  Turns out, though, Disney had saved the best for last… and so it was with heavy legs and a light head that I struck a pose with Mr. Incredible & Elastigirl (presumably battling their mile 24 nemesis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) before taking one final detour to visit Sully & Mike Wazowski, the latter being the closest thing I have to a namesake.

By mile 24 I was the only runner around me still stopping for photos.  And as we weaved our way past Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat and along Hollywood Blvd, plenty of my comrades looked to be auditioning for the role of stiff-legged zombies.  Seeing others stop to walk late in a race is never motivating, so I focused on channeling my inner Dory: Just keep running, just keep running…

Mike Sohaskey approaching Walt Disney World Marathon finish line

I even managed to squeeze in a bit of running along the way

And keep running I did, along the boardwalk and past the charming seaside cabanas of Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club.  My brain appreciated the fact that this final 5K was run within parks and resorts, to provide a welcome distraction that wide-open roads could not.  Despite stiffening quads my stride remained comfortable, and I was passing other runners while still enjoying the experience (though I barely glanced at one final character I didn’t recognize).  The first half of mile 26 circled the World Showcase Lagoon before a hard right turn led us off the boardwalk and into the home stretch.  There, beckoning in the distance, Spaceship Earth (i.e. the Epcot golf ball) welcomed us home.  And then…

Heigh HO!

Directly ahead, the blue and gold finish arch spanned the road.  I straighted up and extended my stride to try to mask my fatigue from Katie and the other cheering spectators lining the final stretch.  And I tried to savor those last 200 yards, because the truth is I’m very lucky to be able to run, and to be able to run races like this one.  And then, in an all-too-brief 3:41:42, my 26.2-mile tour of the Walt Disney World campus was over.  Not bad when you factor in 19 photo stops.  I even managed negative splits for the first time ever in a marathon (1:52:52 first half, 1:48:50 second half), though that had less to do with the banana I’d eaten than with the fewer number of character stops in the second half.

Finish line confetti for Walt Disney World Marathon women's winner

Disney fires off confetti for every single finisher… just kidding, this is the winner of the women’s race

Why can’t you give Queen Elsa a balloon?
She’ll let it go, let it go!

Post-race afterglow (fully in-Doc-trinated after one last Bashful moment)
With shiny golden Mickey medal around my neck courtesy of a friendly volunteer, I shuffled through the finisher’s chute where I was handed water, a wet towel and a packet of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol).  I’ve never received acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen at a race before, and this struck me as another smart Disney idea – though a surprising one, given the company’s litigious mindset.

One item conspicuously lacking from my post-race attire was the mylar heatsheet, now a standard at most marathons.  I may be mistaken, but I do believe heatsheets were reserved exclusively for the Goofy and Dopey Challenge runners.  Apparently Disney has decided runners don’t start to lose appreciable body heat until they pass 26.2 miles or $170.

3:25 pace sign in trash

My 7th grade English teacher might call this symbolism

A second friendly volunteer urged me to grab a box of snacks.  Then it was out into the Family Reunion Area to meet Katie, but not before we passed through the bag-check tent where a dozen or so volunteers cheered and applauded at the runners hobbling past.  This was admittedly embarrassing since I’d done nothing (to my mind) applause-worthy.  But like the corral-specific fireworks at the start, this was Disney’s way of creating magical moments and letting every runner know, You matter.  And in that sense it was a much-appreciated touch.

As I waited for Katie I tried to do my usual post-race leg swings, only to find that my tight quad muscle refused to cooperate – I had to manually lift my left upper leg, like a parent on the playground pulling back the swing to get their child started.  Once the leg began to swing it was fine, but the sensation of not being able to lift it without help was a new one.  Luckily, after an ice bath and good night’s sleep the leg was no worse for wear than after any other marathon.  And in the end, not getting a leg up was a small price to pay for a camera full of memories.

Mike Sohaskey with Daisy Duck

Watch where you’re putting that other hand, Daisy… I’m a married man!

