Archive for the ‘7 Continents’ Category

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of the Zambezi River from the Zambezi Bridge

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

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

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

Crossing the Zambezi Bridge, mile 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 6 and 17 of the Victoria Falls Marathon

Climbing in mile 6 (and 17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Back to the start, mile 14

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

And this was no zoo.

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

I could already picture the next day’s headline:

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

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

Encountering elephant at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Best. Spectator. Ever.

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

I guess I just have a way with wildlife.

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

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

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

Pre-race instructions for Victoria Falls Marathon

Instructions posted at the pre-race expo

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

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

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

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

Miles 9 and 20 of Victoria Falls Marathon

The turnaround point at mile 9 (and 20)

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

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

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

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

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

Grazing wart hogs at mile 22 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Grazing wart hogs in dappled lighting, mile 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon elevation chart

Those two sharp downward spikes are Garmin error on the bridge

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Victoria Falls Marathon finish

Entering the finish chute

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

Where was that fucking arch?

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

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

And I have an agitated pachyderm to thank for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if not? Well tusk, tusk on you.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Victoria Falls Marathon finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon Expo at Kingdom Hotel

The pre-race expo at the Kingdom Hotel

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon medal
RaceRaves rating:


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

Red arrow indicates my elephant encounter and fastest mile

 

 

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

Done_Comrades 2017

Continued from Act 1, which you can read HERE.

Inchanga to Cato Ridge
Rory hadn’t been kidding.

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

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

Inchanga.

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

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? asked the backseat driver in my brain.

I was so preoccupied with my own misery that I forgot to keep an eye out for Bruce Fordyce, who had told us he’d be (and apparently he was) cheering on runners near the top of Inchanga. A 9-time winner of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, offering support to slow-footed newbies like me. At what other sporting event will you find that?

Mile 30 down Inchanga

View from the other side of Inchanga, 39 km to go

But Bruce has always been different. In 1981, with South Africa under an international sporting boycott and the race losing some of its luster, he won Comrades for the first time while wearing a black armband to protest the 20th anniversary celebrations of the apartheid government. He’s since called his show of defiance “one of the proudest moments in my life”.

Not surprisingly, Inchanga saddled me with my first 12-minute mile of the day, not counting my mile spent with Katie and Rory. The monster not only ate into my time, but more importantly as it turns out, tackling it with the sun high in a cloudless sky took more out of me than I knew. All hope of my stomach handling solid food for the rest of the race was gone, and I spent the next 3 km of downhill running trying to regroup.

By the time we summited the next short climb I was dragging, another chewed-up-and-spit-out victim of Inchanga’s wrath. So the timing was perfect to pass the Ethembeni School for the Physically Disabled and Visually Impaired.

At the expo two days earlier we’d stopped by the Ethembeni booth, made a donation and chatted with the headmaster who’d been manning the booth. And he’d given me a beaded bracelet created by the students to show their support for the runners. The bracelet, he explained, comprised 87 beads grouped by color (black, blue, white and yellow), one bead for each km of the Comrades route. Not only that, but the number of beads in each colored grouping represented the number of km between each cutoff point along the course, with larger black beads separating the different groups to signify each cutoff point, as well as the start/finish line. A clever and meaningful design.

Ethembeni bracelet_cutoffs

My race-day inspiration from the Ethembeni School

I wore the bracelet now, and seeing the earnest, smiling faces lining the street with tiny hands extended, I felt a surge of adrenaline and swerved to my right, determined not to miss a single high-five. The Ethembeni School was a highlight of my day and a crucial pick-me-up just when I needed it the most. Suck it up healthy guy, stop walking and get going.

The spectators along the course kept me moving forward as well. Comrades spectators are insanely supportive, and not just in a clap-politely-as-the-runners-go-by sort of way. I’ve never run a race where the spectators ask, in all seriousness, “What can I get you? What do you need?” And though I never took anyone up on their offer, I got the sense that some folks, if I’d asked, would have dragged a mattress out of their house and cooked lunch for me while I slept.

It’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand: 92 years strong, Comrades is inextricably woven into the fabric of the nation. South Africans embrace their national race with a passion, a pride and an intelligence I haven’t seen anywhere else, with the possible exception of Boston.

And speaking of intelligence, I was starting to doubt mine. We were now out in the countryside (i.e. No Man’s Land) between urban centers, the winter sun beating down on us, my stomach rejecting all my nutritional advances and the walk breaks getting longer and more frequent.

I was now snagging two water sachets at each aid station—one I’d sip from and then pour down my back while holding onto the other like a security blanket. I appreciated the sachets because they were easy to carry after opening, without spilling. Between the heat and the jostling, though, the water in the sachets warmed up to an unappealing temperature in no time.

Ironically but not surprisingly, the short stretch through Harrison Flats really wasn’t. The name is curious, since “Harrison Hills” has such a nice ring to it and would feel right at home along the Comrades course. I had to assume whoever named it had a wicked sense of humor. Or maybe “flat” is a relative term, with Inchanga on one side and Polly Shortts on the other?

32 km to go.

Cruising along

There’s daylight under that there foot! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Cato Ridge: When the going gets tough…
My second Katie and Rory sighting couldn’t have come at a better time. With 25 km to go I dropped my hydration pack on the curb and collapsed alongside it for a couple of minutes, sipping some water and gathering my wits. It was good to escape the maelstrom, if only for a moment. The pack had become an albatross, with food I couldn’t eat and Tailwind I couldn’t drink. Plus, my core muscles were tight from carrying it and taking too many shallow breaths. It was time for us to part ways.

A sub-9 bus passed as I sat on the curb, watching the steady stream of runners flow past. Which perked me up, even though I knew a Bill Rowan (sub-9) finish was off the board. As much respect as I have for those who run Comrades, I’m even more in awe of those who pace Comrades. As if there weren’t enough stress in finishing your own race (and there is), as a pacer you have to finish 87 km within a certain time, while leading other runners who are putting their race in your hands (and feet). Talk about pressure.

9-hour Comrades bus

A 9-hour bus (see the yellow “SUB-9:00” sign?) rolls toward the finish in Pietermaritzburg

“You can walk it in from here and still collect a medal, mate,” Rory reassured me. Which actually was reassuring, though also motivating since I had no intention of walking it in. Sub-10 remained my goal, though I knew the next 25 km would be my slowest of the day.

I took a couple of deep breaths, told Katie and Rory I’d see them at the finish, and rejoined the flow as spectators on both sides of the road screamed their approval. Immediately I enjoyed the benefits of discarding the pack: my core relaxed, and the water I poured down my back cooled me more efficiently as my shirt was able to move in the breeze. And as with the first time I’d seen them I enjoyed a surge of energy, clocking my first sub-10-minute mile in over an hour.

Let’s just call what came next the “Beatdown in Camperdown”. Luckily the smell of the local chicken farm wasn’t as strong as I’d anticipated, and in fact wasn’t nearly as off-putting as the secondhand smoke from the occasional outdoor grill along the course, the thick haze hanging in the air and impossible to avoid.

Based on Norrie Williamson’s course analysis, these should have been the “CRUISE” miles of the up run—the relatively level stretch during which strategic runners, having tackled the first half of the race conservatively, now shift into cruise control, run comfortably and make up time. This sunny outlook, however, fails to take into account the real sunniness: the cumulative effects of the African sun (even a winter sun) on a cloudless day. With temperatures reaching into the 80s, heat exposure and a recalcitrant stomach replaced uphill climbing as the primary culprits of my mounting fatigue.

7 mantras of Comrades up run

Norrie Williamson‘s 7 stages of the Comrades up run, from the pre-race expo

“NO WALKING BY MY HOUSE” read one fellow’s handmade sign, arguably the highlight of Camperdown. I saw few memorable spectator signs at Comrades, though admittedly my brain was in standby mode for about the last 40K. I do remember the sign promising that “ZUMA FLATTENED POLLYS” (referring to South African President Jacob Zuma and the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts). And the woman with the “YOU = AWESOME” sign seemed to be everywhere; I saw her at least three times on the course.

Shuffling along slowly but surely with 23 km to go, I heard a familiar voice behind me: “Hey there, stranger.” I glanced back as fellow Stanford alum John from Anchorage pulled up alongside me. John and I had run the densely packed Durban Parkrun as a shakeout session the morning before, chatting comfortably and taking our time. As happy as I was to see him now, though, this wasn’t good news. John had qualified for Boston with a marathon time in the low 3-hour range, and he’d set a goal of a sub-8:30 finish for Comrades.

Turns out Comrades is no Parkrun. Apparently John had started strong and run smoothly up until the-hill-that-must-not-be-named (ok, Inchanga), where his calves had seized up. Since that point he’d been reduced to walking much of the course, with frequent stops at the medical tents for a roadside massage. We ran and walked together for a couple of km, and I was hoping we’d be able to hang with each other to the finish.

But it wasn’t to be. At one point I turned to say something and… John had disappeared. I glanced behind me but, not seeing him, I assumed he’d stopped for more treatment. Silently I wished him a speedy recovery and pushed forward, one slow-footed step at a time.

Mike_John 65 km

Joined by comrade John from Anchorage (right), 23 km to go (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

John was by no means alone. As the miles piled up, the medical tents kept increasingly busy. Cramping and exhausted runners stopped for treatment, some settling for having their legs sprayed with a topical analgesic to numb the pain. My buddy Gil saw one runner asleep under a tree. For these folks the goal was to reach the finish line in Pietermaritzburg, by any means necessary.

Luckily, as tired as I was, I wasn’t cramping and I wasn’t hurting physically. And unless I have a bone sticking out of my leg, I want to be able to feel everything that’s going on in my body during a race. So I bypassed the menthol mist clouds and kept pushing forward.

The stretch from Inchanga to Polly Shortts felt interminable, like a blog post with no end in sight. Had some prankster moved the km markers farther apart? Every km now felt like a mile and every uphill required some degree of walking, which I tried to avoid on the downhills.

I now followed the same pattern at every aid station: two waters and either a cup of Coke or a sachet of Energade. Sometimes I’d try both in a desperate attempt to appease my stubborn body. Like a junkie craving his next fix, I was chasing the sugar dragon from one Coke to the next, one Energade to the next, trying to find some form of easy fuel to keep me going. And never with much success.

Luckily I’d been training my body for several months to run well on its own fat stores as fuel, so this wasn’t a “sugar or bust” situation. But it sure would have helped. Meanwhile, I carried an unopened water sachet with me between aid stations, as though fearful I might burst into flames at any moment. Rarely did I drink it—it was almost instantly warm, after all—but instead dropped it into the ice bin at the next aid station.

And about those aid stations: without a doubt, the volunteers at Comrades are some of the best in the world. The demands on these folks are unrelenting, with a job description that includes standing out in the heat for hours at a time, a steady stream of insatiable zombies bearing down on them with arms outstretched and hands open in anticipation. And yet every volunteer carried out their assignment masterfully, with grace, aplomb and always an encouraging or helpful word. All damn day, without even a medal to show for their efforts.

The Ultimate Human Race owes its success and reputation, in large part, to the ultimate race volunteers.

With my mind searching vainly for its happy place, I thought about Coach Lindsey Parry’s suggested mantras for this stage of the race: “Tired but strong.” “Uncomfortable but strong.” “Challenged but strong.” In each case, he was half right.

21 km to go.

Camperdown traffic

Parked cars line the exit ramp in Camperdown

Catching the bus: Gunning for Polly Shortts
Passing the “21 km to go” sign, I felt my first sense of relief that yes, the end was in sight. A half marathon was a very runnable distance, never mind the fact I had nearly 25% of the course still to run. A long 25%.

“Cold cream soda!” offered an aid station volunteer. Still in search of a friendly sugar kick I accepted his offer, willing to overlook the fact that the liquid was bright green. One sip later, I knew I’d made a poor decision.

Likewise with water. This is tough to imagine if you’re not a runner—and maybe even for most runners—but thanks to the heat, my body had reached the point where even water had somehow lost its appeal. Not unless it was ice-cold and cascading down my back.

By the time we reached the course’s highest point at Umlaas Rd (2,700 ft, 17 km to go), I was racking up 11-minute miles like mosquito bites in the jungle. The landscape on either side of us remained decidedly rural, the countryside rudely interrupted by the occasional transformer tower. Here the fifth cutoff mat awaited, another small step toward victory in our inextricable march toward Pietermaritzburg.

Spider-Man

Comrades tests the hero in all of us

Crossing under the N3 for the final time, I saw a sign that in my frazzled state made me want to laugh and cry in the same breath. “← N3 Durban” it read, pointing back in the direction we’d come. Not right now, thank you.

Somewhere in the hot, nondescript and seemingly interminable stretch between Inchanga and Polly Shortts, the muscles around my heart began to tighten. I guessed this was due to my taking short, gasping breaths rather than deep productive ones, and I slowed my pace even more to try to regulate my breathing and ease the discomfort. I’ll run through myriad aches and pains without complaint—most runners will—but the one organ that’s off-limits is the heart. Any discomfort in or around my chest, and I start listening to my body bigly.

The tightness around my chest reduced me to a power shuffle, though fortunately the discomfort would fade after several slow, deep breaths. From there the tightness would come and go the rest of the way, slowing me to a fast walk with each appearance. It’s possible I could have powered through it, but why risk it? I had no intention of doing anything stupid (says the guy running 87 km in 80+ degree heat) to jeopardize my reaching the finish.

Would now be a good time to mention I run to stay healthy?

Polly Shortts may be the last of the Big Five, but try telling that to its protective sister, Little Pollys. At nearly 2 km in length Little Pollys is decidedly shorter than its big sister, and yet 76 km into the race it definitely leaves an impression. Luckily I knew it was coming and so had primed myself mentally, even as I was breaking down physically.

Little Pollys is the perfect example of one of the up run’s nasty unsung hills. Like any ultramarathon, Comrades will punish you psychologically if you let it. On the other hand, take the time to study the course and appreciate the potential landmines beyond just the Big Five, and you’ll win half the battle before you ever leave Durban. Knowledge is power. Respect the hills, don’t fear the hills.

Cruising through Ashburton with about 10 km to go, the 10-hour bus caught and passed me. It was an impressive size, a creature of almost military precision, its leader regularly barking out start and stop commands to his attentive tribe. At that point I had a painful decision to make, and I made it quickly. It wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable, and it would require me to empty the tank and then some—but ten hours was the limit of what I was willing to concede. It was time to dig deep and do whatever needed to be done to stay ahead of the 10-hour hopefuls. Seizing the opportunity I leapfrogged the group on their next walk break, extending my lead as we approached the last celebrity obstacle between us and glory: Polly Shortts.

10 km to go.

Mthembu wins

Bongmusa Mthembu wins the 2017 Comrades Marathon (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Polly Shortts to Scottsville Racecourse (finish)
PinkDrive, an organization similar to Planned Parenthood in the U.S., had set up their inflatable pink arch and high-energy aid station at the base of Polly Shortts, providing runners with much-needed hydration and momentum for the final big climb of the day.

Sticking to my script I grabbed water and Energade sachets—for liquid courage, if nothing else. Then I launched myself up Pollys, intending to follow Rory’s advice to run four cat’s eyes and walk two. Unfortunately many of the cat’s eyes were missing, and so I was forced to improvise on the steep grade, running where I could and walking where I couldn’t. All the while I remained keenly aware of the 10-hour bus in my rearview mirror.

Polly’s may be steep, she may be the last serious speed bump on the way to Pietermaritzburg, but for runners who attack her smartly she comes too late to inflict a fatal blow. Like a Venus flytrap, however, she lies in wait for slower victims, devouring those who fail to reach her summit—and the course’s final cutoff point—within 11 hours and ten minutes.

Rescue Bus 62 km

Luckily I steered clear of the famous (and infamous) rescue bus, which awaits runners who miss a cutoff

Late in the race even the spectators seemed to grow quiet, as though unsure how to respond to the zombie death march they were witnessing. Running an entire km at a time felt like a major victory. Each time I stopped to walk I would feel my bladder control waning and think That’s it, I’m not going to be able to start running again. And yet somehow each time I was able to pick up my feet and pick up the pace, while gradually extending my lead over the 10-hour bus.

I’d stopped Garmin-gazing hours before, and the bus was my only clue that a 10-hour finish was still within reach. As long as it was on pace…

One oversight I didn’t understand was the lack of aid stations after the 83 km mark. I really could’ve used at least one more, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Those last 4 km were infinite enough without constantly scanning for the next aid station that never appeared.

Damn, was I glad these were km and not mile markers.

One last overpass and we entered the residential neighborhoods of Scottsville. One fellow offered us a beer while another stood in the road, his garden hose trained on passing runners. I veered toward the latter, the cold water hitting me squarely in the face for an invigorating pick-me-up that would propel me to the finish.

Passing the “1 km to go” sign I flipped the mental switch tiredly into “victory lap” mode, knowing much of that final km would be run inside the stadium. Sure enough, moments later I glanced up to see the Scottsville Racecourse welcoming me home, its shaded entrance tunnel like the gaping, defanged mouth of the beast I’d come to vanquish. I entered the stadium like a conquering hero returning home from battle—though not before the course played its final sadistic hand, a quick downhill-then-uphill jag into the stadium and onto the grass track.

Slowly I followed the curve of the track, conflicting emotions gripping my head and heart. As much as my mind wanted to bask in the moment and savor its once-in-a-lifetime significance, my body was good and ready to be done. Where’s the finish arch? Two turns later, it finally came into view in all its bright red glor—.

I sensed it almost instantly, a wave of WTF? washing over me. Something about the scene wasn’t right. A moment later I realized what was up: the arch was too small; there was too much open space beyond it. And the runners ahead of me weren’t stopping.

Camille Herron winner2

Women’s champ Camille Herron of Oklahoma accepts a giant check for her giant effort

Turns out this Trojan Horse of a finish arch was actually a spectator bridge set up to allow finishers after the race to cross over from one side of the stadium to the other. And I wasn’t the only one to mistake it for the real thing. Apparently Camille Herron, the women’s winner, stopped running and started celebrating after crossing under the bridge, nearly giving race officials and horrified spectators a collective heart attack before a fellow runner urged her on to the finish. Herron’s near miss evoked memories of last year’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, where women’s champion Amy Cragg and men’s third-place finisher Jared Ward each stopped short of the finish before recovering in time to avoid an historic blunder.

Luckily I didn’t have much time to ponder the indecency of this deception. One final turn and there it was, directly ahead of me and as vivid, as beautiful as anything I’d ever seen. What immediately caught my eye were the four words I’d been chasing for nearly ten hours: COMRADES MARATHON FINISH 2017.

Finishing time

Sub-10 hours!

The green finish arch stood larger than life, dressed for the occasion in green & white balloons and ready to accept me into the Comrades family. Me. Hardly the heroic paradigm for a Mad Max movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel, by no means an elite athlete or desert warrior, and endowed with unbronzeable skin that efficiently converts the sun’s rays into an unsightly sunburn. I was on the verge of joining Bart Yasso and so many others as one of the few, the proud—the freaks!

Spectator-filled bleachers lined each side of the home stretch, and tiredly I shot a thumbs-up in the air as I heard a female voice—though not Katie, whose own voice was still recovering from strep throat—yell my name. I assumed in the moment this was directed at me, since unlike the U.S. every third male in South Africa isn’t named “Mike.” And I’d discover later the voice belonged to Anchorage John’s wife Rochene, who’d been tracking my progress all day.