Not that I’d maxed out on the course’s character meet ‘n’ greets – in fact I’d blown by several photo ops including the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion Gravediggers, two princesses with their princes, Robin Hood and his band of merry men, and the always phreaky Phineas and Ferb.  And those are just the ones I remember.

One sound I now instantly recognize and appreciate around Disney finish lines is the chime-like clinking of medal sliding against medal bouncing off medal.  RunDisney devotees do NOT mess around when it comes to their bling, and many of them have no qualms about jetting back and forth between California and Florida several times a year to ensure they claim every race medal Disney has to offer.  FOMO is powerful, to be sure – just ask Mark Zuckerberg – but the runDisney version is like FOMO on a cocktail of steroids, Red Bull and meth. I’m sure the folks at runDisney will appreciate that loose analogy.

Us_finish line

During WDW Marathon Weekend it was possible – for those light on their feet and heavy in their wallet – to collect as many as six different medals.  So there were plenty of blinged-out, beaming runners walking tall and looking like Mr T, and I pity the fool who comes between them and their swag.

One of the best things about running is its strong sense of community, its all-inclusive mindset that embraces anyone willing to accept its challenge and to show the discipline needed to meet that challenge head-on.  And runDisney embodies that ethic as well as anyone.  As silly as this may sound, the Walt Disney World Marathon is a race for the runners, and that’s honestly something I can’t say with conviction about some of the other races I’ve run.

Katie and I hung around the finish area for a few minutes until the first drops of rain began to fall, after which we escaped to our car in time to beat the resulting short-lived deluge.  Then we said our goodbyes to Epcot and pondered our next step, though as any American sports fan can tell you, our next step was a no-brainer…

 

BOTTOM LINE: Speaking of no-brainers, if you’re a marathoner then the Walt Disney World Marathon is one of them.  And if you don’t believe me, feel free to read a few of the gazillion blogs dedicated to the runDisney experience.  Nobody stages a more entertaining race than Disney, because nobody can stage a more entertaining race than Disney (Th-th-th-that’s a challenge, Warner Bros).  Whereas other races rely on “loud and abrasive” for their on-course entertainment, Disney relies on its time-honored characters and theme parks.  With a couple of well-timed exceptions (“Happy” at mile 16 being one of them), the WDW Marathon speaks softly and carries a big stick.  And if you’ve only ever run a Disney race in California, don’t think this is more of the same – Florida is a completely different experience.  It’s one of the very few (only?) instances where I’m willing to concede that Florida trumps California.  That and alligator density.

I’ve heard the complaint that Disney races are too expensive – and if price is your sole criteria for judging a race, then maybe you’d be right.  But the truth is, the next runner I hear second-guess their decision to run the WDW Marathon will be the first.  Disregarding Active.com’s processing fee, my marathon registration was $170 (compared to $255 for the NYC Marathon and $195 for the Avengers Half), which by the time I crossed the finish line on Sunday felt like a bargain.  And the fact that their most expensive option – the Dopey Challenge – is also their most popular says all you need to know about the supply & demand at work here.  So if your primary concern is the $170 registration fee, I might suggest you focus less on price and more on value.

Mike Wazowski wearing Walt Disney World Marathon medal

PRODUCTION: No one produces a race better than runDisney, and they have a whopping 68-page Official Event Guide to prove it.  WDW is a race for the runners, as evidenced in every facet of the race organization with the possible exception of the 5:30am start time.  While Disney may claim the early start time helps to beat the Florida (and California) heat, it also conveniently helps to clear as many runners out of the parks as possible before the paying customers rise and shine.

There’s a fine line between “flawless organization” and “military precision”… and I might argue that at times Disney’s organization is so good as to make the process feel devoid of spontaneity.  Who knows, maybe this is the key to producing a race of this magnitude… I’m just not sure they need quite so many crew members and volunteers directing people every step of the way, from expo to race day.  Save the stanchions for Space Mountain, Disney.