I wish I could remember my thoughts as I pumped my fists and crossed under the finish arch in a triumphant 9:52:55. Wish I had something poetic and profound to share, shimmering words that would punctuate the most amazing day I’ve ever spent on a race course. Honestly, though, with my mind and body running on fumes, I’m pretty sure my analysis in that shining moment went something like, Me done big race.

I crossed the finish line and stopped—I can stop! And just stand here! And there I stood for a moment, luxuriating in my lack of forward progress. I tried to gather my thoughts, only to find my brain deliciously devoid of gatherable thoughts. Then I shuffled forward through the finish chute, basking in the moment, clinging to it as though it were a newborn child.

0 km to go.

Finish line exhaustion

Some pictures are worth more than 1,000 words (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Izokuthoba: It will humble you
Volunteers presented me with a Comrades logo patch, yellow rose and bronze finisher’s medal, the latter in recognition of a sub-11-hour finish.

The Comrades medal is arguably the most coveted in all of racing; ironically it may also be the smallest, at roughly the size of an American quarter. But as someone who’s been around the block galaxy a few times once said, “Size matters not”. It’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And if I were to clear out my wall at home to make room for just one medal, Comrades would be it. Though admittedly, if push came to shove, I may just weld my Boston and Comrades medals together and hang them as one.

All rose no thorn

“YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose!” (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I emerged from the finish chute to see Katie and Rory waiting, faces beaming as though they’d both run the last 87 km with me. And for all intents and purposes they had. Because no one conquers Comrades alone. Without Rory’s selfless generosity and Katie’s unwavering support, my first Comrades would not have been the apex of my running career.

Immediately I dropped to one knee and presented Katie with the rose, thanking her for sticking by my side through another unforgettable adventure. Little did she realize this seemingly heartfelt gesture was my worn-out way of asking her to hold the flower for me while I rested.

The three of us exchanged hugs and I proudly showed off what Bruce Fordyce calls the “limp of pride,” slowly following Katie and Rory to the field o’ finishers. The scene resembled a MASH unit with exhausted bodies reclining, slumped over and sprawled out across the grass. Wow, that looks comfy, I thought with real envy as EMTs carried away on flexible stretchers the spent bodies of fellow finishers, most of them looking tired but comfortable. On any other day that would be a ride I’d avoid, but today…

Recovery time

Clearly the heat had taken its toll, with post-race accounts of debilitating leg cramps, gastrointestinal distress and finish-line collapses requiring IV intervention. Roughly 2.6% of the field (~440 runners) were treated in the medical tent, most for dehydration. According to one fellow finisher who ended up in the hospital for a post-race IV (and who highly recommended it), the attending physicians there treated 17 Comrades finishers as Code Reds, meaning life-or-death situations. Luckily the story has a happy ending, as all finishers eventually left the hospital under their own power. The official medical statistics for the day can be found HERE.

I lay on my back in the cool grass, ankles sticky with dried Energade, blankly staring up at something I’d not seen all day: clouds. Suddenly the sickening stench of cigarette smoke inflamed my nostrils, and bitterly I glanced over to see a non-runner puffing away nearby, seemingly oblivious to what he was doing and where he was doing it. Had I been able to move, I might have recommended he go find a more appropriate place to showcase his nicotine addiction, say maybe an emphysema clinic.

I lay there, trying to get comfortable but with little success. This had happened before, most notably after the 2012 Mt Diablo 50K and 2013 Harding Hustle 50K, both run in scorching heat. My body was so drained and so exhausted that no matter what position I tried—standing, sitting, kneeling, slouching or splayed out on the grass—I couldn’t get comfortable. In hindsight I probably would’ve benefitted from an IV, but barring that I just kept reminding myself, Every minute is another minute closer to being comfortable.

“Fucking Inchanga,” I muttered up at Rory through clenched eyes, playfully acknowledging the validity of his warning. He laughed, pleased to admit another member into the eternal brotherhood of Comrades runners humbled by one mighty hill.

Mike_Katie_Rory_Victory

A wave of nausea passed over me and I leaned forward, fertilizing a row of bushes with what little liquid remained in my stomach. As feisty as my stomach can be, it hadn’t turned itself inside-out after a race since the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010. Immediately I felt better. “Drink up and stay hydrated,” advised another finisher who’d witnessed this unfortunate exchange. I did what I could to heed his advice; my body, however, still refused to cooperate.

That night at dinner I’d discover, to my chagrin, that even my upper palate hurt—you know, that soft tissue in the roof of your mouth that contributes nothing to forward motion? You know you’ve reached a low point when your palate hurts. I could only assume the bruising sensation had something to do with the pressurized jet of cold water and Energade that had been hitting it all day long. Unless someone has a better explanation, which I’d love to hear.

As I lay motionless in the grass like a garden hose, Katie headed toward the international tent to find something for me to drink. There she bumped into John and Rochene. In response to her queries about his well-being, John simply smiled and patted her shoulder. He was too exhausted to speak and too immobilized by his locked-up calves to move. Despite persistent cramping he’d stayed the course and finished in a very respectable 10:26:48, impressive considering the battle he’d waged in the second half of the race. I spoke with a lot of runners after the race whose “A” goals, like mine and John’s, were defeated by the heat and hills (being a first-timer who lives 10,000 miles away didn’t help, either).

And speaking of goals: next time (yes, I said it) I’ll run higher-mileage weeks to train for Comrades. This year, leading up to the Eugene Marathon in May, I’d focused on speed rather than endurance, and had averaged fewer than 40 miles per week in March and April as a result. I wasn’t concerned because I’d intentionally built a strong aerobic base in 2016, but more miles at a slower pace would have been a more race-appropriate training plan.

Finally it was time—I had to move. I wasn’t about to miss the spectacle that is the Comrades 12-hour cutoff. The final moments of the race are broadcast across the country as the entire nation tunes in to watch the human drama unfold. Gingerly I climbed the bleachers, “We Will Rock You” by Queen blasting from the loudspeakers and the uncaring clock ticking up toward 12 hours. Exhausted runners streamed through the finish line now, the crowds resembling a Walmart on Black Friday. A 12-hour bus led its charges home triumphantly.

I don’t recall where I read it, but apparently half of all Comrades finishers cross the line in the final hour.

With the sun having set and the light fading rapidly, so too were the chances of those still out on the course. Europe replaced Queen with “The Final Countdown” as the last few hopefuls circled the stadium in a desperate struggle to reach the finish. The moment was electric, and I felt my whole body—already exhausted from my own struggle—tense up with nervous anticipation. This felt like the Roman Coliseum, and I half expected the PA announcer to bellow, “RELEASE THE LIONS!”

Except that this was more compelling theater. Frantically the hoarse, disembodied voice counted down the closing seconds until, at 12 hours sharp, hope collided with reality and a living, breathing wall of volunteers swung into place, blocking the finish line and denying access to horrified runners just meters from the finish.

And just like that, the 2017 Comrades Marathon was over. All at once, it felt like someone had let the air out of the stadium.

When the dust settled, 13,852 of the 17,031 starters (81% male, 19% female) reached the finish line within the 12-hour time limit, an 81% success rate. Bongmusa Mthembu of South Africa crossed the finish line first in a time of 5:35:34, while Camille Herron of Oklahoma won the women’s division in 6:27:35, becoming the first American champion—man or woman—since Ann Trason in 1997. Three weeks later, Ryan Sandes would turn the tables by becoming the first South African to win America’s most prestigious ultramarathon, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

But as Norrie Williamson points out, the real heroes of this race aren’t the front-runners or middle-of-the-packers—they’re the 11- and 12-hour warriors who find themselves at a disadvantage before they even cross the start line, and for whom “Every step forward” isn’t advice so much as it is necessity.

The singular charisma of Comrades is evident in the number of runners with more than 10, more than 20, more than 30 finishes. Gil, a fellow SoCal who earned a Bill Rowan medal this year in his first Comrades, is already making plans to return—and not just next year, but for eight more years after that until he earns his own green number. Sure, his may be the most expensive green number in history by the time he’s done… but that’s the seduction of Comrades.

And it’s not just the most successful runners who fall under its spell. At the pre-race reception for international athletes I met one fellow from the UK who’d run Comrades seven times, despite only completing the race three times and never finishing an up run. Yet there he was, gamely preparing for his fourth shot at the up run because, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

South Africa, with a population roughly equivalent to California and New York state combined, attracts over 20,000 registrants for its signature event. Which makes me wonder whether an event like Comrades could work here in the states. Surprisingly, there’s nothing like it in the U.S.—sure we have huge marathons like Chicago and New York City, but most of our ultramarathons are run on trails. And our largest 50-miler, the JFK 50 Mile, had a paltry 753 finishers last year. Granted Comrades has 92 years of history on its side, and the JFK 50 (founded 42 years after Comrades) intentionally limits the size of its field to 1,250 entrants. But still—1,250 is a far cry from 20,000.

Many Americans know someone who’s qualified for and/or run the Boston Marathon. Boston is an event that’s held in high regard here, as only the best of the best run it. For South Africans, though, Comrades is a way of life. Across the country, the easiest way to start a conversation is to wear your Comrades gear, or mention that you’ve run the race. Everyone seems connected to the event in some way—either they’ve run it themselves, or have a family member who’s run it, or know someone who’s gotten it done. And everyone has a story to tell. If I ever decide to write a book but feel too lazy to come up with a topic, I can always gather 50 South Africans in a room, turn on the recorder and say “Comrades. GO.” I guarantee what comes out of it will be compelling.

By pure serendipity we had the opportunity to meet another South African legend, controversial sports physiologist, prolific author and Comrades guru Dr. Tim Noakes, on our flight to Cape Town later that week. Dr. Noakes and his wife Marilyn were extremely affable when I introduced myself, and we bonded quickly over my scientific background and first Comrades finish. I was a bit starstruck—after all, his Bible-like tome The Lore of Running occupies a prominent position on our bookshelf at home. And Tim Noakes, along with Bruce Fordyce and golfer Gary Player, is a member of the Holy Trinity of South African sport. So fortuitously bumping into Dr. Noakes was the perfect way to punctuate our first visit to South Africa.

Tim Noakes_Mike

Meeting Tim Noakes in the Cape Town airport

As a recreational runner, there’s no title I’ll wear more proudly than “Comrades finisher”. Something very special happens between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a personal transformation invisible to the naked eye, and you won’t cross that finish line the same person who started the race. Comrades will challenge you. It will humble you. It will take all you’ve got. It will build you up and break you down, only to build you back up again. It will teach you lessons about yourself that you may or may not want to learn. It’s a raw, uncensored, powerful experience. It’s the Ultimate Human Race. And there’s nothing else like it in the world.

So if you’re a runner, ask yourself: Do I have the mettle to earn this medal? If the answer is yes, then the most rewarding race experience of your life awaits in South Africa. At what other race does crossing the finish line qualify you for a place on its Wall of Honour?

Admittedly, I’m now eyeing the back-to-back medal that second-time finishers receive for running the up and down runs in consecutive years. After all, I may be feeling good about myself, but I’m still subject to the immutable laws of nature.

And what goes up, must come down.

Us_Comrades finish

Celebrating the bronze


Survive & Thrive: Eight tips for conquering the Comrades Marathon up run

1) Self-discipline is the key—don’t start too fast. If you find yourself running comfortably in the first few km, you’re probably going too fast.

2) Nothing new on race day—this goes for gear and nutrition. One possible exception is the official Comrades cap you’ll receive at the expo, though I opted against that too.

3) Dial in your nutrition early, before the day heats up and your stomach goes rogue.

4) Don’t underestimate the heat—Much will be made of the 2,500 ft of net climbing in the first half, and for good reason… but don’t discount the beatdown awaiting you courtesy of heat & sun exposure in the second half. International runners, this means you.

5) Focus on your breathing—when the going gets tough, deep breaths with a regular “inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 4 steps” cadence can help you relax and regain a sense of control.

6) Every step forward—if your primary focus is to finish within 12 hours, every step you take should bring you one step closer to the finish. And don’t stop moving at aid stations.

7) Expect the unexpected—e.g. John’s nasty battle with calf cramps—and be ready to adapt.

8) Stay positive—when you’ve got nothing left to give, give a smile (I read that on the sidewalk at the Eugene Marathon).

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

  • Lindsey Parry’s podcast “RUN with Coach Parry”—especially its archives—is a treasure trove of expertise and insights from the official Comrades coach; older episodes are less than ten minutes each, so you can listen to several at a time. Coach Parry also has some very good content on YouTube.
  • Norrie Williamson, 19-time finisher and official course measurer, recently relaunched his website; the current content is a bit outdated, but his Comrades calculator will give you a reliable sense for your projected finish time based on training mileage and recent performances.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them yet, both volumes of his “Fordyce Diaries”—Conquering the Up as well as Tackling a Down Run—are available as e-books exclusively on the site. If anyone can teach you to conquer Comrades, it’s the man who won it nine times!
  • Our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades and for our post-race travels in South Africa.
Bruce_Mike_Katie

Meeting 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce at the reception for international runners

BOTTOM LINE: Comrades is like no other running event in the world. It’s an audacious nickname to be sure, but the event lives up to its billing as “The Ultimate Human Race.” I’ve used the phrase “once in a lifetime” twice to describe races: once for the Antarctica Marathon and now for my first Comrades experience. And it’s that experience that keeps its finishers coming back 10, 20, 30, in some cases 40 times. I’d love to return to Boston someday, but I feel compelled to return to Comrades. This race will challenge you, it will inspire you, it will humble you. But most of all, it will change you.

They say you never forget your first. And now I get it.

The name says it all (though not the “Marathon” part, since the race itself is over 50 miles): you don’t run Comrades for the t-shirt and medal, though those are sweet perks. You run for the camaraderie and the community. You run to celebrate the spirit of brotherhood and humanity that unite us all—what the Zulu culture calls ubuntu. You run because there are no strangers between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, only friends you haven’t met yet. And you run to be part of something much bigger than yourself—17,000+ runners from 73 countries, all in pursuit of a common goal, all speaking a common language. The language of Comrades.

Mike Sohaskey with Comrades Marathon course sign

Comrades route closure placard, signed by Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn

Unless you’re among the last-minute finishers or hooked up to an IV in the medical tent, the Comrades experience doesn’t end once you cross the finish line. Watching from the bleachers at the Scottsville Racecourse as the final few finishers struggled to beat the countdown to the 12-hour cutoff was one of the most gripping human dramas I’ve ever witnessed.

For prospective Comrades runners, if you have questions about any aspect of the race I’m sure Rory would be happy to answer them. He’s a fantastic ambassador and a wealth of information on all things Comrades, having crossed the finish line 12 times and earned a green number. Plus, he’s an incredibly generous and genuinely nice guy who knows pretty much everyone involved with the race.

PRODUCTION: Race production was flawless, as evidenced by the start corrals with 17,000 runners all crossing the line within eight minutes. And Comrades wouldn’t be the best race in the world without the best volunteers in the world. From packet pickup to on-course support to the unenviable job of forming a human wall at the 12-hour cutoff, the volunteers are as critical to the success of the race as the runners themselves. The difference being, they don’t take home a medal for their efforts.

The pre-race expo is so large, it even has its own food court. Rows upon rows of exhibitors, retailers, lounges, improvised stages and even massage stations filled the Durban Exhibition Centre. I’d recommend hitting the expo on Thursday or Friday to avoid the Saturday crush, since you don’t want to be on your feet any longer than necessary the day before the race. Separate lounge areas exist for newbies (“novices”), international runners and Green Number Club members to pull up a chair, grab a snack and chat with fellow runners while escaping the crowds. And international runners enjoy another underrated perk at the expo: a dedicated packet pickup line, which saved huge time by allowing me to bypass the Disneyland-length line of South African runners waiting to pick up their own packets. Seriously, the line looked like the wait for Space Mountain. International runners at Comrades are definitely treated like first-class citizens.

Comrades registration lines

The expo packet pickup lines for South Africans (top) and internationals (bottom)

Speaking of which, Thursday evening also featured a highly recommended reception for international runners at a local hotel. The reception was well worth attending, as we met runners from around the globe as well as 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn, the 1982 women’s winner and current Comrades Marathon Association Vice-Chair. Yet another benefit to being an international runner!

If you have a limited amount of time at the expo, I’d recommend you attend the back-to-back presentations at the Old Mutual tent by Lindsey Parry (the official Comrades coach) and Norrie Williamson (19-time finisher and official course measurer). Each man shares valuable expertise, insights and guidance to help you prepare for race day, along with pace bands that are either free (in Williamson’s case) or which can be purchased for a nominal fee (in Parry’s case, which turned out to be a smart call since Williamson’s bands were quickly snatched up by the “If it’s free, gimme three!” crowd). Coach Parry’s pace bands are temporary tattoos you can affix to your forearm, as I did on race day to track my progress.

SWAG: The smallest medal in road racing may also be the most coveted. With 92 years of history behind it, there’s a singular power and beauty to the quarter-sized medallion on its simple black-and-yellow ribbon. As I said above, it’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And when you’re the best in the world, you don’t need to change for anyone. I could go on to gush about the cool race t-shirt and wicking runner’s cap, but that’s hardly going to sway your decision on whether to run the Ultimate Human Race.

Comrades bronze medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
June 4, 2017 (start time 5:30am, sunrise 6:45am)
88 km (54.5 miles) from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (Continent #4)
Finish time & pace: 9:52:55 (first time running Comrades), 10:53/mile
Finish place: 4,191 overall, 1,427/4,273 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 13,852 (11,151 men, 2,699 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 52°F), hot & sunny (low 80s) throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 5,732 ft ascent, 3,712 ft descent

Comrades 2017 splits

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2017 Comrades Marathon expo

I felt it in my stomach, powerful and resonant, its sonic boom awakening the pre-race butterflies like a sudden gust of wind.

I felt it on my skin, the chill of goosebumps cascading like dominos along my arms and down the back of my neck.

I felt it in my head, the last vestiges of denial evaporating like sweat in the pre-dawn darkness. This is happening.

Nothing drives home the reality of Comrades like “Shosholoza”.

I’d heard South Africa’s “second national anthem” before. Watched start line videos like my own below, trying to appreciate how the Ndebele mining song’s vocal harmonies would sound—and feel—on race day. And honestly, I thought I’d prepared myself for the moment.

I thought wrong. “Shosholoza” hit me like the oncoming steam train whose sound it evokes. I held my iPhone aloft, capturing the surreal scene, a panoply of emotions dancing across the 17,000 faces lost in their last-second thoughts or softly singing along. The air in the start corral strained under a pungent mix of body odor and human electricity, the latter more than enough if called upon to power the harsh floodlights illuminating the start line.

Despite the cool morning, I was sweating—unusual for me, but then again I’d started sweating the moment I’d woken up around 2:00am, pulse rate elevated and nerves firing like I’d taken a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart, Pulp Fiction-style. I’d started chugging water immediately to try to counteract my body’s overactive sweat glands. There are few ideas worse than crossing the start line at Comrades already dehydrated.

The sea of faces was much darker and more masculine than I was accustomed to from American races—not surprising for a South African race with over 93% African representation. (Fun fact: Ethiopia, home to many of the world’s elite distance runners, sent only one runner to this year’s race). This was my first time in Africa, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to christen my 4th continent than by accepting the challenge of the Ultimate Human Race.

All of us stood in quiet deference as “Shosholoza” expanded to fill the silence around City Hall. All 17,031 of us, citizens of 73 nations speaking who-knows-how-many languages. All of us united in our common goal and in our common desire to see one another achieve that goal.

All of us Comrades.

2017 Comrades Marathon Start line VIP view

Start-line perspective from the VIP seats: that’s Rory front & center with glasses

Case in point, a simple but meaningful gesture: moments before, the race announcer had instructed all of us in the start corral to turn to the individuals on our left and on our right, shake their hand and wish them good luck. It was a heartening display of sportsmanship, one that reminded us we’d be competing for much more than a finisher’s medal over the next 12 hours.

Ironically, no race in the world gets its name more right or more wrong than the Comrades Marathon. First run in 1921, the event was the brainchild of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, who wanted to create a unique test of physical endurance to commemorate his fellow South African soldiers killed in the war and to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. Clapham envisioned a grueling physical and mental challenge, yet at the same time one accessible to any well-trained recreational athlete. Now in its 92nd year, the race has succeeded beyond its founder’s wildest dreams.

On the other hand, Clapham apparently wasn’t a stickler for details, at least when it came to naming his event. This distinction may seem trivial to non-runners, but a “marathon” by definition is 26.2 miles (42.2 km), much like a day is 24 hours or a ton is 2,000 pounds. Comrades, by contrast, is the world’s largest ultramarathon and over double the distance of a standard marathon. The course changes slightly each year, with this year’s course leading its runners nearly 54 miles (87 km) from the coastal city of Durban to the capital city of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Pietermaritzburg.

So calling Comrades a “marathon” is a bit like calling Godzilla a “lizard.”

Durban view from Southern Sun Elangeni (for Comrades Marathon)

View of the Durban coastline from our hotel room at the Southern Sun Elangeni

My earliest recollection of the race was a 2010 Runner’s World feature on running icon Bart Yasso, who after a debilitating battle with Lyme Disease chose Comrades as his last official race. Trying to wrap my mind around the concept, I came away from the RW article with a Mad Max-meets-Cormac McCarthy sense of Comrades as an event for elite athletes and uber-fit desert warriors whose bronzed skin could convert the sun’s heat directly into raw physical energy. Ninety km in less than 12 hours? Who were these freaks?? I wasn’t immediately smitten because, well, Comrades was clearly way beyond my abilities—I’d yet to even run a marathon at that point. But the article stayed with me.

Fast forward to March 2013. Katie and I stand on the deck of the Russian research vessel the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, both of us speechless as we soak in our first view of Antarctica. A tall, good-looking fellow in a heavy jacket and pajama pants strolls up alongside us, sharing in our wonderment. The three of us get to talking—he has an awesome accent which adds to his charisma—and we learn he’s from South Africa.

The conversation naturally turns to running (we’re there to run the Antarctica Marathon, after all), and Rory regales us with entertaining tales of his favorite race back home, the absurdly challenging Comrades Marathon. I’m familiar with the race, though do I know anyone who’s actually run it? I’m not sure. In any case, it’s clear from the fire in his eyes and his animated tone that Comrades is Rory’s pride and joy—so much so that he’s completed the race a mind-boggling 12 times. Ten finishes was enough to earn him what’s known as a Comrades “green number,” which is now his to keep and which he can even bequeath to his three sons in his will.

Meeting someone who’d not only attempted Comrades but who’d completed it, and who’d not only completed it but done so 12 times, lubricated the gears in my brain and brought them spinning to life. For the first time the idea of Comrades—of someone like me running Comrades—started to make sense.

Fast forward to 2016. We’d stayed in contact with Rory, broken bread together during one of his business trips to Los Angeles, and learned he’d been head of security for President Nelson Mandela before starting his own private security firm in South Africa, with clients around the world. Meanwhile, the seed he’d planted in my brain that day on the Vavilov had blossomed into an uncontrollable weed. I’d committed to fly more than halfway around the world to run the longest foot race of my life. And Rory, upon hearing the news, had generously offered to host us during our stay. Of course we’d jumped at his offer.

I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

2017 Comrades Marathon motto – Zinikele

Zinikele: Give it all you’ve got
“Shosholoza” followed the South African national anthem and segued seamlessly into the timeless piano of “Chariots of Fire.” More goosebumps. The restless crowd around me remained still; the butterflies in my stomach did not. I distracted myself by recalling the “Count-Down” instructions from the 1961 race, which we’d received with our souvenir magazine. These included:

4.50 a.m.: Have your last cigarette.
5.15 a.m.: Amble along to the start.
5.54 a.m.: Make sure you join in with a hearty cheer for the Mayor.
5:59 a.m.: Be good boys and smile nicely for the Press, they are some of the best friends we have got.

Like some blog posts, a little “Chariots of Fire” goes a long way, and two minutes later Vangelis’ heroic score was quickly getting on my overwrought nerves. Okay okay I’m inspired already, how many times does this repeat?

View of Corral B at start of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Bird’s-eye view of Corral B (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Just as I started to think Vangelis himself had taken over the controls, the music faded. A brief hush was followed by the amplified sounds of a rooster crowing—actually, not a rooster, but the recorded tones of Max Trumbull, who at the Comrades start line in 1948 nervously let loose with his rendition of a crowing rooster (such is the anticipation of running 90 km). By popular demand, Max continued the tradition until his death in 1985, and to this day his recorded rooster crow starts every Comrades Marathon.

Like the first notes of a rock concert, which release the hounds of adrenaline and bring the crowd to its feet, Max’s cock-a-doodle-doo elicited pent-up cheers from the restless throngs. And the ensuing crack of a gunshot, fired promptly at 5:30am, opened the floodgates for the tidal wave of runners to pour through, red and white confetti raining down on the heads of the speedy runners in corral A.

Hurry up and wait, I thought as we pressed together, shuffling en masse toward the start line. There was a method to this madness: Comrades requires a qualifying time—for the marathon distance this is sub-5 hours—and runners are seeded in one of eight alphabetical start corrals according to that qualifying time, faster runners at the front (starting with corral “A”) and slower runners at the back (ending with corral “H”). I’d earned a solid corral C seeding with my 3:31 finish at January’s Louisiana Marathon.

As we crossed the start mat I glanced down at my Garmin: 1:58. Off to a good start, just two minutes lost.

Comrades is both cruel and unusual in many respects. One is the timing of the event. In most races, your official time starts not when the starter’s pistol fires (known as “gun time”) but rather when a timing chip on your bib number or shoe sends a signal that you’ve physically crossed the start line (known as “chip time”). Chip time is what matters, not gun time. In this way, slower runners who start closer to the back are not penalized the extra time it takes them to reach the start line.

Not so at Comrades. The race has a strict 12-hour time limit (a 13:20/mile pace this year); everyone’s time starts with the opening gunshot and ends when they cross the finish line mat. Add to that the race’s seeding system, which starts faster runners toward the front and slower runners toward the back, and you create a tense situation in which those runners who most need the extra time—the slower runners in corrals G & H—have already lost valuable minutes by the time they reach the start line.

Luckily the start corrals flow as smoothly as any in racing, inspired in part by the fear of gun time. It typically takes no more than eight minutes for everyone to cross the start line.

Comrades 2017 had begun, and we were all on the clock. We passed the VIP tent where, thanks to Rory’s connections, he and Katie stood watching the start with Comrades officials and celebrities, including 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce. I thought of the race’s one-word slogan: Zinikele, a Zulu word meaning “Give it all you’ve got”. I intended to do just that.

87 km to go. T-minus 12 hours to euphoria or heartbreak.

Zinikele_GoogleTranslate

Google-ese translation of “Zinikele”—not the best slogan for when the going gets tough.

Farewell to Durban
Once clear of the start line, the stampede of runners surged forward through urban Durban, its downtown district nondescript in the early morning darkness. I split my focus between the other runners and the asphalt in front of me, taking care not to step on the back of someone’s foot and end my day before it had begun.

A fellow to my right dropped his water bottle, the unfortunate container barely striking the asphalt before someone inadvertently kicked it, sending it careening off another runner’s ankle like a pinball and skittering out of view underfoot. The rapid-fire sequence reminded me of the puck drop in a hockey face-off.

The compressed crowds worked to my advantage by preventing me from going out too fast, a huge no-no in a race like Comrades. In fact, it’s the one piece of advice you’ll hear repeated most often around the expo and throughout race weekend. I’d listened to enough podcasts and pre-race advice to have the concept of patience drilled into me. So I knew there’d be no shot of me flying out of the chute with my hair on fire.

Respect the distance, don’t fear the distance.

The KISS (Keep It Slow, Stupid) rule is solid strategy for almost any ultramarathon, but particularly for this year’s Comrades Marathon. Why? Because another cruel and unusual aspect of this race is the course.

Unlike other races which typically use the same route every year, in alternate years the Comrades course reverses direction between Durban at sea level and Pietermaritzburg at an elevation of 2,100ft. So whereas this year’s race started in Durban and ended in Pietermaritzburg, next year the opposite will be true. For obvious reasons, the route from Durban to Pietermaritzburg with its 2,100ft of net elevation gain is labeled the “up” run, while the opposite direction is known (cleverly enough) as the “down” run.

2017 Comrades Marathon up run elevation profile

Course elevation profile for the 2017 Comrades up run

Many Comrades coaches and veterans will tell you that the first 42 km of the “up” run is the toughest road marathon you’ll ever run—and that your immediate reward for conquering those 42 km is another marathon and change to the finish. This is a grueling concept both mentally and physically, and I understood that while my performance in the first 37 km wouldn’t necessarily make my race, it could very easily break it.

“Essentially, the ‘up’ run is all about self-control,” writes he who would know best, 9-time champion Bruce Fordyce. “And this control has to be exercised in the first half.”

I’d chosen the “up” run based on Rory’s advice. Apparently, as exhausting as the steady climb from Durban to Pietermaritzburg can be, the uphill struggle is far preferable to the discomfort of descending those same hills with 50 km already in your legs. Downhill running damages the leg muscles like nothing else, and requires a whole different type of training than uphill running. So by reversing the direction of the route, the Comrades organizers essentially create a whole new race.

And speaking of hills—while big-game hunters dream lustily of Africa’s Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino), Comrades runners have nightmares of a different Big Five. These are the five most notorious hills along the route, and they eschew muscular monikers like “Heartbreak Hill” and “Widowmaker” in favor of more dignified, understated names: Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts. And yet despite their innocuous names, each of the Big Five makes Boston’s Newton Hills look like zits on a lion’s back.

Comrades veterans will tell you that while the hills themselves are bad enough, it’s their placement along the course that will have you talking to yourself. Three of the Big Five (Cowies Hill, Fields Hill and Botha’s Hill) await in the first 37 km of the “up” route, with Inchanga positioned just after the halfway point and Polly Shortts just before the 80 km mark, the last real climb before the finish.

Bruce Fordyse-Katie-Rory Steyn Comrades Marathon VIP seating

Bruce Fordyce, Katie and Rory enjoy the VIP seats

But as intimidating as the prospect of tackling them on race day can be, it’s important to appreciate that the Big Five aren’t the only hills on the Comrades course—and in some cases they’re not even the worst. As I’d quickly learn, just because it doesn’t have a name doesn’t mean it can’t kick your ass. Comrades is like death by a thousand cuts, with a few machete blows thrown in for good measure. And for many runners, the line between success and failure is razor-thin.

Given the course’s unusual length (54 miles) and the oversized reputation of the Big Five, it didn’t feel natural to divide the route mentally into five 10-milers as I had at last year’s Ice Age Trail 50; rather, I couldn’t help but break it down in my head as six stretches of variable distance separated by each of the Big Five.

We left the city streets of Durban via the on-ramp to the N3 highway and soon after began our first test of the day, the steady climb toward the Tollgate Bridge. Here I remembered Comrades coach and official course measurer Norrie Williamson’s advice from the expo two days earlier. He’d called Tollgate the first “reality check” of the day, telling us that over 80% of runners will start too fast and destroy their best time by Tollgate.

And I could see why. The climb up to Tollgate is gentle enough to be deceiving, yet steep enough to do real damage to the reckless runner. With early adrenaline on your side, it would be all too easy to find yourself powering up the gentle climb toward Tollgate’s double arches. And by the time you realize you’ve made a mistake, it’s too late.

83 km to go.

Tollgate to Cowies Hill
Walk once before the sun rises, Rory had advised. And so I took 30 seconds to slow down on my way up to Tollgate, my mind protesting this early white flag. We walking already? Really, tough guy?

Pacing groups at Comrades are known as “buses”, and I hoped to stick close to the 9-hour bus throughout the race. Glancing to my left I saw the 10:30 bus pass me and realized that, if anything, I may have started out too cautiously. Which was fine with me—I had 80+ km to make up the difference. Energy wasted now was energy I wouldn’t have later. Once that muscle glycogen burns, it’s gone and you’re not getting it back.

On my forearms were tattooed two pace charts, which I’d purchased at the expo from Comrades coach Lindsey Parry: one outlining a 9-hour finish (my “A” goal) and the other a 10-hour finish (my “B” goal). Needless to say, my “C” goal was to get across the finish line in less than 12 hours, and by any means necessary. Flying 17,000 miles just to earn a DNF (Did Not Finish) was not an option.

“I reached my 10,000 steps!” shouted a voice in the darkness to my right.

2017 Comrades Marathon 9- and 10-hr pacing bands

The “A” goal (left) and the “B” goal (right)

I accelerated slightly to put the 10:30 bus behind me and sipped at the Tailwind (sports drink) in my hydration pack. I’d elected to wear the pack for at least the first half of the race, in part so I’d have a steady supply of Tailwind to sip on, but also to carry the baby food pouches and PB&J sandwiches I’d prepared the night before.

I could always drop the pack with Katie and Rory along the course, but I was reluctant to disregard the most battle-tested piece of racing advice: nothing new on race day. Nougat bars and biscuits hadn’t struck me as appealing aid station fare, and my own menu of snacks had served me well at the Ice Age Trail 50. So I wasn’t about to reinvent the wheel—though as it turned out, I’d end up having to fix a flat tire or two along the way.

C’est la vie. It’s the ultrarunner’s mantra: Expect the unexpected. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And it’s up to you to make it right.

Just past Tollgate we reached the first of what would be 46 aid stations. I’d heard it said that the Comrades aid stations are so long, you can look up from the end of one and see the beginning of the next. Turns out this is fake news—there’s plenty of space between aid stations, particularly later in the race when you need them most.

Which brings us to the water sachets. I know some folks—particularly Americans who aren’t used to them—deem the drink sachets to be another cruel and unusual element of Comrades. But I actually preferred them. The sachets are small plastic pouches filled with water or Energade (the South African equivalent of Gatorade), and you use your teeth to tear open the sachet to access the liquid. After one or two tries at biting open a water sachet on the run, you’ll be a pro.

In the early miles, the sachets provided not just hydration but also entertainment. Seeing newbies bite open a sachet awkwardly only to take a full spray of water in the face, I couldn’t help but laugh. And the occasional {POP} of someone stepping on an unopened sachet in the darkness was like the occasional firework. I stepped on a couple myself, dousing my ankles in water and Energade.

Congrats on 45 Comrades Marathons sign

WOW, congrats indeed Louis! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Exiting the wide highway surface of the N3, we downsized to the more narrow, two-lane M13 (Jan Smuts Highway). I was happy to trade in excess elbow room for a more tree-lined stretch of road, though I’d been warned about the “cat’s eyes” (reflectors) between lanes, which are easy to trip over in the dark.

My pre-race hydration began to take its toll, and I ducked into a porta-potty on the side of the road, emerging less than a minute later to see the 9-hour bus pass me by, leading a large group of runners. Huh? Apparently I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out my pacing in the early going.

We made our way through Westville as the sun peeked above the horizon, transitioning onto the Old Main Road that connects Durban and Pietemaritzburg. Palm trees lined the road, and coming from SoCal I felt right at home. In general, South Africa is a very easy country to travel in as an American—most of its people speak English, the street signs are in English and the weather (particularly in the winter) is temperate.

“Hey there Michael, where you coming from?” asked a voice behind me in a South African accent—or was I now the one with the accent? It took me two heartbeats to catch up to the question and realize it was directed at me, my blue bib number on front and back announcing me as an international runner with exactly zero zilch zip nil nada Comrades finishes.

“California,” I responded. “United States,” I followed up quickly, not wanting to come across as that ugly American who expects all the world’s citizens to know where California is. I chatted with my new friend—a South African native and 6-time finisher—for a few seconds, and he and I wished each other luck on the journey to Pietermaritzburg.

Even the bib numbers at Comrades are fraught with meaning. White bibs identify South Africans, blue bibs international runners. Not only that, but yellow bibs identify Comrades veterans who have completed the race nine times and are competing for their green number. And green bibs, of course, are for those who have already achieved that feat. The bibs also list your start corral and the number of Comrades medals you’ve earned.

In a race as grueling as Comrades, you take motivation anywhere you can get it. And all along the course as the going got tough, I found strong motivation in the runners with 10+ or 20+ finishes on their bibs, chugging along purposefully. If they can do this 20 times, I can damn well do it once.

The best thing that can be said about the first 15 km of the up run is that, barring the occasional undulation, the climb is so gradual and consistent that after a while you hardly notice your own steady battle against gravity.

73 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey's bib for 2017 Comrades Marathon

Cowies Hill to Fields Hill
At last we reached the base of Cowies Hill. With the sun rising and the first of the Big Five stretching ahead of me, I felt like Comrades had officially begun. Passing the road sign announcing Cowies, I glanced up to see a steady stream of runners flowing up the hill. I forced myself to power walk for another minute as I snapped a photo. Then I pushed forward, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

After so much time spent hyping up the Big Five in my mind, I was disappointed to discover that its first three members arrive with very little fanfare. The first 37 km of the up run are such a steady ascent, I’m honestly not sure I would have realized we were on Cowies if I hadn’t seen the sign and heard the chatter around me. Cowies will definitely make you work, don’t get me wrong, but it may be more memorable for its subsequent downhill than for the steepness of its ascent.

Base of Cowies Hill at 2017 Comrades Marathon

Powering up Cowies Hill

Powering up Cowies we entered Pinetown, where throngs of spectators stood on both sides of the road, cheering loudly. One of the many amazing and unforgettable aspects of Comrades is the support of the locals—untold numbers of supporters line the course, and I was reminded of Patriots Day in Boston.

A group of strong-voiced young women sang “Shosholoza” a cappella, providing motivation and their own hand-clap accompaniment as we passed.

Cowies is neither the steepest nor the longest of the Big Five, and the mile+ ascent was challenging but doable. Then we were headed back downhill, with sweeping views of Pinetown to our left before the course again leveled out and resumed its ascent.

Shortly after Cowies we passed the first of the six cutoffs along the course—these are designated points that all runners must pass by a certain time, otherwise they’re pulled from the course and disqualified. And I pondered which would be worse: being pulled at the first cutoff of the day, or being pulled at the last.

Channeling my inner toddler, I downed my second baby food pouch of the morning. On longer runs, baby food is easier to digest than sugary gels, since it’s real food. I’d planned on a schedule of one pouch every five miles (8 km), supplemented with Tailwind every mile plus peanut butter & jelly. In this way, I hoped to avoid the aid stations for as long as possible.