That said, my race weekend went off without a hitch.  And every volunteer I met was sincerely wonderful, wonderfully sincere and clearly drinking happy juice by the tankard. I don’t plan to run WDW again anytime soon – after two of their races in two months I’m pretty Disney-ed out, and 41 other states await before a return trip to the Magic Kingdom.  Then again, when it comes to Disney I’ll never say never, even if does bring me back to Florida…

SWAG: For us “marathon only” slackers, the t-shirt was a nice black Champion tech tee.  And the ribbon on the finisher’s medal is fastened to itself by velcro, making it easy to separate ribbon from medal if that’s your preference – one final example of Disney’s unrivaled attention to detail.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie with Russell & Dug

And they lived UP-ily ever after

RaceRaves rating:Mike Sohaskey's RaceRaves review for Walt Disney World MarathonFINAL STATS:
January 11, 2015
26.51 miles in Walt Disney World, FL (state 9 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:41:42 with 19 photos stops (first time running the WDW Marathon), 8:22/mile
Finish place: 793 overall, 123/1,760 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 20,048 (9,712 men, 10,336 women)
Race weather: cool and cloudy (starting temp 54°F, light breeze)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 58ft ascent, 54ft descent
2016 WDW Marathon Weekend registration opens on April 28, 2015

WDW splits

For those scoring at home that’s 1:52:52 for the first half, 1:48:50 for the second half

Why couldn’t Pheidippides have died at 20 miles?
– Frank Shorter

CIM start line

“Go!” time in Folsom

The sun awoke in the eastern sky over Folsom to find a captive audience waiting. Six thousand or so brightly clad disciples all faced toward mecca, in this case the state capitol in Sacramento and the finish line of the 32nd California International Marathon. Rosy tendrils peeked through wispy cloud cover above the start line porta-potties, bathing the compression-clad and KT-taped congregation in muted light. And here, as I parted the sea of 6,000 fellow runners to line up alongside the 3:25 pacer, I felt strangely relaxed. Curiously comfortable. And right where I belonged – like a Twinkie in a fat kid.

I was looking forward to CIM as what I hoped would be the star atop my 2014 racing tree. Not that I’d done much to advance that agenda – my five weeks since New York City had basically amounted to one long taper, with no legit speed work and no long run over 16 miles.

But it was the past two weeks that had me most concerned, a 14-day whirlwind of skipped meals and skewed sleep patterns leading up to the public launch of RaceRaves just 120 hours before race day. The timing was unfortunate but unavoidable, and it enabled me to arrive at the CIM start line having launched a website that Katie and I (objectively) feel is already among the best online resources for runners to find, discover, rate, review and organize their races. Now, as the expressive female vocalist nailed the “la-AND of the FREEEEEE” as all good National Anthem singers should, I was hoping the training I’d banked for Berlin and NYC would cover for my recent self-neglect.

Of course, Berlin and New York might be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Having run two fast-ish marathons in the past 70 days I was more or less daring my legs to revolt, to suddenly up and decide “We’re good, see you in 2015!” On the bright side, I hadn’t flown 5,800 miles across 9 time zones to be here as I had for Berlin, nor even so much as the 2,500 miles across 3 time zones we’d traveled for New York’s 50,000-person, five-boroughs party. So maybe home-field advantage would play in my favor today.

I could’ve debated endlessly the pros and cons of running CIM, but Steve Jobs said it best: the only way to find out what’s possible is to try. (In Northern California it’s de rigeur  to ask, WWSD – What Would Steve Do?)

So here I was in Folsom, about to find out what was possible. Three factors had prompted me to give CIM another shot after a memorable PR effort (at the time) with several friends back in 2011: 1) I had no races scheduled in December; 2) we’d be in the Bay Area that weekend anyway for our nephew’s 7th birthday; and 3) CIM has an exclusive October registration window for runners chasing a Boston qualifying time.

Normally CIM sells out several months before its early December race date; however, the race organizers now offer post-sellout registration in October to prospective Boston Marathon qualifiers who have recently completed a marathon within 10 minutes of their Boston qualifying time. Granted I’m biased, but this BQ late-registration window is a cool idea that more race directors should and probably will emulate to attract runners.

For me, my current Boston qualifying time is 3:15:00 (although next year it downshifts to 3:25:00) – so having run a 3:24:14 in Berlin, I qualifed for this late registration window. Despite the increased registration fee, I opted to sign up with a “what the heck, we’ll be in the neighborhood anyway” mindset.