Let’s hear it for wishful thinking.

The stretch through the commercial sector of Pinetown, with its businesses and car dealerships, was fairly uneventful. A generous but deluded spectator offered runners his jug of whiskey, the fellow next to me responding in a gentlemanly South African accent: “Ah, fuck you mate.”

Runners in Toyota Zone at 2017 Comrades Marathon

You never run alone at Comrades (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Continuing on the Old Main Road, the commercial, industrial and residential scenery struck me as wholly familiar: Pinetown could easily be blue-collar America.

Then it was back onto the M13 where the longest of the Big Five awaited. An official race km marker announced Fields Hill ahead, and I almost felt like a patient waiting for the doctor. Fields Hills will see you now, sir.

Fields Hill is the longest of the Big Five, and I honestly couldn’t tell you where it ends. Nor apparently can the organizers—look at the official Comrades elevation map above, and you’ll see an arrow pointing into the middle of a steady ascent with the label “Top of Fields Hill”. I do know I was running and power-walking up that sumabitch for too long—though again, I had such great expectations for the Big Five that it really didn’t feel so bad once I got on it.

Here I followed another sound piece of advice from Comrades coaches Parry and Williamson: I tried to keep my effort (rather than my pace) steady as we wound our way up and around the hill toward the summit.

I was also distracted by the fact that I’d expected to see Katie and Rory at the base of Fields Hill, around the 20 km mark where we’d planned to meet. Once we began our ascent I continued to keep an eye out for them, with no success. Finally I pulled out my phone and texted Katie on the fly. “61 km to go! Where are you?” Then a few minutes later, “60 km to go! Phone’s going off.” No overages on the international data plan, please.

I speak of “km to go” because the distance markers are yet another cruel and unusual aspect of Comrades. The markers are big and red and easy to see from far away, all of which I appreciated. But rather than celebrating how far you’ve come, the distance markers at Comrades confirm how much farther you still have to go. Psychologically, it’s daunting to be reminded of distances like 80 km and 70 km so early in the race. And it was only once I passed the “21 km” (= a half marathon) sign late in the day that I started to feel like that light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t another train.

No Katie and no Rory meant no familiar faces. More importantly, though, it meant I’d need to ration my remaining food, since I wasn’t sure if/when I’d see them next. Right around the midway point in Drummond I hoped, and yet I couldn’t be sure. One more baby food pouch plus a peanut butter & jelly sandwich should be enough to last me at least another 20 km… right?

63 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running strong at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

I was one of the few runners wearing a pack (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Fields Hill to Botha’s Hill
By the time we reached Kloof, the sun was starting to flex its muscle in a cloudless sky. The day was shaping up to be warmer than forecast, a consistent breeze providing some respite from the heat. A relatively level stretch followed Fields Hill and led us through shaded, tree-lined neighborhoods. With the mounting heat and frequent palm trees, I got a sense of running in either Hawaii or Florida.

One thing I noticed as the km ticked off: none of the runners around me had wires dangling from their ears. Some of these folks would be out here lost in their own thoughts for nearly 12 hours, and yet none of them wore earbuds. Because Comrades demands (and deserves) every ounce of mental and physical focus you’ve got, and experiencing it from under earbuds would be like attending your own wedding while hopped up on pain meds.

59km marker at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

(photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Checking the pace bands on each forearm, I realized I was slightly ahead of schedule for a 9-hour finish, despite taking things slow to this point. I continued to churn out ten-minute miles through Gillitts and Hillcrest, the latter disappointing me with its abundance of hills and lack of crests.

Even if you knew nothing about the race itself, you’d still notice a common theme along the Comrades route: many of the towns and landmarks have “hill” in their name. Crazy coincidence, that.

My focus now was on getting to the 37 km mark, where the course leveled out. And all that stood between me and that goal was Botha’s Hill.

Like Cowies and Fields, Botha’s arrived with little fanfare. But it was steep and winding and nearly 3 km long, not to mention it had the sun on its side. Once again steady effort plus a bit of power-walking carried me to the top, where the shade of tree cover awaited us. So too did the well-dressed boys of Kearsney College, a private boarding school founded (like Comrades itself) in 1921 and located at the top of Botha’s Hill. Maybe it was my mindset coming off the hill, but none of Kearsney’s finest seemed particularly psyched on a hot day to be greeting a bunch of sweaty runners while dressed in a suit and tie.

And with that I’d reached the 37 km mark, the toughest miles of the Comrades up run in my rearview mirror. My rush of accomplishment, though, quickly yielded to sobering reality. Pietermaritzburg was still 50 km away. And the sun was still climbing in the sky.

50 km to go.

Mile 25 view of Alverstone at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

View overlooking Alverstone, 47 km to go

Botha’s Hill to Drummond
With the majority of the climbing behind us, the course continued to roll for the next couple of miles before treating us to our first extended downhill, the largely unshaded descent into Drummond. Here I was psyched to see Katie and Rory for the first time. I’d polished off my last baby food pouch several miles earlier and had tried a bite of my peanut butter & jelly. Bad idea—the consistency was like paste, and even with plenty of water to wash it down, my body had instantly rejected the idea.

Rory flagged me down, and I pulled over to catch my breath and refill my hydration pack before reluctantly moving on. With the heat intensifying I could tell my body was circling the wagons, approaching its Tailwind limit and with no appetite for either baby food or peanut butter. Even so, I decided to carry my pack until at least the 25 km-to-go mark, when I’d see them again.

My brief pitstop invigorated me, and I rode a surge of energy downhill into Drummond. Approaching the up run’s de facto halfway point, we passed two key landmarks on the Comrades course: the Wall of Honour and Arthur’s Seat.

Rory Steyn and Mike Sohaskey at Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour

Getting inspired by Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Wall of Honour

If you’re planning to run Comrades, take some time before or after the race to visit the Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour (you’ll likely be too rushed and too tired to appreciate it on race day). Erected along the side of the road just before Drummond, The Wall is a collection of plaques set in individual stones and decorated with the names of past finishers, along with their bib numbers. Yellow plaques signify runners with between one and nine finishes, while green plaques identify those who have earned green numbers. Best of all, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy a plaque to be displayed on the Wall.

The Wall of Honour is a remarkable and ever-changing tribute to human endurance and to 92 years of Comrades finishers. And we were fortunate to have a host in Rory who drove us out to the Wall the night before the race, so we could take the time to appreciate it without having to commit to the official pre-race course tour.

Speaking of the course tour—the notion of spending several hours aboard a bouncy school bus, a captive audience for 87 km worth of ups and downs, sounded about as appealing as running the route with my laces tied together. I was intimidated enough by the hills without seeing them ahead of time, and I was more than happy to experience the entire course for the first time on race day.

Just past the Wall of Honour on the uphill is a small sign that, if you’re running with your head down or lost in thought, you could easily miss. The sign reads “Arthur’s Seat” and points left across the street. Carved out of the rock embankment along the road is a shallow recess where 5-time Comrades champion Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his runs. Legend has it that Comrades runners who greet Arthur and place flowers on his seat during the race will enjoy a strong second half.

“Good morning, Arthur” I greeted the former champ tiredly, tapping the rock face along with other runners and snapping a picture before continuing on my way. Superstition or not, this wasn’t the time to be taking chances.

Paying homage to Arthur's Seat at Comrades Marathon

Runners say “good morning” at Arthur’s Seat

I continued to chat intermittently with fellow runners, most of them from South Africa. With more than a marathon in our legs, none of the conversations were particularly deep, but I enjoyed meeting both veterans and first-timers as well as congratulating several 9-time finishers on their impending green numbers.

Glancing down at my pace tattoo, I saw I needed to reach Drummond in 4 hours, 35 minutes to stay on pace for a 9-hour finish. I glanced at my watch as we passed the third cutoff point: 4:28. So far, so good—not too fast, not too slow.

My 9-hour goal wasn’t an arbitrary one. Because another unique (and some might attest, cruel and unusual) aspect of Comrades is the finisher’s medal. The first thing you’ll notice is that the medal is likely the smallest you’ll ever receive, at roughly the size of a quarter. At the same time not all the medals are created equal, with different medals being awarded based on finish time.

The first ten finishers are awarded a Gold medal. Runners who finish out of the top ten but in less than six hours receive the Wally Hayward medal (silver center with gold ring), named after the 5-time Comrades winner who, in 1989 at age 80, also became the race’s oldest finisher in a time of 10:58:03.

Runners who finish in greater than six hours but less than 7:30 earn a silver medal, while runners who finish in greater than 7:30 but less than nine hours—my “A” goal—earn the Bill Rowan medal (a silver center with a bronze ring), named for the first winner of the Comrades Marathon who finished the race in 8 hours, 59 minutes.

A sizable gap separates the final two classes of medal recipients. Runners finishing in greater than nine but less than 11 hours receive a bronze medal, while the Vic Clapham medal (copper) goes to survivors who cross the finish line before the 12-hour cutoff.

Mike Sohaskey at Drummond halfway point of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Halfway home in Drummond—we look like synchronized runners (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

As if running 87 km weren’t enough to test your limits, competing to earn a particular medal (in my case, the Bill Rowan) adds to both the excitement and stress of the race—excitement for those who set realistic goals, stress for those who try to do too much. And heartbreak is all too frequent. Rory had recounted the story of his 2003 down run, when he’d missed his Bill Rowan by 12 seconds and had watched in horror as the puff of smoke from the 9-hour gun went off meters away from him.

According to Coach Norrie Williamson’s Comrades calculator, nine hours was a realistic goal based on my recent finish times. Given the travel and the heat, though, I knew Bill Rowan was a best-case scenario. Had the race been held in Southern California, that would have been a different story. But since I’m much better at running the ups than the downs, I figured I owed it to myself to give it a shot in this, an up year.

Cruising through Drummond, there was no missing the halfway point—it was rocking, the scene decked out in purple and gold with an inflatable arch, banners lining the course, music pumping, spectators screaming and an announcer greeting runners like we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. The raw energy was overwhelming but a definite pick-me-up. And I wish I’d had more time to appreciate it. There was some relief in knowing we were halfway home, but with still more than a marathon to go the relief was short-lived.

Then we were on our way again. “Welcome to the Valley of 1,000 Hills!” someone shouted. There it was again, another landmark with the word “hill” in it. And hadn’t we run that many already?

If I’d known about the one hill that awaited us, though, I might have opted for the other 1,000 instead.

42 km to go.

Concluded in Act 2

2017 Comrades Marathon New Balance shoes

One chance is all you need.
– Jesse Owens

Berlin Marathon - runners finishing through Brandenburg Gate

Soon-to-be Berlin Marathon finishers stream through the Brandenburg Gate

(A BC&H early happy birthday to fellow scientist/runner/blogger Jen over at Running Tangents… I tried to take your blog title to heart in Berlin, I really did…)

Realization often strikes in retrospect.  Sometimes, though, you know when you’re facing a moment of truth.  With the Brandenburg Gate rising imposingly behind and the Victory Column looming straight ahead, the start line of the 41st Berlin Marathon felt like that moment.

In recent years, Berlin has achieved a singular level of cachet among hardcore runners.  This is due in part to its status as one of the six World Marathon Majors, alongside Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo.  That, and Berlin has practically become the home court of the world marathon record – prior to this year, the world record had been set in Berlin five times in the past eleven years, most recently in 2013 by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang (2:03:23).  Amateur runners from across the globe come each year to race Berlin’s famously flat and speedy course, and to check another World Marathon Major off their bucket list.  For many of these runners, Berlin offers a golden opportunity to qualify for another celebrated six-letter marathon that starts with a ‘B’ and ends with an ‘N’.

Admittedly, this was my own rationale in designating Berlin as my target race for 2014.  With all due respect to the granddaddy of all marathons in New York City (which I’ll be running next month), Berlin would offer me the best shot at setting a new PR and qualifying for Boston in 2016, when my age group qualifying time slows by ten minutes, from 3:15:00 to 3:25:00.  Killing three birds with one stone, it would also represent my second World Marathon Major and third continent, alongside North America and Antarctica.

Berlin’s standing as one of the most historically and culturally relevant cities in the world (and sister city to our own L.A.) didn’t hurt my decision.  And Katie, who’s always happy to use my running to advance her travel agenda, immediately and enthusiastically green-lit Berlin for 2014.

That was when the race organizers launched Operation: Buzzkill, a.k.a. the Berlin Marathon lottery.

Mike Sohaskey at Berlin Marathon Expo

Peace, Berlin!  And thanks for being my second World Marathon Major

Granted it came as no surprise… Berlin was the last of the World Marathon Majors to move to a lottery (or in the case of Boston, qualifying) system, wherein interested runners submit their name in the hopes of being chosen at random to participate in the race.  But its “overdue and imminent” status didn’t make the institution of a lottery any less frustrating, particularly since several of us had already made plans to run Berlin this year.  So when none of our names were among those chosen from the pool of 74,707 applicants, two of my friends opted to head for the wine country and run the Donostia-San Sebastian Marathon in Spain instead.

With my head and heart still set on Berlin, Katie and I decided to hitch a ride with our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel, with whom we’d traveled to Antarctica and who offer packages (including race entry) for the Berlin Marathon.  And I persuaded myself that bypassing the frustration of future lottery selections would be well worth the added expense.  Besides, I’ll still have the fun of the London, Tokyo and potentially Boston lotteries to look forward to, with others sure to follow.

Let him that would move the world first move himself. – Socrates
I’d positioned myself at the front of the start corral, and as the official starter’s countdown hit zero I surged forward toward the Siegessäule (Victory Column) 600 yards ahead.  Immediately I found myself running in open space.  Adrenalized runners shot by me like cartoon Road Runners {meep meep!}, and despite my brain’s protests I dialed back my own effort to avoid the hair-on-fire mistake of going out too fast.  I had no way of knowing that in contrast to every other race I’ve ever run, those first 600 yards would be the least congested part of the course.

Also unlike other races I’ve run, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d seen not one but two runners smoking in the staging area before a race.  I tried to get a photo of the first one with cigarette in hand and bib number in place, but he jumped up to embrace a group of friends before I could reach my camera.  And I noticed the second fellow after I’d already conceded my drop bag, when he dropped his cigarette butt on the sidewalk, stamped it out and ran to join his corral at the start line.  Probably beat me to the finish, too.

But the most important difference between Berlin and all the other races I’ve run, was that I’d arrived in the Tiergarten on Sunday to do just one thing: run.  We’d allowed time before and after the race for exploring the city, so I had every intention of running as hard as I could until either I reached the finish line or my race ended otherwise in less storybook fashion.  So I didn’t pay nearly the attention I normally would to what was going on around me, though if you think that will make this race report any shorter, well…

Berlin Marathon - Tiergarten start & finish

The start/finish area in the Tiergarten… the Victory Column and Brandenburg Gate are labeled in orange

Berlin is like being abroad in Germany. It’s German, but not provincial. – Claudia Schiffer
After arriving on Thursday evening, Friday began with a bus tour of the city organized by Marathon Tours.  I’m not a big “bus tour” guy, generally preferring to wander and explore new cities on my own.  But this turned out to be an excellent intro to Berlin courtesy of Matt, our British expat guide.  He admitted that Berlin’s sordid role in recent world history is “nearly impossible to avoid,” and stressed that the city “approaches its history in a very open, honest, responsible way”.  And he taught us much more about his adopted home than I could have learned on my own in the same amount of time.

Among the highlights of our 4+ hour tour, we learned:

  • Berlin was built on swampland, and above-ground pipe networks were established to pump groundwater away from construction sites.  These pipes – pink in some places, blue in others – are evident throughout the city, in some cases spanning intersections with no nod to aesthetic subtlety.
  • Memorials to the victims of Nazi genocide have been erected in and around the Tiergarten, including discrete monuments to the Jewish, homosexual, parliamentary and Sinti and Roma (gypsy) victims of National Socialism.  In particular, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) contains 2,711 concrete slabs of varying size and height, arranged in a grid-like pattern on variably uneven ground to convey a sense of unease.  Lending a grim irony to the adage “business is business,” the same company that produces the graffiti-resistant coating used to prevent neo-Nazi vandalism to the Memorial once manufactured Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
  • The Berlin Wall (actually two walls fortified by a series of trenches and electrified fences, all patrolled by armed guards with attack dogs) was actually constructed around the perimeter of West Berlin.  So in their zeal to prevent East Berliners from escaping, the Soviets effectively encircled the free half of the city with their Wall.
  • No official signage marks the site of Adolf Hitler’s death, as nearly 70 years later German officials still fear it becoming a shrine for neo-Nazi groups.
  • A staged Soviet propaganda photo of soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament Building) in May 1945 had to be altered before its release because one of the soldiers could clearly be seen wearing a wristwatch on each arm, suggesting that he’d been looting.
  • The city is 60 billion Euros (roughly $75 billion) in debt.
Berlin Marathon 2014 - Berlin city sites

Berlin illustrated (clockwise from upper left): Charlottenburg Palace, 17th-century palace commissioned by the wife of Friedrich III; “Inferno”, sculpture created for the Dachau concentration camp and now on display in the German History Museum; the unsettling Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the German flag flies high over the Reichstag; Olympiastadion, site of Jesse Owens’ triumphant 1936 Olympic Games; modern-day remnants of Checkpoint Charlie, primary gateway between East and West Berlin during the Cold War; Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag; still-standing stretch of the Berlin Wall near the site of the former Gestapo headquarters; Brandenburg Gate

The tour bus then dropped us off at the marathon expo, held in the former Berlin Tempelhof Airport.  For any of us paying attention, the fact that the race expo was held in a former airport should have been an ominous sign – turns out it was a bloated monstrosity, filling several hangars of the airport and making the 2012 Chicago Marathon expo, held in the largest convention center in North America, feel like an intimate affair by comparison.  Like shepherding sheep through a maze, signs and arrows and SCC Events staff directed the flow of traffic, with only runners who brandished proof of registration being allowed to enter the bib pickup area. And once you exited the pickup area, security personnel ensured you didn’t try to re-enter.

Way too many booths hawked way too much gear and way too many gimmicks, with the Container Store-like promise of solving problems you never knew you had (tired of relying on burdensome free safety pins to hold your number in place?  Try our 15€ alternative!).  Free samples, a predictable feature of any reasonably sized expo, were rare commodities in Berlin, with even the PowerBar folks posting a sentry next to their electrolyte drink fountain (one booth did offer free cups of water).  At the Brooks booth, vegan ultrarunner and now-ubiquitous self-evangelist Scott Jurek signed copies of his autobiography Eat and Run.

Adding to the list of unlike other races I’ve run, Berlin provided no t-shirt with race registration, a void that the folks at the overstaffed Adidas storefront would be happy to fill for 30€ (~$39).  Judging that I needed another race t-shirt like a third shoe, I opted instead to invest my $39 in race photos, including finish-line shots with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho straddling boundary of former Berlin Wall

We thought we were pretty cool, Katie standing in the former East Berlin and me in West Berlin… until we saw the show-off in the pink tights

On Saturday morning Katie, despite a nagging cold, elected to run the appropriately named Breakfast Fun Run along with roughly 10,000 other runners, many of whom were irrepressibly cheery and proudly clad in the colors of their home country.  The main reason for doing the run was the route itself, which began at the Charlottenburg Palace and ended 6K (3.6 miles) later at Olympiastadion, where in the 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens won four goal medals and essentially gave Hitler’s notion of Aryan supremacy the double middle finger.  Ironically, Owens was able to share accommodations with his teammates in Nazi Germany, a freedom denied him back home in the segregated United States.  In response to reports that Hitler refused to shake his hand, Owens said, “Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”

In the unfamiliar role of spectator, I hopped the U-Bahn (subway) and arrived just in time to see Katie enter the stadium and finish with ¾ of a lap on the overcrowded synthetic blue track.  Amusingly, the post-6K spread with its coffee, donuts and chocolate milk would prove far superior to what awaited me at mile 27 the next day.

KT_6K finish

On the track at Olympiastadion… “Heads up, coming through, mad dash to the finish!!!”

Saturday evening we gathered at the hotel Sofitel Berlin Kurfürstendamm for the Marathon Tours pre-race pasta dinner.  There we topped off our carb stores and listened to guest speaker Tom Grilk, Executive Director of the Boston Athletic Association.  He talked about the B.A.A’s response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, as well as life in the immediate and long-term aftermath of the bombings.  And he spoke humbly and appreciatively of all the runners who year after year make Boston the success that it is.

I was surprised to learn that only 85% of runners in the Boston Marathon meet qualifying standards (the other 15% presumably being charity runners), a number that seems awfully low given Boston’s prestige and its exclusive qualifying process.  I’m all for running in the name of charitable causes, and did so myself in Chicago in 2012. But in the case of Boston, I’m also a strong proponent that qualifying standards should apply to ALL runners, particularly in light of the fact that the B.A.A. has had to turn away qualified runners in the past two years.

After dinner, with race number pinned to shirt and timing chip secured to shoe (really, Berlin? still using timing chips?), and with the next morning mapped out to avoid surprises, there was nothing left to do but call it an early night.

Tom Grilk_Executive Director Boston Athletic Association

B.A.A. Executive Director Tom Grilk addresses the room at the Marathon Tours pre-race pasta dinner

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts. – Eleanor Roosevelt
Early Sunday morning I awoke in the dark, convinced I’d heard my alarm and that it was time to rise and shine.  My iPhone told a different story: 1:27 a.m.

Some time later I awoke feeling well-rested, wide awake and ready to roll, before my iPhone again burst my bubble: 4:40 a.m.  So I lay in bed visualizing the day ahead and listening to the resonant hum of the city.  Eighty painstaking minutes later, my alarm finally conceded what my brain and body already knew – it was go time.  Berlin Marathon Day.

I donned my shiny new RaceRaves t-shirt (yes! you should click on that link and sign up), mixed the granola and yogurt I’d brought in an insulated pouch from California, and prepared my drop bag.  Bidding super-spectator Katie farewell, I joined my fellow anxious runners on the bus destined for the giant Hauptbahnhof U-Bahn station, where I sat and ate breakfast as the compression-clad masses streamed toward the staging area.  Soon I joined them – and that’s when an already edgy morning turned stressful.

With an 8:45 a.m. start time, I arrived in the Tiergarten staging area just before 8:00 a.m. and immediately hopped in line for the port-o-lets.  And there I stood 40 MINUTES LATER, as the ten available units were forced to serve literally hundreds of runners.  This was an indefensible screw-up on the organizers’ part, and my stress levels soared as I watched other runners finish their warmups and head toward the start line.  Adding insult to injury, by the time I reached the front of the line, my unit was out of toilet paper.  Luckily years on the trails have taught me always to carry my own supply, though I doubt the people after me were so lucky.  And there were plenty of runners still in line when I exited the overworked unit at 8:43 a.m.

Hurriedly I handed my drop bag to the teenage volunteer and jogged toward the start line, hearing the distant sounds of the starting horn sending the runners in my corral on their way.  Finally reaching the start line a couple of minutes later, I slipped in at the front of the next shoulder-to-shoulder wave.  With the Brandenburg Gate rising imposingly behind and the Victory Column looming straight ahead, I positioned myself three feet behind the most important start line of my running career to await the starter’s countdown.

Mike Sohaskey at 7KM marker - Berlin Marathon 2014

Almost missing Katie at the 7-km mark

Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going. – Sam Levenson
The first half of the race passed smoothly, other than my usual energy lull between miles 8 and 11.  Every once in a while I’d look up to see another km marker ahead (the 42 separate km markers were significantly more than the 26 mile markers I’m used to), and every so often we’d run through a cloud of cigarette smoke or splash through the puddles of another aid station.  And as my Garmin chimed to signal mile 13, my average pace held steady at 7:43/mile.  Nice.

Turns out this was a good race to stay focused and block out distractions, since it’s not like I could read the spectator signage or understand most of the conversations going on around me.  Other than the drawing of Yoda with German caption that I saw twice on the course, the only other sign I distinctly remember is the simply rendered black-and-white board reminding runners that “Finishing is your ONLY fucking option!”  Well said, and way to showcase the subtleties of the English language!

My only nagging concern throughout the race was that, in wanting to ensure my unusually wide Altra shoes stayed snug on my feet, I’d not only tied them too tight but also double-knotted them.  By the time I sensed them squeezing the tops of my feet like a vise, I refused to relinquish the minute or so I’d need to stop, untie, loosen and re-tie them.  That minute could be huge in the big picture… so to compound my stupidity I chose instead to suck it up and check back regularly to ensure I could still feel my toes.

Kimetto & Mutai in lead pack of Berlin Marathon at 7KM

Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Mutai (rear), on their way to each breaking Wilson Kipsang’s world record

Approaching the 12 km (7.4 mile) mark I saw the Strausberger Platz Fountain ahead and noticed at the same time that the street before the fountain was soaked with water.  My distracted brain immediately put two and two together and concluded the fountain was overflowing, before realizing that in fact I’d reached another aid station.

Unfortunately the race organizers chose to use plastic rather than paper cups at the aid stations, which may sound trivial but which meant the course was littered with cups and shards of plastic rolling underfoot.  More than once I saw a runner stop momentarily to dislodge a cup that was stuck on his foot – just what you want to be doing at mile 19 of a marathon.

Twice (7 km and the halfway point at 21 km) I saw Katie along the course, and twice – thanks to crowd density and a limited field of vision – I’d nearly passed by before noticing her.  Even at Chicago, a similarly sized race, I’d been able to locate her in the crowd and react well in advance of reaching her.

As the second half (i.e. the real race) began, I found myself dodging and weaving around slower runners to maintain pace – check out this glitchy footage of me and my fellow caravanners at 25 km/15.5 miles.  On Berlin’s narrow streets and with spectators often spilling out into the street, the course seemed always to be congested, and I’d given up trying to run the tangents (i.e. the shortest and most efficient route).  Twice I had to slow down to wait as a spectator cut in front of me, pulling a child across the street with him.  And several times I heard an “Oop!” just as a runner cut me off trying to reach either an aid station or family members in the crowd.

One thing I realized in Berlin is that during a race loud music, raucous crowds and random noises have the opposite of their intended effect on me – they seem to siphon energy away, so that every time we’d pass a boisterous stretch I’d feel a wave of exhaustion wash over me.  Several times on Sunday morning I found myself longing for a nice, quiet trail race.

Mike Sohaskey on Berlin Marathon course

When I say RaceRaves was running ads in Berlin, I mean it literally

It’s always too early to quit. – Norman Vincent Peale
Inevitably all my dodging and weaving took its toll, and sometime around mile 18 I slammed into my own sobering version of the Berlin Wall.  Like its real-life predecessor, the odds of getting over this Wall looked grim, as an extended bottleneck and mounting fatigue led to my first 8:00+ minute mile of the day (8:18).  At that point my short-circuiting brain apparently thought it a great idea to share its negative scenarios, and disheartening images of my BQ goal slipping away began to flash before my eyes.

Slowing down now would be the death knell for my BQ chances, and if I gave in to fatigue then one slow mile would certainly morph into several slower ones.  It didn’t help that the sun was now high in a cloudless sky… and though the course’s exposed stretches were brief, the sun’s 60°F heat was definitely at work.

But with 7+ miles still to go, I wasn’t ready to call it a day.  In the months leading up to this race, I’d purposefully spent a lot of time visualizing positive outcomes.  So quickly I popped a Clif Shot Blok (i.e. sugar bomb) in my mouth and refocused on picking up the pace.  Luckily I still had a surge left in me, and mile 20 ended as my fastest mile of the day (6:51).  Now my concern shifted to how much more I had left.

The marathon is a difficult undertaking and a daunting challenge under the best of circumstances.  But just as the elites are running a whole different race than the rest of us, those who aspire to really race are running a different event than their fellow runners who are simply looking to finish and have fun doing it.  I ran back-to-back marathons in Mississippi and Alabama earlier this year, with the goal of finishing each in a comfortable 3 hours, 45 minutes.  Certainly I was tired after each race, potty-cularly given the circumstances in Alabama – but in both states I stopped at several aid stations along the way, and by the time I crossed the finish (at least in Mississippi) I could have run another few miles if necessary.

Berlin would be a very different story.  The marathon doesn’t truly begin until your brain – i.e. your own worst enemy – gets involved, and its pessimistic chatter starts to remind you of how tired you are, telling you it’s ok to slow down a bit, you’ve gotta be hurting, you can’t possibly keep this up…

Berlin Marathon - Top 3 female finishers

Shalane poses on the big screen with winner Tirfi Tsegaye (ETH) and runner-up Feyse Tadese (ETH)

Mile 22, and with the pealing of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis-Kirche (Memorial Church) bells ringing through my haze, the remaining dregs of my mental reserves were laser-focused on maintaining leg turnover and cadence, to keep my mile paces as close to 7:45 as possible.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

On the bright side, escalating exhaustion overpowered the acute pain on the tops of my feet.

With roughly 5 km (3 miles) to go I doggedly fell in step behind a red-shirted fellow with sweat flying off him whose pace matched my own, and I resolved to do whatever I could to keep him within striking distance.  At mile 25 I glanced down at my Garmin, and was rewarded with the miraculous news that somehow, my average pace was holding steady at 7:43/mile.  Desperate not to let it all slip away in the final 1.2 miles, I focused on anything and everything to distract from my leaden legs and mounting exhaustion – correct my wavering stride, pick off other zombified runners, visualize the Brandenburg Gate as always being just… around… the corner…

Until finally it was.  Angels (maybe it was the winged figure atop the Gate?) sang on high as this time the raucous cheers of thousands of spectators propelled me along the final stretch, one of the most “WOW”-ly historic stretches of race course in the world.  Overcome with the emotional realization that this is it, weakly I threw up my arms as I passed through the Gate and saw…

… the finish line, still 400 yards dead ahead.  400 very. long. yards.  Feeling like a rusted old jalopy running on fumes and leaking oil with every step, I dug down as deep as I could for one last surge – and came up empty.  I had nothing left.  No final surge, no proud sprint to the finish – only muscle memory and a few carefully hoarded molecules of ATP carried me those final 400 yards and across the finish to where the happy people waited.

Shakily I wobbled to a stop, threw back my head and gulped down a few deep breaths as I stared at the sky in dazed disbelief.  Meanwhile, the MarathonFoto folks positioned above the finish line looked beyond me as though to indicate “OK buddy you’re done, move it along, more interesting runners to photograph here.”  Happily I obliged.

Mike Sohaskey - finishing Berlin Marathon through the Brandenburg Gate

On the shiny happy side of the Brandenburg Gate

High expectations are the key to everything. – Sam Walton
Glancing down at my Garmin, I was elated to see the number I’d hoped for – average marathon pace, 7:44/mile!  Beeping over to the next screen, though, my elation wilted as my Garmin stoically displayed an overall time of 3:24:14, rather than the 3:22:30 (plus or minus) I’d expected to clock at that pace.  Confusedly I checked again, and saw the number that made my still-pounding heart sink – 26.44 miles.  Despite my best intentions of running the most efficient race possible, all the dodging and weaving around other runners had cost me to the tune of an extra ¼-mile.

To explain my chagrin: since the 2013 bombings, the number of qualified runners vying to run the Boston Marathon has outstripped the number of slots available (though again, if there weren’t so many charity slots set aside this wouldn’t be an issue).  This means that some runners who achieve a qualifying time STILL will not get into Boston, and so the B.A.A. has instituted the practice of admitting only the fastest runners in each age group.  In 2014, qualified runners actually had to run 98 seconds faster than their qualifying time to get into Boston, and for 2015 the number dropped to 62 seconds.  Based on these re-jiggered times, besting my qualifying time of 3:25:00 by a mere 42 seconds won’t cut it for 2016.

So to bottom-line this convoluted tale – YES I did qualify for Boston, but NO I probably won’t get in (though I might) based on my Berlin time and two years of Boston precedents.  Talk about bittersweet.  And to make matters more bitter than sweet, if I I’d hammered out just one more 7:45 mile rather than the 8:10 I clocked at mile 26, I would have beaten my qualifying time by 67 seconds and put myself in much better (though still tenuous) position for Boston 2016.

Then again, as my high school basketball coach used to say to what if scenarios, “If your aunt had a package she’d be your uncle” (he was kind of a philosopher-coach).  What ifs aside, I’m determined to turn gators into Gatorade here – now that I’ve broken 3:25:00, I know I can run an even faster marathon.  And as much as I would have loved to score a PR and qualify for Boston at the same time (and admittedly threaten Dan’s solid PR of 3:23:12 in the process), I do understand the importance of baby steps.  But that doesn’t mean I like it.

So in the final analysis, Berlin will go down in my marathon catalog as lucky #13 – I worked my way from PF (plantar fasciitis) to PR (personal record) in less than four months and qualified for Boston in the process.  And my body felt great doing it.  Along the way we reunited with old friends, made new ones and parted with an eye toward future reunions (see y’all in NYC!).  All adding up to a kick-ass time in a kick-ass city.  Now I’m confident that the extra motivation gained from my Berlin experience will keep my training focused and ultimately get me where I need to go.  That being the start line in Framingham in April 2016.

Mike Sohaskey - at Berlin Marathon finish

Thanks to the fellow behind me for blowing me across the finish line

Ich bin ein Berliner. – John F. Kennedy
Some runners care little for race bling, while others outright scoff at the idea.  But I have to admit that after 13 marathons, accepting that finisher’s medal from a friendly volunteer never gets old… and the moment always fills me with endorphin-fueled appreciation, for my own performance as well as for all those who helped me get to the finish.  Each medal hanging on my wall at home recognizes the collective efforts of a largely nameless and faceless support crew – plus of course Katie, always the most important member of that crew.

Coincidentally, the flip side of the 2014 Berlin medal pictures Wilson Kipsang, whose 2013 Berlin world record (2:03:23) lasted one short year before falling to fellow Kenyans Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57) and Emmanuel Mutai (2:03:13).  Their record-setting duel fired up the running community and re-ignited the Holy Grail debate over the imminence of a sub-2 hour marathon.  Great job guys, and enjoy your nine months of “LAST CHANCE TO ORDER!” emails from MarathonFoto.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho in front of Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

Out of the way you two, you’re blocking a sweet shot of the Reichstag building!

Mike Sohaskey and Daniel Otto at Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

Catching up with a victorious Otter… luckily that finger wasn’t loaded

Meanwhile, only one American (Fernando Cabada, 11th overall) finished in the top 50.  Five zero.

And though no world records were set on the women’s side, Shalane Flanagan again muscled up for the U.S., earning third place by running the second-fastest marathon ever by an American women (2:21:14, behind only Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 performance at London in 2006).  Huge congrats to Shalane… her 2014 will be a tough year to beat.

Entering the finish chute I could finally collapse on the curb and loosen my shoes, as by now my badly bruised feet and shins were screaming at me.  Apparently 43 years hasn’t been enough for me to learn how to tie shoelaces.  Aside from cutting off my circulation though, the Altra The One2 shoes I wore worked out great.  Every race really is a learning experience.

With the post-race heat sheet draped around me like Superman’s cape, I hobbled a significant distance through the finish chute before reaching the first water station. There I was shunted to another station after being told the water was for medical emergencies only.  Finally quenching my thirst, I glanced around in search of post-race munchies.  Disappointed to find nothing more substantial than apple slices and bananas (and no thank you to alcohol-free beer), I hustled out of the chute and happened to spy Katie as we both converged on the grassy front yard of the Reichstag.  From her final post alongside the Brandenburg Gate, she’d had to circumnavigate the entire perimeter of the finish area before reaching the family reunion area, where we now settled down to soak up the sun.

As we compared notes and shot photos, I kept one eye on the steady stream of runners exiting the finish chute.  As unlikely as it seemed in a crowd of 40,000+ people, I was on the lookout for a familiar (I have one of my own) red 2012 Chicago Marathon shirt. Sure enough, my persistence paid off when I glanced up to see Otter and several friends in animated conversation heading our way.  In a scene that’s quickly becoming a cool “destination race” tradition, Otter and I congratulated each other (he’d run his first sub-4 marathon in nearly a year), immortalized the moment and made plans to meet the next day.  Which we did.  Given that we’ll both be running NYC in three weeks, I’ll be scanning the crowds in Central Park in the hopes of keeping this tradition alive.

Mike Sohaskey and Herzel celebrating Berlin Marathon finish

“Prost!” to a race well run, with fellow traveling runner (and Bay Area native) Herzel

At that moment, sunning myself lazily on the lawn of the Reichstag amidst a rainbow of nationalities and with unfamiliar languages swirling around me, I heard JFK’s decidedly non-Germanic accent in my head: Ich bin ein Berliner.  At that moment, beaming runners from North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania all proudly sported the same finisher’s medal hanging from the same black, red and gold ribbon around their necks.  And at that moment, we were all Berliners.

Because while soccer may claim to be the world game, running is the world sport.  Unlike other competitions, where our team plays your team and our fans sit across the stadium from your fans, running brings everyone together at the same time and on the same playing field.  Nothing says “Maybe we CAN all get along” like 56,000 athletes from 130 countries all moving in the same direction toward a common goal, like sneaker-clad iron filings toward a magnet.  More than anything else, this is what the World Marathon Major is all about.  Berlin 2014 showcased the spirit and camaraderie of the international running community, and I was both psyched and privileged to be a middle-of-the-pack part of that.

And speaking of international events, it’s time I started tapering for New York…

Berlin Marathon 2014 medal

BOTTOM LINE: “Flat and fast” is the phrase most often used to describe the Berlin Marathon, and I’d agree with the first part of that – the course is flat for everyone. And in all fairness, its obscene flatness does make it faster than just about any other marathon course out there – even the Chicago Marathon has “Mount Roosevelt” lying in wait at mile 26.  But Berlin’s fastness is deceptive because as flat as the course is, unless you’re an elite it’s also among the most crowded courses you’ll ever run (stay tuned for NYC in three weeks).  And it’s crowded for pretty much the entire 26.2 miles, with Berlin’s narrow streets allowing for only occasional stretches of comfortably uncongested running.

So race day felt a bit like an extended cattle drive, and race production – especially for a world marathon major – was surprisingly subpar (see below).  But if you’re a hardcore runner, it’s doubtful anything I write will discourage you from running Berlin.  In some ways it feels as though the organizers are saying, “Hey, if you want to go run a DIFFERENT world marathon major, be our guest.”  They know they have a captive audience of rabid runners with bucket lists written in blood, and that runners looking to run all six majors will dutifully line up each year to throw their name into the Berlin lottery hat.