The Tower Bridge, a Sacramento landmark

The Tower Bridge, a Sacramento landmark

Start to mile 20: Easy peasy…
Despite the hopeful inclusion of the word “International” in the race name, the word “California” does precede it for good reason – based on pre- and post-race conversations, the field now streaming under the dual blue starting arches would be largely Californian, with little of the global flair of my previous two marathons.

As my final 26.2-mile journey of 2014 began on an immediate downhill trajectory, I savored the sparse crowds and the cool, crisp Northern California air. Weather-wise this would be a perfect day for a group run with 6,000 friends, as the groggy sun had already renewed its morning slumber, leaving a pallid overcast sky to watch over us.

The elbow room all around me stood in (elbow joke!) sharp contrast to New York City, which reminded me of a stat I’d heard at the race expo on Saturday: whereas New York last month had hailed its one millionth finisher in its 44th year, on this day CIM in its 32nd iteration would celebrate its 100,000th finisher. Turns out this was Ann Mueller, appropriately a Sacramento native who finished in 4:45:56 and received a VIP Entry Package for CIM 2015 for her efforts.

The smaller field size is a key reason CIM comes highly recommended, particularly for those hunting that elusive BQ prey. No doubt the organizers at the Sacramento Running Association (SRA) could greedily squeeeeeeze a few thousand more runners into the start line area, or institute a corral system with different waves and start times. Rather than chasing the $$$, though, the SRA has chosen to keep the field size small and manageable, which to my mind significantly improves the race experience.

Just like heaven at miles 6 and 11

Feeling just like heaven at miles 6 and 11

The other main selling point of CIM is the course layout – and this is a good time to mention that this race report is brought to you by the word “net”. As in, the organizers trumpet CIM as a net downhill course beginning at 366 ft and finishing at 26 ft above sea level. Which is absolutely true – only the shortest distance between those two points isn’t a straight line.

CIM has no shortage of rolling hills, particularly in the first half and more specifically in miles 8, 11, 12 and 13. These hills are noticeable, though none were severe enough to affect my pace, and in fact I appreciated the rolling terrain for the respite it afforded my hip flexors. Berlin’s crazy-flat course may allow for fast times, but running on invariably flat asphalt can lead to discomforting tightness caused by recruiting the same muscle groups in the same way for 26.2 miles. So I actually found myself appreciating the brief up and down stretches in the first half of CIM, which reminded me of the three wine country races I’d run in the Bay Area and Santa Barbara.

I’d calculated my ideal 5K splits and wore them taped around my wrist. On Dan’s advice I’d planned to track them in lieu of mile pace times, though I soon realized the course lacked regular 5K markers (these would be a nice addition next year, especially as the race continues to woo BQ wannabes). At any rate, this just didn’t feel like a “live by the watch, die by the watch” type of race. Instead, I monitored my early mile times to avoid doing anything stupid, and after finding my rhythm resolved to run as comfortably hard as I could for as long as I could – while keeping the 3:25 pacer in my rearview mirror.

The one conspicuous downside to CIM is the (lack of) scenery. The 20 miles that separate Folsom from Sacramento are best described as “nondescript” – nondescript suburban roads passing an endless procession of nondescript strip malls. Orangevale, Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks and Carmichael – civic planners could rearrange these towns in any random order, and even their residents would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Like trying to tell Santa’s first eight reindeer apart. CIM is suburban America… but with that monotony comes a sense of inner calm I can’t get running through an urban juggernaut like Chicago, L.A. or New York.

Fighting crime can be tough for a super-hero living in the suburbs, with no tall buildings to swing from

Fighting crime can be tough for a super-hero living in the suburbs, with no tall buildings to swing from

Given the sameness of scenery, I focused instead on the spectators – the older fellow sporting a white tutu, the ram mascot in a “Volunteer” t-shirt, the tiny future runners gleefully lining the street with hands extended, hoping to earn a sweaty high-five for their troubles. For those with their own cars, CIM is an easy course to spectate – as in 2011, Katie stayed north of the course and had no trouble catching me at miles 6, 11 and 18. This ease of spectating was nowhere more apparent than for the ubiquitous woman I saw at three different locations waving a sign that read, “It’s a 10K with a 20-mile warmup!” I nodded in agreement, not realizing how prescient her sign would be.