And honestly, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from running Berlin, if for no other reason than to experience and immerse yourself in one of the world’s most historically and culturally amazing cities.  Despite my wanting to curl up and sleep under it by that point, running through the Brandenburg Gate at mile 26 was an indescribable thrill, and moments like that are a major reason I love running the world.  I just wish the organizers would listen to runner feedback, or that the other world marathon majors would implore Berlin to step up its game.  Because as epic a race weekend as this was, a few tweaks could have made it so much better.

PRODUCTION: I can only imagine how challenging it must be, and how much choreography and security must be involved, to organize and stage a marathon the size and gravitas of Berlin.  With that in mind I tip my cap to the organizers, since to a person every runner I spoke with had an overall positive experience.

That said, race production is where Berlin fell short on many levels.  In comparison to the only other marathon major I’ve run so far, Chicago 2012, Berlin was a disappointing second.  And these aren’t the isolated grievances of one bitter runner who did-but-didn’t qualify for Boston – many if not all of these issues were echoed by other runners:

  • The expo was TOO FREAKING HUGE, and was more like a trade show than a race expo.  It’s a pretty clear indication your expo is out of control when it expands to fill several hangars of a former airport.  Unlike U.S. race expos there were scarcely any free samples to be had… every item seemingly carried a price tag, and even the normally generous PowerBar peeps were carefully guarding their electrolyte drink station.  What’s more, the expo was a harbinger of things to come on race day as I felt inexorably herded in different directions, first to access each separate hangar, then to enter the bib pickup area, then to exit the bib pickup area, then to traverse (how convenient!) the Adidas storefront hawking official race merchandise, and finally toward the ausgang (exit).
  • And on the topic of the Adidas storefront, as absurd as it sounds in 2014, Berlin race registration includes NO race t-shirt – though official race shirts were available at the expo for the {ahem} bargain price of 30€ (= $39).  Do a quick calculation, and you can estimate how much money the organizers must be a) saving by not providing t-shirts, and b) raking in by charging for shirts.
  • Re: the pre-race setup, I arrived one hour beforehand and waited in line for ~40 minutes to use one of the ten port-o-lets that were serving literally hundreds of anxious runners.  This was horrific planning by the organizers, and was by far the most stressful part of race weekend – even the much smaller (and more well-organized) California International Marathon, which I ran in 2011, had roughly 10x the number of units as Berlin.  Not only that, but when I finally reached the front of the line my port-o-let was out of toilet paper.  And to top off my pre-race cortisol levels, I completed my harried pit stop two minutes before my wave was scheduled to depart, and had to hurriedly jog another ¼-mile (at least) to reach the start line where I barely arrived in time to join the corral departing in the wave after mine.  Damn, I’m getting stressed out all over again just writing this.
  • Luckily I took advantage of only one aid station on the entire course, so I don’t have much to report about their frequency or offerings.  But I couldn’t avoid noticing that the organizers chose plastic rather than paper cups – an unfortunate choice since plastic cups ended up bouncing underfoot at every aid station, as runners were forced to expend energy sidestepping carefully to avoid getting their foot caught in one.  Note to organizers: next year, when your supplier asks “paper or plastic?”, do the right thing and answer “PAPER”.
  • The post-race spread was abysmal, and in fact I walked what felt like several hundred yards through the finish chute before even reaching the first water station (at which point I was shunted to another table, since that water was only for medical emergencies).  And with apologies to Erdinger, their sponsorship was a big ol’ letdown.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that, after running a world marathon major in Germany’s largest city, the word “free” should fall before rather than after the word “alcohol”.  Chicago after all had free-flowing real beer (thanks, Goose Island!).  Alcohol-free beer after the Berlin Marathon felt like having your picture taken with a cardboard Mickey Mouse cut-out at the Walt Disney World Marathon.
  • Food-wise, the only offerings I could see were apples and bananas, with no obvious source of protein – ironic, considering that even the 6K fun run Katie had run the day before had provided its scarcely winded finishers with both regular and chocolate milk.  Later I realized that the not-so-goodie bag handed out by volunteers in the finish chute (why do I need another goodie bag?) contained a PowerBar wafer product, which like so many of their products over the years held true to the PowerBar ethic of falling just this side of “Soylent” on the palatability scale.  Accordingly, I gave up after two nibbles.

FINAL STATS:
September 28, 2014
26.44 miles in Berlin, Germany (continent 3 of 7, World Marathon Major 2 of 6)
Finish time & pace: 3:24:14 (first time running the Berlin Marathon), 7:44/mile
Finish place: 4,044 overall, 921/4,218 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 29,021 (22,226 men, 6,795 women)
Race weather: clear and calm (starting temp 52°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 485ft ascent, 488ft descent

Berlin splits

My tightest marathon splits to date: 1:42:00 for the first half, 1:42:14 for the second half

A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
– William Shedd

Continued from Act 1:

The 14th Antarctica Marathon (Saturday, March 30)
Race morning arrived in the usual manner, with Andrew’s comforting voice reminding us over the Vavilov‘s PA that it was time to run a marathon on the coldest, highest, driest, darkest and windiest continent on Earth.  Hooray!  Fortunately the day promised to be optimal (in the Antarctica sense of the word), with temperatures hovering around a balmy -5°C (23°F).  More importantly though, wind speed was a near-negligible 12 knots (14 mph), assuaging my concerns that I’d be stumbling 13.1 miles through an unforgiving headwind (and the other 13.1 with a brisk tailwind).

I inventoried my gear one last time.  All race-day nutrients – energy bars, gels, etc. – had to be removed from their original packaging and all paper wrappers left on the ship, in accordance with the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.  This wasn’t a problem, since for convenience sake I always liquify my race-day nutrition in my water bottle.  Per Thom’s instructions I’d prepared two such bottles, which I planned to leave at the start/finish area.

In a dining hall alive with the clatter of breakfast dishes and the buzz of pre-race jitters, I waited as long as possible to eat my usual stomach-sanctioned meal of granola and peanut butter, which I’d brought with me from California.  Several steps stood between us and the starting gun – the donning of the tomato-red Wet Skins that would keep us warm and dry, the loading of the zodiacs, the short ride to King George Island, the process of funneling everyone from zodiac to start line – and with 4+ hours of running ahead of me, I wanted to maximize the nutritional payback of my carefully choreographed breakfast.

blue iceberg

The first zodiacs launched at 7:15am, with 12 passengers per zodiac.  After a short 5-minute ride under gray skies and across smooth water, we beached near Bellingshausen Station and stepped ashore for the first time in 3½ days.  Two Gentoo penguins splished and splashed in the water nearby.  Stepping out of my Wet Suit, I could still feel the ground swaying underfoot as I tried to coax out my land legs.  Moreover, the residual effects of the Transderm patch that I’d removed 36 hours earlier continued to wreak havoc on my short-range vision.  Discomforting as my still-dilated pupils were, I was confident they wouldn’t upset my ability to run in a straight line for several hours.

How does a warm-weather Californian train for a marathon in Antarctica?  Much as I hate to divulge trade secrets, here it is: I bought stuff.  More specifically, windproof stuff.  Compared to my typical all-season California running attire, I felt like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in my three upper-body layers (REI wool base layer, synthetic Under Armour mid-layer, Columbia wind- and waterproof outer jacket) and two lower-body layers (REI fleece-lined tights, Pearl Izumi lightweight running pants), plus balaclava that I was hoping to shed early in the race.

Talk about happy feet… Rich’s own have carried him through over 300 marathons

Katie – who as a spectator would be doubling as a volunteer – was even more polar-ready, given that she’d be standing around for an indeterminate amount of time.  She wisely wore her Wet Suit and rubber boots at all times, together with her Arctic Parka from The North Face that was so down-filled and poofy, I entertained the thought of hanging bricks from her sleeves so she wouldn’t blow away.

As Thom announced two minutes to start, the One Ocean crew hurriedly set up plastic buckets lined with green trash bags to serve as makeshift latrines.  Fortunately I’d been able to attend to my most pressing needs on the ship, and after a lightning-quick stop at the latrine I jogged to the start line.  For many of the bundled-up runners gathered beneath it, the unassuming white canvas banner represented the culmination of a lifetime of marathon-inspired blood, sweat and tears (with more to come).  For others of us, this would be continent #2.  And for two runners, this would be their first marathon on any continent.

This is how I envision an Antarctica Walmart on Black Friday (footage courtesy of Anita Allen of Marathon Tours):

Regardless of what road you’d taken to get there, Thom’s starting-gun cry of “GO!” triggered a collective release of whole-body tension, as the slow-moving stampede of runners – including members of the Russian and Uruguayan bases – followed the leaders along the dirt and up the initial ascent.  And almost immediately, I dismissed all thoughts of a sub-4:00 finish.  The first mile (which, given the course layout, we would be running six times) was an absolute mess.  This was trail running at its damnedest.  The deep, hardened ruts carved by the Bellingshausen ATVs, combined with the sporadic patches of ice, brought to mind the frozen-over ribcage of a recently excavated T. Rex.

Footing in places was unpredictable at best.  Trail running typically demands that your eyes constantly scan the ground two steps ahead for your next foothold.  But on King George Island, it also became necessary to anticipate several steps beyond that, as the course at several points became an exercise in “Choose Your Own Adventure”: foot-deep powdered snow to your left, slushy ice straight ahead or a seemingly frozen-over stretch to your right.  The demand for constant vigilance gradually took a mental and physical toll and led to lapses in attention, resulting in either (best-case scenario) choosing the more difficult and treacherous route, or (worst-case scenario) a hard and jarring fall on slick rocky terrain.

Mike Sohaskey running Antarctica Marathon 2013

Just a boy and his balaclava, out for a springtime jog

And fall people did: this edition of the Antarctica Marathon might appropriately have been subtitled “There Will Be Blood”.  Many runners fell multiple times, sustaining scrapes and bruises of varying severity.  Two women broke their falls with their faces, yet soldiered on with impressive battle wounds that testified to their toughness.  And post-race rumors circulated that one runner had even suffered broken ribs (yes, plural).  I was among the fortunate few to speak of “fall” rather than “falls” – I got too aggressive and lost my footing during my second loop of that first out-and-back, landing on my backside and bouncing right back up again.  No blood, no foul.  But in homage to March Madness going on back in the states, I adopted a mantra of “survive and advance” that served me well at all remaining icy stretches.

Although the prevailing concern had been shoe-sucking stretches of gooey mud, as it turned out postponing the trip until late March (i.e. closer to winter) meant that most of the would-be muddy bits were now iced over.  Every once in a while I’d hit a slushy patch and submerge my foot, though fortunately wet feet never became a concern.  I think by mile 4, most runners – myself included – gladly would have swapped the ice we had for the mud we didn’t.

Whether it was due to the half-week spent on the ship, or my racing in lower-body layers for the first time ever, I could quickly tell that on this day my legs wouldn’t be their trail-running best.  Fortunately I wouldn’t need them to be – this wasn’t the Chicago Marathon, and the only PR to come out of this day would be Thom’s post-race press release.  I’d run (and specifically trained) on tired legs many times before… the question wasn’t whether I’d finish, it was whether I’d do so before the other 40-something-year-old males on the course.

Alan&Inez

(Top) Overall winner Alan Nawoj leads the way up another icy hill (photo credit Anita Allen);
(Bottom) Third-place finisher & women’s champ Inez Haagen appropriately sports bib #1

Whereas the first 4+ mile stretch out to the Uruguayan base and back was fairly brutal (though with a striking glacier view to distract the mind), the second out-and-back was much more manageable.  After a mile or so of smooth footing on dirt, a series of undulating hills led past the Chilean base and out to the second turnaround near the Chinese base, where yoga guru Liz sat waiting to cheer us on.  Her enthusiasm was a welcome pick-me-up.

With one iteration of the course under my belt, I shed my balaclava and passed through the start/finish area to a chorus of cheers from the most amazing volunteer contingent on the continent.  And as soon as I began my second ascent of that first nasty hill, the assorted aches and pains that had nagged me throughout the first nine miles faded – the lifelessness in my legs, the tightness in my left adductor, the overstretching of my arch that comes and goes in my Merrell Mix Masters.  Even the Patch-induced fog around my head lifted… maybe I’d succeeded in sweating out the residual scopolamine.  In any case, it all vanished.  And finally I was back to doing what I do – I was running.  On rugged trails, and up and down hills.  In one of the most mythical and breathtaking places on the planet.  Life was good.

Gentoo-men, start your engines!  Footage with narration by Martin Evans on the marathon course (thanks, Martin!):

Not that I was running every step with my arms raised and fists pumped.  To be sure, I was enjoying and appreciating the scenery of the course, stopping briefly to breathe in the views and snap a few photos along the first two out-and-backs.  But other runners did a much better job of flipping their switch to carpe diem mode.  Luckily the course layout was motivating for the frequent opportunities it afforded me to see my fellow runners.  Because everyone seemed to be having (cue Dirty Dancing soundtrack) the time of their lives – even the lead runners greeted passing runners with a smile and a wave.  Although in passing, I did overhear one of several marathoners with a cold-weather Canadian pedigree admit, “I wish I could fast-forward the next three hours.”

Some fatigued runners inevitably narrowed their focus later in the race to conserve energy; after the 17-mile mark, for example, I acknowledged and encouraged everyone I passed with the same silent thumbs-up.  But a surprising number of runners I passed during my final out-and-backs still looked like kids riding a roller coaster for the first time – eyes wide, arms raised, huge grins seemingly painted Joker-style across their faces (Why so serious?, their body language seemed to ask).  I admired and respected their live-in-the-moment mindset, in part because I couldn’t relate to it.  The faster I run a race the more I enjoy it, with few exceptions (I can’t think of one right now).  My overall enjoyment of a race is, in large part, a function of how long it takes me to get to the finish line.  I realize expectations change, often in ways we can’t predict, and I know it won’t always be this way… but for now it is.  I can live with that.

We interrupt this running program for some polar humor

Regardless of continent, no trail race would feel official without my taking a wrong turn.  Despite Thom’s clear warnings to stay watchful for arrow signs and not blindly follow the person ahead of us, I unwittingly slipped into auto-pilot mode during mile 14 and blindly followed the person ahead of me.  Ginger, who had recently passed me and was running a strong race, blew by the Chilean airstrip and had almost reached the base itself before realizing that neither the Chilean airstrip nor that large red building on her left was part of the course.  I’d just reached the airstrip when she turned to look over her shoulder, and I gestured in sweeping windmill-type motions for her to turn around.  Fortunately she did, and as I reversed course I saw yet another runner on auto-pilot heading our way.  Retracing my steps to the suspect turn, I continued on my way and within minutes was passed by Ginger again, this time for good.

And that’s how I turned this into my own personal 26.5-mile Antarctica Ultramarathon.  And yes, there was a runner named Ginger on Gilligan’s ship, as well as at least one (assistant) professor.

By my third time around the course the temperature had begun to drop, and the icy uphill stretches along miles 18 and 19 had refrozen and become even trickier to negotiate.  This third out-and-back to the Uruguayan base was the low point of my race, as reflected by the uninspired 13:07 it took me to complete mile 19.  Did you run in Crocs?, I could hear the peanut gallery back home asking.

Official "aid station" for Antarctica Marathon 2013

The official Last Marathon aid station

Once I passed through the start/finish area for the final time and approached mile 22, I could see – check that, feel – the light at the end of this tunnel.  As the course approached its final uphill at mile 24.5, I was able to push the pace enough to pass two runners (was he in my age group?) who looked – as I had felt 5 miles earlier – to be running out of gas.  Surging down the final stretch past the Russian base, I felt that unmistakable sensation of “This is why I run” wash over me as Katie and her fantastic fellow supporters cheered me across the finish line in a time of 4:29:50.

The raw, electric thrill of accomplishment overwhelmed me as I embraced Katie and then my fellow Mike from California, with whom I’d trained in Buenos Aires and who had run an inspired race, finishing fifth overall in a time of 4:20:26.  One of the younger volunteers handed me a medal still folded up in its plastic bag, which was perfectly fine with me – by that point he could have handed me a lump of frozen penguin guano and I would have thanked him giddily.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Antarctica Marathon 2013

Lookin’ for someone to hug after just missing a Boston qualifier by a mere 1:14:50

After hanging around the finish area to bask in the moment, take a few photos and cheer across the next two finishers, Thom encouraged me to change out of my wet running gear and into dry clothes.  And as soon as I pulled on a dry base layer, I could feel my body temperature start to drop.  My shiver reflex kicked in, and the feeling drained from my fingers and toes as I hurried to don my cold-weather gear.  Ewan of the One Ocean crew sprang into action, jamming hand warmers into my gloves, zipping me into my parka and Wet Suit (since my fingers had lost all dexterity), and directing Katie and me to a waiting zodiac.  As I’d later learn, Thom and the One Ocean staff were carefully monitoring all finishers after marathon winner Alan and runner-up Billy each ended up in the Russian medical tent with hypothermia.

Whether it was the warm glow of accomplishment, or more likely the dry clothes and hand warmers, by the time the zodiac reached the ship my body temperature had self-regulated.  Maybe, as I’ve referenced before, I really am chasing the endorphin dragon.  But if I could just bottle the pride and elation that gripped me as I crossed that finish line….

Instead, I settled for five blissful minutes in the Vavilov sauna, followed by a hot shower that, if it didn’t quite bring me back to life, at least made me feel a lot less undead.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at finish line of Antarctica Marathon 2013

Admittedly I was too euphoric to check, but I’m pretty sure that’s Katie inside that Antarctic sumo suit
(photo credit Anita Allen)

The Vavilov continued its spiritual rebirth as more and more runners returned with stories to tell, memories to share, and wounds to heal.  Some of these wounds would be psychological, as with the dozen or so runners who found themselves unable to complete the marathon and were credited with the half marathon instead.  And 78-year-old Wes, appropriately fearful of falling, walked off the course for the first time in his 201 marathons.  Runners – particularly runners willing to travel to the end of the earth – are understandably a proud bunch, but hopefully all bruised egos, like their physical counterparts, will heal with time.

When the dust settled, 60 of the 72 runners who started the marathon, finished.  This may sound harsh or arrogant, though that’s not my intent – but the truth is, there’s a lot to be said for a race that not everyone finishes.  Inextricably wrapped up in its unsurpassed beauty is the harsh reality that Antarctica is a brutal, unforgiving backdrop for any activity, much less a marathon.  You can admire and respect it from afar, you can agree to its singular demands, you can formulate the best-laid plan to overcome it.  But at the end of the day you don’t choose this race, it chooses you.

Joao’s prediction had been correct, of course; with the race in our stern-view mirror, the mood aboard the Vavilov lightened considerably.  But the revival wouldn’t be immediate, and the bar/lounge would masquerade as a quiet zone for one more evening while the rest of the ship surrendered itself to the inexorable force of post-marathon exhaustion.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 course elevation profile

Even without the icy patches, the undulating course would have left a lasting impression

To the victors go the handshakes: BBQ and awards ceremony (Sunday, March 31)
Official results weren’t immediately posted, so as Sunday afternoon rolled around I wasn’t sure where I’d finished overall or whether I’d placed in my age group.  I knew the top five finishers, but beyond that I was in the dark as to who finished where, much less how old anyone was.  I knew that Winter, who’d finished shortly after me, was 14 years old, but that was pretty much the extent of what I knew.

So I was looking forward to the world’s frostiest BBQ and awards ceremony that afternoon on the ship’s third deck.  The food choices – who can say no to macaroni and cheese? – were excellent, the drinks were on ice (seriously, they were on ice), and after lunch had been served Thom stepped to the microphone to present the awards.  Rather than having a prepared list of winners, he seemed to collate the overall results in his head on the fly, and there were long pauses – and the occasional incorrect winner announced – as he arranged each set of age group winners in his head before making the call.  Standing on that deck, I was glad I’d invested in a kick-ass parka.  Thanks, Patagonia.

Mike Sohaskey, winner of M(40-49) division for Antarctica Marathon 2013

Thom (center) congratulates me and Maarten Vroom (great running surname!) on winning the men’s 40-49 division

Alan Nawoj (33) from Boston was the overall marathon winner in an astonishing time of 3:29:56.  Billy Nel (27) from Australia finished second with his own crazy-fast time of 3:37:48.  And Inez Haagen (49) from the Netherlands, the first women’s finisher who has now won five marathons on five continents, rounded out the sub-4:00 finishers (and won the “non-hypothermic finishers” subdivision) with an impressive 3:41:52.  Amazingly, Inez accomplished this mind-boggling feat at age 49, a number I had to read three or four times on the overall results page and which I still don’t actually believe.  Among the runners, I particularly enjoyed watching her and Alan as we passed along the course – each has a smooth, flowing stride that even gravel-strewn patches of black ice couldn’t suppress.

Winter ran a strong race of her own, crossing the finish line in 4:49:45 and seizing the title of youngest runner to complete a marathon on the White Continent.  As such, she remains on track to conquer her larger goal of becoming the youngest runner to finish a marathon on all seven continents before she turns 15 next year.  And more importantly, she’ll raise a whole lot of money for prostate cancer research while doing it.

Despite finishing a solid hour (actually 00:59:54) behind Alan, I managed to win the men’s 40-49 age group in 4:29:50.  In fact, all three Mikes on the roster – me, Mike Hess (34) and Mike Ahrens (62) – won our age group.  ‘Tis a powerful and athletic name, that one.  As their name was called, each winner stepped to the front to receive their award: a handshake from and photo op with Thom.  This was, needless to say, the source of some playfully snide commentary from several age group winners, who’d clearly been hoping for something more, well, medal-y.

Thom with the top 3 women finishers: (left to right) Ginger, Winter and Inez

The awards ceremony culminated with the presentation of Seven Continents Club medals to those 18 marathoners and half-marathoners for whom Antarctica had been their 7th racing continent.  That was, fittingly, one proud and beaming group.  Like the Antarctica Marathon itself, the Seven Continents Club was Thom’s brainchild.  As a runner I’d known of the Club for some time, but only recently did I become truly cognizant of its existence.  My own motivation for wanting to race in Antarctica was my twin desire to (a) visit Antarctica, and (b) race in every compelling locale we visit.  The Seven Continents Club provides the appealing opportunity to race in places we’re already inclined to visit, as well as in some intriguing, out-of-the-way settings we might not otherwise consider.  I can definitely envision myself as a member of the Club someday.

The Last Great Continent (Sun – Tues, March 31 – April 2)
Once the marathon ended and the Vavilov left King George Island behind, our collective stress melted away – and for once, Antarctic thawing was a good thing.  Wes’s sweatshirt spoke for nearly everyone with its proclamation of “GOOD-BYE TENSION, HELLO PENSION”.  People animatedly recapped their race day from start to finish and swapped stories from the course.  Runner-up Billy claimed the marathon “makes Comrades look like a baby,” a comment quickly dismissed by Comrades veterans Rory and Billy’s father Pieter.  Jeff from Manhattan Beach summarized his thoughts succinctly, saying he felt “like I was beaten with a stick.”  Susan from Nova Scotia proudly labeled it her “best personal worst ever.”  And still others compared (and re-bandaged) open wounds.

For the remainder of our trip, we’d have the opportunity to stash our running shoes and immerse ourselves in Antarctica.  And for those who have yet to visit, the best description I can manage is “nature porn.” Every stark, pristine landscape looks as though it were professionally airbrushed for maximal effect – visual features, textures and lighting coalesce in seemingly unreal ways. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart might just as easily have been a naturalist talking about the Antarctic wilderness when he wrote, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”

Fournier Bay

Over the next three days we would:

  • witness unique, dramatically lit landscapes – deep blue icebergs framed against a backdrop of solid gray skies and unblemished white peaks – that looked more like Superman’s home planet of Krypton than unspoiled nature.  Staring up from the quiet of our floating zodiac at the exquisitely oriented layers of ice and snow, it was mind-boggling to think these layers had been accumulating, building to their present-day dimensions, unperturbed for… ever?  Plus or minus a few thousand years.
  • visit Gentoo penguin rookeries (and sighted Adelie and Chinstrap penguins) in Mikkelsen Harbor and on Cuverville Island.  Like most of the group I was fascinated by these goofy-looking, -sounding and -acting birds, many of whom passed their days conserving energy while waiting – in a race against time – for their swimming feathers to replace their down covering.
  • experience some of the most awe-inspiring moments of our lives in Neko Harbour and Fournier Bay, courtesy of breaching minke whales and several intimate encounters with humpback whales.  The humpbacks curiously chose to stay and socialize with our kayaks and zodiacs, either of which the whales easily could have flipped had they been of the mind to do so.  To appreciate the combination of power, grace and empathy that the humpback embodies, check out the video below that I filmed from our zodiac.
  • get up-close and personal with Weddell seals, Antarctic fur seals, crabeater seals, and even a leopard (penguin-munching) seal.  They may not get the attention afforded their whale and penguin brethren, but the Antarctic seals never ceased to amaze and amuse.
  • hear Assistant Expedition Leader Mark – check that, Maahk – entertain and fire up his audience with his account of how an encounter with a humpback whale – and looking the gentle creature right in the eye – changed his life.  Mark was like a man possessed as he told his story: he was animated, he was jazzed, he was pumped, and you couldn’t help but be inspired by his energy and sense of purpose.

Antarctica is a land so completely devoid of artificial noise – no distant voices, no traffic, no machinery, no hum of electric power lines – that you soon realize: every sound out here matters.  And it’s worth your time to listen.  No static, no background noise, only nature as it has been for thousands of years.  What you see is what you get, and if you don’t like what you see… well, Antarctica doesn’t care.  And it’s not changing for anyone.

When I say “Antarctica,” chances are you think “cold.”  And yes, admittedly it’s cold down here.  But if you’re willing to close your mouth, open your mind and embrace your insignificance, then air temperature won’t be your lasting memory of this place.  Because that’s what this continent asks of its guests: feel free to keep your muddy boots on, but leave your first-world problems at the door.  In subtle, sublime ways that extend beyond the forced reality of the Drake Passage, Antarctica is a land of shifting perspectives.

The many faces of penguins_MS

The many faces of penguins (clockwise from upper left): fat and contemplative, fat and curious, fat and proud, fat and frenzied

On the evening of our final full day in Antarctica, John Bingham hosted a live auction to benefit Oceanites, a non-profit science and educational foundation that collects data for the Antarctic Site Inventory.  Oceanites recently lost their National Science Foundation funding and one-third of their total funding when the Sequester kicked in.  All proceeds from our auction would go to benefit Oceanites, and runners answered the call with generous and in some cases above-and-beyond contributions.  John started fast at a decidedly un-penguin-like pace, kicked it into gear – “I told ’em I could have us out of here in 30 minutes!” – and in no time flat had found homes for mile markers 1, 13 and 26; the start/finish line banner; a “one-of-a-kind” (turns out there were two) nautical chart of our voyage; an author-autographed biography of Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right-hand man; and the opportunity to present the wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA on the final morning of our journey.

I took advantage of the silent part of the auction to score mile marker 20, a nice round number that to me signifies a key milestone in every marathon effort.

John Bingham & Mike Sohaskey at Antarctica Marathon auction for Oceanites

(Left) Auctioneer John Bingham raises money for Oceanites as Jenny Hadfield tracks the results (photo credit Maarten Vroom); (Right) The closest I’d come to taking home a penguin

Queasy come, queasy go (Wed – Fri, April 3 – 5)
During the auction and dinner that evening, the Drake Passage flexed its muscles once again as we bid the White Continent goodbye and set our sights once again on Ushuaia.  Quickly picking up where it had left off, the Drake rocked the ship with renewed ferocity – silverware clattered to the floor in the kitchen, diners had to side-step broken glass, occupied chairs slid several feet across the dining hall floor (much to the horror of the adults and the delight of the kids), and before dessert was served, half of those seated at our table had excused themselves to go lie down.

By 10:00pm the Vavilov resembled an abandoned ghost ship as people hunkered down in their cabins to ride out the “Drake Shake.”

Looking to preserve our vision during the return voyage, Katie and I both chose to forego the Transderm patch in favor of Dramamine, which worked well for me at a dose of one pill every 12 hours.  No drowsiness, no blurred vision and no seasickness.  Howl as it might outside the portholes in our cabin, the Drake would have to look elsewhere for easy prey.

Mike Sohaskey, Rory Steyn & Katie Ho on Vavilov in Antarctica

Coming together with like-minded folks like Rory, Nelson Mandela’s former chief of security and a 12-time Comrades Marathon finisher, was a highlight of the trip

But life on the Vavilov those two days was anything but comfortable.  As near-hurricane force winds buffeted the ship, the theater that played out from our front-row seats on the bridge could well have been Mother Nature’s production of “The Sound and the Fury.”  And again I felt very, very small.  Credit to the One Ocean staff, they tried to keep our minds occupied… but even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, it’s hard to keep your head in the game when the world is constantly shifting beneath your feet.  With the ship rising and falling unpredictably I felt like a human accordion: tall and stretched-out one second, short and compact the next.

But even the Drake couldn’t stifle all productivity.  Fortunately I had the opportunity during this time to sit and talk shop for a few minutes with Jenny Hadfield.  And I’m glad I did – her professional voice of experience was graciously shared and greatly appreciated.  I had questions about writing and blogging, and she shared her own story of how she’d gotten started in the exercise physiology field and had gradually transitioned to a now-successful writing career (her popular advice column “Ask Coach Jenny” offers training tips and can be found on the Runner’s World website).  She’s not only a terrific professional resource but also, like nearly everyone I met on the Vavilov, a genuine and thoughtful person.

We were all urged to submit our ten best Antarctica photos, and that evening Nate the great photographer of the One Ocean staff presented a slideshow he’d compiled (in record time) from our selected images.  Complete with its own soundtrack, the slideshow was a tour de force that alternately had the audience laughing, cheering, ooh-ing and aah-ing.  Best of all, the One Ocean staff provided each passenger with a USB jump drive containing – among other info – the slideshow, daily newsletters, staff bios, nautical briefing logs and spreadsheet of wildlife sightings from the previous ten days.  I probably should have saved myself (and you) a lot of time by just posting all the data from that jump drive in place of this recap.

They may seem bumbly fumbly stumbly on land, but… proceed to perceive a pleasing pack of porpoising penguins:

It’s been ice to meet you (Fri – Sat, April 5 – 6)
Our voyage culminated that evening with the Captain’s Dinner – salmon, hooray! – in which the Captain of the Vavilov was appropriately recognized by all and presented with a marathon finisher’s medal by Thom.  Throughout the meal glasses were raised, gratitude was expressed, egos were stroked and the microphone rarely sat silent.  Thom invited Winter to say a few words and she acquitted herself well, reminding us about Team Winter and urging everyone to commit their running to a cause important to them.

After dinner we set about trying to repack our once-efficiently crammed bags, a task that felt like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube.  And the next morning we awoke before the sun in Ushuaia, where we began the dual process of reacclimating to civilization and saying our sentimental goodbyes.  Sadly, I realize some folks I’ll never see again, though my cyber-stalking skills will stay sharp.  But the world isn’t big enough to contain these runners’ passion for their sport, and I look forward to (pun intended) running into some of them again in other states, in other countries and on other continents.

Katie Ho leading penguin line in Ushuaia

Katie knows how to pick her running battles (Ushuaia)

Clearly Antarctica was a life-changing whirlwind of firsts and lasts.  And add one more to that list: it was the first time we’d traveled with a group of highly motivated, like-minded athletes… though hopefully it won’t be the last.  Opportunities like this one don’t knock – or in this case email – very often.  My thanks to Thom Gilligan and an anonymous iceberg with paint streaks on it floating somewhere in the Southern Ocean.

Eventually, 38 hours after last waking up on the Vavilov – and following a 3-hour delay in Ushuaia, 3½-hour flight to Buenos Aires, 4½-hour layover in Buenos Aires, 11-hour flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, 3½-hour layover in DFW (1½ hours once we cleared customs and security), 4-hour flight to San Francisco, one-hour train ride to downtown Berkeley and one-mile walk with our bags slung over our shoulders or trailing behind us – we found ourselves standing, exhausted but triumphant, on the doorstep where we’d started Mike and Katie’s excellent adventure 17 days earlier.  Climbing the short flight of stairs inside our front door, I dropped my bags on the top step and exhaled for what felt like the first time since Argentina.  Then I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do next.

I went for a run.

The sun rises over Ushuaia and sets on our Antarctica adventure

BOTTOM LINE:  Assuming I’m talking to running enthusiasts here, my summary statement is simple: run the Antarctica Marathon at least once in your life.  Unless of course you’re a compulsive type-A personality (and running attracts them like no other sport) who hates surprises, then you might want to skip this race.

It’s not an inexpensive outing, but that’s hardly surprising… you get what you pay for.

Was it the most challenging race I’ve run?  No, that distinction still belongs to last year’s sunbaked Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K.  But it was certainly challenging enough.  Preparation-wise, it’s important to bear in mind that the Antarctica Marathon is a bona fide trail race, which places it outside many runners’ comfort zone.  Unfortunately, if you want to race on this continent it’s not as though you have a slew of choices – you can’t just opt for the road version of the marathon.  Sensible expectations will go a long way toward optimizing your Antarctica Marathon experience.

PRODUCTION:  Thom and his Marathon Tours crew of Scott, Anita, John and Jenny did a commendable job of orchestrating all aspects of the Antarctica Marathon – from regrouping on the fly after the Great Iceberg Attack of ’13 to their near-flawless race day execution.  I certainly didn’t envy them their pre-race field trip over to King George Island to set up the course, with subfreezing gale-force winds blasting them in the face while they struggled to pound each marker stake through several inches of surface ice.  But set it up they did, and come race day the course was well marked (my own personal detour notwithstanding) and pretty much dead-on accurate at 26.2 ± 0.1 miles.

Other companies have hurried to cash in on the demand from runners seeking to run a marathon at the bottom of the world.  But no other company can boast Thom’s breadth of experience and connections in Antarctica.  At least two companies offer a one-day Antarctica experience in which they fly into King George Island, immediately organize a marathon and then fly out the same day.  To me that would feel like scoring tickets to the Super Bowl, showing up at the stadium and then watching the game on the TVs in the concourse.  Sure you could say you were there… but were you really there?

Apparently my expert editor on all things Antarctica grew tired of penguin pictures

My main critique of the Antarctica race experience would be the post-race awards.  For example, the finisher’s medal should vary from year to year, and should always include the year of the race (or barring that, complementary engraving on the back of the medal that includes name, finish time and year).  There’s no excuse for the fact that the Antarctica Marathon medal has remained the same for at least six straight years now (dating back to the image I found online of the same medal from the 2008 race).  This is particularly true when you’re hosting a group of dedicated, goal-oriented runners, many of them 50 States/Seven Continents Club members for whom race bling is all-important, and deservedly so.

In addition, it would be nice if age-group winners merited distinct medals – for example, a penguin holding up one flipper or two to signify first or second place – to accompany the handshake and photo-op that currently await them. I’d be happy to receive one retroactively.  I feel like these are easily implemented suggestions that would enhance the race experience, even in Antarctica.

UPDATE (15 May 2013): As a runner hell-bent on maintaining forward progress no matter what, I rarely back-pedal… but in this case I’m happy to make an exception.  Yesterday I received in the mail – no doubt delayed in transit because we recently moved – a stylish plaque emblazoned with the Antarctica Marathon logo and engraved to commemorate my first-place finish in the men’s 40-49 age group.  Clearly I had no idea of this impending accolade when I wrote the above sentiment, and I certainly understand why the Marathon Tours crew wouldn’t want to lug 100 race medals plus roughly two dozen plaques down to Antarctica.  And so I stand appreciatively corrected.

Overall, given their professionalism and intimate knowledge of the running community, together with their catalog of compelling international marathons, I look forward to traveling with Thom and his Marathon Tours crew again.

Liz of OOE secures a kayaker, then requests a rowing implement with the order to “Paddle me!”

But in the end, the One Ocean Expeditions staff (and the largely unseen Russian crew members of the Vavilov) were the stars of this show.  Andrew and his 12-person staff did everything in their power to ensure our Antarctica experience met – and in most cases exceeded – expectations.  Without exception, every member of the OOE staff was highly competent, professional, knowledgeable, experienced, entertaining, happy to answer questions and just plain fun to be around.  Granted I haven’t traveled to Antarctica with any other cruise company, but I can recommend OOE without reservation.  Based on conversations with and body language of other passengers, I’m confident the vast majority would echo my thoughts.

As with any successful race, the volunteers were a key element of the Antarctica Marathon.  No doubt I wasn’t the most happy-go-lucky and responsive runner out on the course – and they had to see me six times in my 4½ hours – but Kathy and her crew (Katie, Sharon, Sally, Wayne and company) stood by the start/finish line for the ENTIRE race, and were there to cheer emphatically and shout their support after every out-and-back.  I never dreamed that Katie would willingly – and dare I say happily – stand idly outside in Antarctica for five hours.  Yet there she was, smiling broadly and cheering loudly every time I passed.  Kudos to her solid layering strategery, Arctic Parka and Wet Skin for keeping her toasty and for inspiring that kind of gumption.

Rating the Antarctica Marathon experience based on the race t-shirt feels a bit like rating a 5-star restaurant based on the embroidery of the napkins.  But since I’m clearly not one to cut corners in recapping a race, here goes:  the t-shirt is nice.  Very nice.  And colorful, as long as you’re a fan of baby blue.  It’s a high-quality tech t-shirt with mesh shoulder and side panels.  And if you happen to like the Antarctica Marathon logo emblazoned on the back, then you’re in luck, because the Marathon Tours crew has an assortment of race-related apparel available for purchase in Buenos Aires and on their website.

Antarctica Marathon medal (2013)

For other (more concise) perspectives, check out Jenny Hadfield’s “10 Reasons to Run the Antarctica Marathon” on the Runner’s World website, as well as Winter’s report on “A World Record in Antarctica, and Much More” at Athleta.net.