Cowbells jangled, spectators cheered and the instantly recognizable electric-guitar chorus of “Do You Wanna Dance?” (more Ramones than Beach Boys) greeted us as the miles ticked off. Another tree-lined neighborhood, another gas station, another Subway sandwich shop. Eat fresh, Citrus Heights. Eat fresh, Fair Oaks. Eat fresh, Carmichael. Two spectator signs stuck in my head, the first for its much-appreciated candor (“Keep going! You’re NOT almost there!”) and the second because its esoteric message hit too close to home (“Run like your thesis depends on it!”).

On race day my stomach is typically my canary in the coal mine, and the earliest predictor of rough seas ahead. So when it staged its first mild protest sometime after mile 10, I was chagrined but hopeful it would quiet down enough to let me reach the finish line. But the collywobbles only got worse, forcing me into a pitstop immediately after mile 14. Up to that point I’d been cruising along comfortably at a roughly 7:30/mile pace, and this was my first indication that the machine I was operating might be less finely tuned and not as well-oiled as I’d hoped.

That, as it turns out, was an understatement.

Trying to hail a cab at mile 18, while the fellow behind and to my left primes for takeoff

Trying to hail a cab at mile 18, while the fellow behind to my left primes for takeoff

Mile 21 to finish: … can I stop now, pleasey?
Mile 20 of the marathon represents The Wall – not the Pink Floyd version, but that juncture in the race when unreplenished carbohydrate stores start to dwindle. In the case of CIM, mile 20 also doubles as the gateway to Sacramento – here suburban sprawl gradually gives way to progressively taller buildings and more narrow streets.

The marathon relay at CIM draws a huge number of runners, and soon after the mile 20 marker we passed the third and final relay exchange point of the afternoon. Like the first two, this one was raucous and alive with the anticipation of restless runners awaiting their incoming teammates. Several relay runners blasted past me out of their chute (meep! meep!), presumably fueled by the raw adrenaline of knowing less than 6 miles separated them from the finish line.

Mile 21, and though everything typically slows down 21 miles into a marathon, I’d reached the 20s feeling strong and in solid position for another PR.

And then…

BONK

I wish I could explain what happened next. I wish I could put my finger on why the well ran dry, why the engine ran out of steam, why I started writing in metaphors. Maybe those two whirlwind weeks leading up to race day were to blame. Maybe it was the hubris of trying to fit just one more fast marathon in at the end of the racing season. Or maybe it just wasn’t my day (though what that means scientifically speaking, I’m not sure).

Nothing about my pre-race or race-day routine had changed. I’d topped off my carbohydrate stores the night before, eaten the same granola-yogurt-peanut butter concoction I eat before every race, and even started popping Shot Bloks earlier in the race than usual, just in case. Who knows, maybe it was this routine that ensured I even made it to mile 21 at all.

In any case, what happened next wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t funny, and it was unlike anything I’ve experienced (on the roads, anyway) since my rookie marathon at Long Beach over four years ago. I just kept… slowing… down.

This view couldn’t come soon enough (the Tower Bridge can be seen in the background)

This welcoming scene couldn’t come soon enough (the Tower Bridge can be seen in the background)

As we crossed the J St. Bridge over the American River and into urban Sacramento, mile 22 became my first 8:00+ mile (8:04). And if the net downhill of the next four miles were a movie, it would be “Slow and Slower”. At no time during this stretch did I glance at my Garmin… what was the use? It wasn’t as though I was holding something back, carefully pacing myself until the clouds parted and the “Chariots of Fire” theme resonated from the heavens, inspiring a finisher’s kick that was lying in wait, like a coiled snake, just waiting to strike.

Mile 23 passed in 8:20.

My entire focus shifted to simply not stopping. Not on trying to maintain pace or even speed up in the face of escalating fatigue, but on a goal as basic as moving forward. So much easier writ than done. In Berlin my brain had tried unsuccessfully to persuade me that 22 (or 23, or 24) miles was plenty, and that I deserved a walking break – hey slow down, take in the city, when will we be back in Berlin? But at CIM, even more than my brain it was now my body urging me to pull over and take a well-deserved breather.

Mentally I shifted focus, assessing my body head to toe, scanning for any sign of an ally in this battle. Hey, my ears still felt pretty good. So did my teeth. And with my shoes tied much less tightly than in Berlin, the tops of my feet could easily knock out another ten miles, at least.

Mile 24 crept by in 8:34.

We interrupt this downward spiral for a sweet slice of Americana, seen during our lunch stop

We interrupt this downward spiral for a sweet slice of Americana, seen during our lunch stop

There comes a point in every marathon where spectator support takes the form of blatant lies. An earnest fellow to our left hollered, “You’re having so much FUN!!!” Honestly, I’m having +/- ZERO fun.

From the other side of the road came another shout: “You’re all making this look so EASY!!!” Are you watching the same race I’m running?

Mile 25 trickled by in 8:38.

Strong-legged, relaxed-looking runners floated past me on either side, looking like gazelles bounding past the sick member of the herd who would ultimately become dinner for some lucky lion. Something wasn’t right here, something was definitely out of place, why – then it hit me. Relay runners. I felt a spike of relief knowing I hadn’t missed out on some magic speed-restoring elixir at the last aid station.

Less than a mile to go. I am actually going to finish this. Has the 3:25 pacer passed me yet? Glad I don’t have to watch myself right now, my form feels awful. Glad I don’t have to watch myself ever, how boring would that be? Poor Katie. No check that, lucky Katie, she’s waiting at the finish. Next time will be different. #lessonlearned. Did I just hashtag my thoughts? My teeth are starting to hurt.

Mile 26 oozed by in 8:56, and looking back at my splits, I claim as a moral victory the fact that I kept this final mile under 9:00.

Floating toward the (men’s) finish line on the final turn

Floating toward the (men’s) finish line on the final turn

I kicked in the jets for the final stretch, covering the last 0.28 miles at a breakneck 8:47/mile pace. I could feel myself crossing the center line as my stride degenerated and a feeling of light-headedness washed over me. By the time I crossed the finish line (men to the right, women to the left, a CIM exclusive), I had no idea what news – good or bad – my Garmin held in store for me. As the spots in my field of vision dissipated, I exhaled and glanced down at my wrist.

3:24:16. Official time 3:24:15 – one second slower than my Berlin PR.

I’d just run 26.2+ miles – the last five feeling like a water buffalo, and the last 20 without glancing at my watch once – and missed my PR by a single second. Insult to injury, my Garmin congratulated me on my best marathon time ever, having clocked an unofficial 3:24:17 in Berlin.

Damn right I’ll ring that Boston bell, every chance I get

Damn right I’ll ring that Boston bell, every chance I get

As I thanked the teenage volunteer for my medal, a frenzy of conflicting emotions flooded my head. Should I be pleased with my second-fastest marathon ever? Or frustrated by not having taken advantage of a cool day on a fast course? Pleased that I’d qualified twice for Boston in less than 70 days? Or frustrated that I hadn’t nailed down a more convincing BQ the second time? (if you’re confused by what it means to “qualify” for Boston, see my Berlin Marathon report). Both emotions heated my blood and frayed my nerves . And as I write this I still feel very much… plustrated.

Drifting through the finish chute wrapped in my heat sheet, I emerged in front of the capitol building where I reunited with Katie – always the best part of any race. We wandered the finish area around a fenced-off Christmas tree, appreciating the small-town feel and snapping our traditional finish-line photo, a photo we’d been unable to take in either Berlin or New York. No doubt, it felt good to be home.

Celebrating a capital day in the capitol city

Celebrating a capital day in the capitol city

Later, at our niece’s basketball game, our newly 7-year-old nephew asked to see the CIM medal that, in our haste to get back from Sacramento in time, still hung around my unshowered neck. He turned it over in his hand. “Did you win?” he asked.

I thought about his question, and about my day. The promising first 20 miles, followed by a final 10K that left me crossing the finish line with a head like a helium balloon. Another golden opportunity to nail down a Boston qualifier, sabotaged by a convergence of events that left me unable to properly respect the marathon distance. Yet at the same time, a near-PR effort and an inarguable performance given the circumstances… although I hate the phrase given the circumstances.

No doubt time will recalibrate my warped perspective. It’s easy to take a disappointing race personally, to imbue it with far more meaning than it deserves. Truth was, I’d wrung a lot out of my body in 70 days – I’d slammed into two (figurative) walls 5600 miles apart and in both cases kept pushing, refusing to concede as every myofiber and brain cell screamed at me to call it quits and walk it in. Truth was, 2014 was the year I made the 3:25 marathon my new norm, and set the bar even higher for 2015. Truth was, CIM was all part of a process that couldn’t (and wouldn’t) be rushed. And the truth was, I couldn’t rationally argue with the day I’d just had, no more than I could with the earnest little boy now sitting in my lap.

“Yeah,” I responded, his small but strong heels bouncing off my shins. “I guess I did.”

He’s a tough little critter to shake

He’s a tough little critter to shake

BOTTOM LINE: Six letters to sum up six pages: run CIM. The organizers bill their marathon as the “fastest, friendliest, most spectacular course in the West!”, and they may well be 2/3 right. Suburban monotony notwithstanding, the net downhill course is PR-friendly and offers just enough variety (i.e. hillage) in the first half to keep the legs guessing. From its readily navigated expo to its easy start line access to its cowbell-toting spectators, CIM is a first-class marathon that doesn’t sacrifice its relaxed, small-town vibe. The field size (5,805 finishers this year) is very reasonable, not to mention fast – my 3:24:15 placed me in 997th place. Spectators and musical entertainment along the course maintain the low-key feel of the race, being supportive but not oppressively so. And weather conditions have been ideal both years I’ve run, although December typically is the rainy season in Northern California (a reality Jen experienced first-hand in 2012).

For runners looking for a year-end marathon in the first week of December, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either CIM (if you’re partial to roads) or The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in SF (if you’re partial to trails). Both are terrific, well-produced races.

CIM medal

PRODUCTION: Don’t be fooled by its lack of bells (except cowbells) & whistles – race production for CIM is among the best you’ll find anywhere. And though there’s never a perfect race, clearly the SRA puts a lot of hard work into chasing that goal.

Take my 40-minute journey from hotel (in nearby Rancho Cordova) to starter’s pistol: Katie drove me ~15 minutes to the start-line shuttle pickup point, where I hopped aboard one of the last departing shuttles at 6:40am, arrived at the start line at 6:50am, made a quick pitstop at one of the abundant porta-potties (more proof of CIM’s keen attention to detail – porta-potties nearly as far as the eye can see), surrendered my drop bag and lined up alongside the 3:25 pacer by the time the National Anthem faded on the breeze. Now THAT’S customer service.

The race’s late-registration window for BQ wannabes is, to my knowledge, another CIM exclusive. This is a pretty genius idea on the SRA’s part, one I’d anticipate other race directors adopting in the not-too-distant future.

SWAG: This year’s shirt is a nicely designed, dark blue long-sleeve cotton tee and admittedly one of the few race t-shirts I’ll wear with any regularity after race weekend. And the finisher’s medal is a stylish periwinkle-and-gold souvenir with the capitol building and Tower Bridge emblazoned across a gold “CIM”. All in all, a nice collection of parting gifts.

RaceRaves rating:CIM review on RaceRaves
FINAL STATS:
December 7, 2014
26.28 miles from Folsom to Sacramento, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:24:15 (second time running the California International Marathon), 7:46/mile
Finish place: 997 overall, 146/552 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 5,805 (3,231 men, 2,574 women),
Race weather: cool and cloudy (starting temp 48°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 317 ft ascent, 654 ft descent

CIM splits

cim-elevation-profile_bch

On CIM’s net downhill course, the keyword is “net”