FINAL STATS:
March 30, 2013
26.5 miles (including an unplanned 0.3-mile detour) on King George Island, Antarctica (continent 2 of 7)
Finish time & pace: 4:29:50 (first time running in Antarctica), 10:10/mile
Finish place: 8/60 overall (73 starters), 1/10 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: penguin-pleasing cold, low winds (starting temps in the low 20s)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,023ft ascent, 2,031ft descent

For a race in which my major concern was NOT doing the splits, these aren’t so awful

Roads?  Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
– Emmett “Doc” Brown, “Back To The Future”

Spyhopping humpback in Fournier Bay, Antarctica (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

(PREFACE: This is not a blog post in the usual sense.  Rather, it’s my attempt to chronicle an amazing adventure in two acts, and to – “demystify” is the wrong word – inspire an appreciation for a remarkable ecosystem that’s much more than an alien land of ice and snow.  For anyone seeking an even more detailed account of the Antarctica Marathon and its history, I’d recommend John Hanc’s book, The Coolest Race on Earth.  And for time-challenged readers who simply want the gist of our journey, I’d recommend skipping all the cumbersome words and sticking to the pictures.  Whatever your preference, thanks for reading!)

More so than any month in recent memory, March was a month of firsts.  Or maybe more accurately, it was a month of lasts.

Cut to the morning of February 26, and the last place I expected to find myself a month later was exactly where I found myself a month later: joining upwards of 100 highly motivated runners – including one celebrated back-of-the-packer with the all-too-appropriate nickname of “The Penguin” – aboard a Russian research vessel headed toward the South Pole to race The Last Marathon on the Last Great Continent.  All under the watchful eye of a leader named Gilligan.

As absurd as a “spontaneous” trip to Antarctica sounds, that’s exactly what this would be.  Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction… and even less likely.

Damn the icebergs, full speed ahead!
Rewind to the morning of February 26, a morning that began like any other: my spring racing plans were gradually taking shape as I contemplated a return to either the L.A. Marathon – one of my 2012 racing highlights – or the Oakland Marathon, site of my half marathon PR (1:34:02) last year.  Also in my sights were one or more upcoming trail races with my favorite local racing outfit, Brazen Racing.

Yep, spring 2013 was falling into place… until the following e-mail message hit my Inbox, and my best-laid plans went out the porthole:

dear Mike,

The ship that we had chartered for the 2013 Antarctica Marathon to depart in a couple of days has been damaged by an iceberg.

We have rescheduled the trip using the sister ship, the Akademik Vavilov which we have chartered many times in the past.

You are currently waitlisted or confirmed in the future for the Antarctica Marathon. Are you interested in confirming space for these new dates in 2013?

[details omitted]

It always is an adventure. Please advise as soon as possible since most of the confirmed passengers have rescheduled for the later dates. We will have a few spots available.

Please contact us immediately if you are interested.

Thom Gilligan
Marathon Tours & Travel

My immediate reaction was probably similar to yours… 101 years after the Titanic kissed the bottom of the ocean, actual operating ships are still colliding with icebergs?  My secondary response, though, was one of adrenalized bewilderment – Antarctica?  On such short notice?  Was this a legitimate option for us?

In short – yes, it was.  Due to the large number of runners vying for a limited number of slots (roughly 100 per year), the Antarctica Marathon typically requires years of advance planning and a lengthy sojourn on the Marathon Tours waitlist.  As referenced in their e-mail, we’d entered the waitlist in mid-2012 and in doing so had confirmed our spot – for 2016.  So we figured to have three more years to plan for this trip.

Take me to your freezer!

Thing is, I hate procrastination, and putting off until tomorrow what I can do today.  Paradoxically, I have a lot of patience – research science and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand.  But Antarctica promised to be the opportunity of a lifetime.  Cliché as it may sound, life really is too short, as we were starkly reminded by this past week’s tragic events in Boston.  Who knows where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing three years from now?

And although I wouldn’t classify myself as a “bucket list” runner, I do have a short list of three marathons that I consider must-do events: Boston, New York City and Antarctica.  What did it matter that neither Katie nor I owned a legitimate cold-weather jacket, or that I’d only run in tights once in my entire life?  At least we wouldn’t need any vaccinations or immunizations for this trip… I’m pretty sure penguin fever is both unpreventable and incurable.

As the nail in the coffin of March normalcy, we found ourselves in a relatively obligation-free time of personal and professional transition (another post for another time).  Thus the awesome realization dawned on us that yeah, March was actually the perfect time for a frigid flight of fancy.  And within two days, we’d committed to join 98 other adventure-seekers on an unanticipated journey to the Last Great Continent.  Thankfully, our voyage was scheduled to last a bit longer than a 3-hour tour.

And so it was that on March 21, after a highly successful raid on the winter clearance racks at our local REI, The North Face and assorted outlets, Katie and I found ourselves on a flight bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina, where our 17-day adventure would begin.  With little time for pre-trip research and little idea of what to expect (other than the obligatory requests to “Bring back a penguin!”), our ignorance was bliss.

So, just sit right back and you’ll read a tale, a tale of a fateful trip….

ARGENTINA (Fri – Tues, March 22 – 26)
Since this is ostensibly a running blog, I’ll limit my thoughts on the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires to the high (and low) points of our 5-day visit – though use of the word “concise” here would be disingenuous:

Overall, we had a lively visit to Argentina’s capital city – which wasn’t a foregone conclusion, given that I have virtually no interest in soccer, tango dancing or huge slabs of beef.  But with its European-inspired architecture, socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, thriving theatre industry and plentiful green spaces, Buenos Aires is a culturally vibrant city and a terrific place to explore on foot.  Fortunately, my sub-fluent yet functional Spanish proved good enough to point us in the right direction and keep us out of trouble.

El Obelisco in Plaza de la República, Buenos Aires (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Good morning, good afternoon and good night in the Plaza de la República:
El Obelisco stands on the site where the Argentine flag was first hoisted in Buenos Aires in 1812

Architecturally, the city is a dynamic and captivating mix of old and new.  Highlights of our bus and walking tour included the ornate mausoleums of La Recoleta Cemetary (where many notable Argentinians including Eva Perón are interred), the politically charged Plaza de Mayo (site of La Casa Rosada, mansion and office of the President of Argentina), and the recently renovated Teatro Colón (famed opera house which Pavarotti once praised for its “perfect” acoustics).  And not surprisingly, images of favorite son Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis, now adorn the city.

For a city of Buenos Aires’ reputation and importance, however, I was disappointed by the state of abject disrepair in which many of its sidewalks find themselves.  In many places it looked as though The Avengers had been filmed in the city and nobody had bothered to clean up the rubble.  With a marathon on the horizon and after several near tweaks, I felt fortunate to get out of Argentina with both ankles intact.

Photo collage of Buenos Aires highlights (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Buenos Aires illustrated (clockwise from upper left): La Casa Rosada, executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina; plaque marking Eva Perón’s tomb in La Recoleta Cemetery; tango demonstration in the Recoleta district; one of the city’s many neglected sidewalks; colorful Caminito street in the neighborhood of La Boca; steel sculpture of Evita on the north facade of the Social Development and Health Ministry; the steel-and-aluminum Floralis Genérica sculpture in Plaza de las Naciones Unidas

As a runner, I was impressed by the number of Porteños (locals) out on the weekend walking, running or cycling through the city’s many bustling parks.  The typical Porteño I saw certainly was not built like someone whose daily diet consists of at least two large servings of beef – I’d guess the average Houstonian weighs roughly the same as 1.5 Porteños.

Speaking of food, the only part of each day I didn’t look forward to were the meals, for instance the vegetarian pizza we ordered for dinner one evening that arrived smothered in ham (I assumed the pig had been an herbivore).  In addition, the extra – and not insignificant – fee that several restaurants charged for “table service,” coupled with their insistence on serving and charging for bottled water despite the potability of the local tap water, amounted to epic scams.

I don’t usually fault cities for their names, but “Buenos Aires” is a conspicuous misnomer.  Granted the city was originally recognized for its “good airs” (or more likely, its “fair winds”) way back in the 16th century, but these days it would be like changing Omaha’s name to Ocean View, Nebraska.  Collectively, the carbon monoxide-induced asphyxiation from urban traffic (particularly the large number of freight trucks headed to and from the port), the secondhand asphyxiation from the local smoking population, and the impenetrable char-grilled asphyxiation from the parrillas (barbecue grills) bordering the Reserva Ecológica where I ran on two occasions, combined to ensure that my lungs never got too comfortable in their pleura.

This was the top Google search result for parrilla, the catch-all name for the city’s popular BBQ grills.

By keeping close tabs on our cameras and backpacks, we were able to depart Buenos Aires with our wallets and all other personal belongings intact.  Unfortunately, not all our fellow runners were so lucky… we heard of at least two cameras being stolen from dinner tables, and one trusting fellow (a fellow Bay Area native, in fact) lost his wallet to an elaborate pickpocket ruse involving fake bird droppings on his head, two helpful bystanders with a towel and an immediately accessible getaway car.

We meet at last (Sunday, March 24)
Our third evening in Buenos Aires featured the Antarctica Welcome Banquet Dinner.  Here we met Thom Gilligan, the founder and leader of Boston-based Marathon Tours, as well as the four members of his race crew who would be joining us in Antarctica: Scott and Anita, respectively the General Manager and Environmental Officer of Marathon Tours, as well as the husband-and-wife team of John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jenny Hadfield, both well-known to the running community for their books and popular columns in Runner’s World and elsewhere.

John opened with some remarks about The Last Marathon, the first organized sporting event in the history of Antarctica.  Thom then said a few words about “Antarcticer” (his Boston-based pronunciation) and introduced our upcoming adventure with the brutally honest classified ad ostensibly posted in the London Times by explorer Ernest Shackleton, in preparation for his 1907 Antarctic expedition:

Ernest Shackleton

Musical accompaniment for the subsequent slideshow included Dido’s “White Flag,” with its (so we all hoped) tongue-in-cheek chorus of “I will go down with this ship.”  After the slideshow, Thom asked for a show of hands as to who had run a sub-3 hour marathon in the past two years.  Three hands went up.  He then asked for a show of hands from runners in the 3:00 to 3:30 range – three or four more hands went up, including mine.  Although I knew this wouldn’t be a typical marathon, in that the 50-59 and 60-69 age groups would be the most competitive, I knew there would still be plenty of representation by the younger demographics, and I was shocked to find myself immediately seeded so highly.

But for me the most striking realization of the evening, which I hadn’t fully appreciated to that point, was the dedication and commitment of every person in that room.  True we were all headed for Antarctica, and that in itself set this room apart.  But whereas running for most people is a hobby, a way to alleviate stress and stay fit, for this group it was a lifestyle, an obsession in the healthiest sense of the word.  And while not everyone in that banquet hall may have possessed the stereotypical “runner’s body” (that’s why it’s a stereotype), I’d be reminded in the coming week that mind really does matter.

Thom

Thom Gilligan introduces an excited group of marathoners to what lies ahead

That evening I met seemingly normal, well-adjusted individuals who had run over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons.  I met several individuals who had raced in all 50 states, on all 7 continents, and yet had never run a trail race.  I met Winter, a 14-year-old Junior Olympian from Oregon who’d formed Team Winter and resolutely set a goal to run a marathon on all seven continents in support of prostate cancer awareness, after her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2008 and passed away less than a year later.  I met Wes, a 78-year-old lifelong Purdue Boilermaker who’d run 200 marathons (including 100 in the past decade) and in 23 European countries, and for whom Antarctica would be his 7th continent and final marathon.  I met Rory, a charismatic and “Jo-burg proud” South African who had completed the notoriously grueling Comrades Ultramarathon 12 times.  I met Brendan, a running coach and 50 states/6 continents finisher from Chicago who’d failed in his first bid to complete the Antarctica Marathon three years earlier, and was back to exact his racing revenge.  I met the Canadian duo of 70-year-old Georgine and her son James, and was amused to discovered that she was the runner in the family who had persuaded her hockey-playing son to join her in running the Antarctica half marathon.  And I met many others whose stories I’d hear and whose lives I’d share over the next two weeks.

As nonchalantly as most people would discuss their kids’ soccer game, conversations centered around questions like “How many continents is this for you?” and “Have you run Kilimanjaro yet?”  The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, the Arctic Circle, even Antarctica already in a few cases – my travel companions had left their footprints, literally, on nearly every conceivable destination on the planet.

I had to admit… these were my kind of people.

Destination: Antarctica (Tues – Thurs, March 26 – 28)
Fast-forward 36 hours, and after one more day spent appreciating the many faces of Buenos Aires, we found ourselves on a flight to Ushuaia (pronounced Oos-why-uh by the locals), the southernmost city in the world and the capital of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.  As the plane touched down in Ushuaia, the cheers from the locals onboard and the sight of the woman seated next to me crossing herself suggested our adventure had begun earlier than planned.

Katie and Mike Sohaskey in Ushuaia, Argentina

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and Katie and I feel fine

After a brief layover and stroll around this sleepy port town we boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, the Russian ship (and one-time research vessel) that would – barring an unforeseen iceberg encounter – carry 105 passengers, 41 crew members and 13 expedition staff to our destination across 600 nautical miles and a particularly gnarly stretch of open ocean that we’d soon come to know all too well.

With rainbows and mist-shrouded peaks dominating the landscape, we “threw ropes” (set sail) at around 6:00pm local time on Tuesday and slowly made our way out of the Beagle Channel.  From that point forward, responsibility for our well-being fell squarely into the hands of the 13-member staff of One Ocean Expeditions.

Akademik Sergey Vavilov in Ushuaia port (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

In the Ushuaia port, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov awaits its human cargo

As it turns out, we couldn’t have entrusted our safety and well-being to a more competent, experienced and entertaining group.  As the Managing Director of Canadian-based One Ocean Expeditions, Andrew Prossin would be our solidly-in-charge Expedition Leader whose soothing voice and Canadian sensibilities would greet us first thing every morning with his wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA.  In addition, at each meal he would set our expectations as to weather (always unpredictable), changes to the itinerary and opportunities for wildlife sightings.  His understated cry of “hooray” which punctuated the end of his announcements became a rallying cry for the entire ship.

His One Ocean staff would be an appropriately eclectic collection of three fellow Canadians (Derek, Zoe and Nate); one Australian (Ewan, the kayaking king); a Dane (Louise, our hotel manager); a Welshman-cum-South African-cum-Australian (Mark, passionate whale conservationist and Andrew’s Assistant Expedition Leader); one far-North American (yoga guru Liz, whose “Alaska girls kick ass!” sticker immediately attracted my attention); one Portuguese (all-important mixologist Joao); and chefs Jeremy, John and Mike who, together with pastry chef Elizabeth, embraced and conquered the unenviable task of creatively providing three meals a day, every day, while hundreds of miles from the nearest grocery store or farmer’s market.  Before this trip I’d never eaten, much less looked forward to, daily lunch dessert.

One Ocean Expeditions staff

The One Ocean Expeditions staff included Expedition Leader Andrew (with microphone), Liz, Mark, Ewan, Nate, Zoe and Derek

Katie and I spent the first hour onboard familiarizing ourselves with the ship’s layout and idiosyncracies, including the less-than-romantic bunk beds in our third-deck cabin that prevented me from sitting up straight in either bed.

The next two days belonged to the Drake Passage, the necessary evil of open water between the Beagle Channel and Antarctica that would test every passenger’s sea legs, not to mention their seasickness meds.  We both chose to use the Transderm Scopolamine patch, a nickel-sized prescription patch applied behind the ear that prevents motion sickness for up to three days.  Which it did admirably well, the main drawback being the side effect of dilated pupils that messed up our vision something fierce.  As a result, neither of us felt quite like ourselves during those two days crossing the Drake, as our literal inability to focus prevented productive behaviors such as reading or writing.

This is your brain on scopolamine (left); normal undilated pupil shown on right for comparison 

Unfortunately, all postcards had to be submitted before race day if we wanted them to be postmarked from Antarctica.  And so I found myself seated in the lounge of a wickedly swaying boat with one eye closed, squinting through my open eye Popeye-style as I tried to stabilize both hand and vision long enough to write legible quips about what an awesome time we were having at a destination we hadn’t yet reached.  Lucky family members will no doubt wonder (assuming the cards ever arrive) how many shots of tequila preceded my postcard-ing sessions.

Luckily the One Ocean and Marathon Tours staff had planned other, less cerebrally taxing distractions to pass the time.  Among these, Thom talked about the history of his brainchild, the Antarctica Marathon; John held court and lightened the mood with his entertaining perspective on life as a back-of-the-pack runner; Derek laid down mad knowledge on “Birds of the Southern Ocean”; Liz provided historical context in detailing the ill-fated Scott/Amundsen “Race to the Pole”; and Nate capped the evening with “Marine Superstitions,” after which nobody was caught whistling aboard ship.

Check out this footage of life in the Drake Passage (a.k.a. the “carbo-unloading zone”), filmed through the porthole in our cabin:

By Thursday evening we’d more or less cleared the Drake Passage, crossing the Antarctic Convergence and the 60th parallel south to enter the Southern Ocean. Soon after that we approached the South Shetland Islands and specifically King George Island, site of Saturday’s upcoming race.  At that point even our first whale (fin whale, to be exact) sighting of the trip couldn’t disguise the fact that the natives were getting restless.

As race day approached and hours spent aboard ship accumulated, the restlessness and nervous energy among the passengers continued to build.  The most tangible reflection of this mindset may have been the bar/lounge on the upper deck of the ship, which experienced two sparsely populated evenings as normally relaxed, sociable runners morphed into their water-swilling, teetotalling pre-race alter egos.  Our bartender Joao was perplexed by but resigned to this transformation, which he’d clearly experienced before.  And his voice of experience predicted a significantly more laid-back ambiance once the race was over.  I raised my water bottle in agreement, and in a toast to more carefree days ahead.

Keeping expectations at (Maxwell) bay (Friday, March 29)
With the planet’s southernmost continent within sight at last, the harsh reality of where we were and what we were about to do finally hit home.  Stepping out on the sixth floor deck to gaze upon King George Island – so close and yet so far – I was greeted by the stinging sensation of a million frozen, finely honed razors slicing right through me.  My skin and two lightweight layers were defenseless against the Antarctic wind.  And to think that tomorrow at this time, I’d be running 26.2 miles in this.  Let the mind games begin…

Despite the initial cold shock, the consensus adjective of the day to describe our first encounter with Antarctica was simply “indescribable.”  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case one would have to suffice.

The plan for the day called for Thom and his crew to make their way across Maxwell Bay to King George Island early that morning to set up the race course.  Meanwhile, the rest of us would finally make an excursion off the boat and potentially even stretch our legs on land at some point.  Ah, perchance to dream….  Instead, the Antarctic winds did what the Antarctic winds do, churning up the water and making conditions unsafe to launch the zodiacs (the rigid inflatable boats used to transport people from ship to shore).  It wasn’t until 1:00pm that the wind died down enough to launch the boats and send Thom’s crew (plus ATVs) on their way to King George Island.  Many of us watched as the zodiacs made their not-so-long yet slow voyage across the bay and toward the Russian base at Bellingshausen Station.

Thom and his crew

The zodiacs approach the Russian base on King George Island, on their way to set up the marathon course

This in itself was uplifting news, because again this was Antarctica, where even the seemingly straightforward process of getting off the boat couldn’t be taken for granted.  Still fresh on everyone’s mind was Thom’s unsettling tale of his 2001 Antarctica Marathon expedition, when uncooperative weather had seized the day(s), only to have the passengers seize it right back.  After several days of thwarted attempts to launch the zodiacs in rough waters, a consensus decision had finally been reached that the show must go on, and that the marathon would be run ON. THE. DECK. OF. THE. SHIP.  Apparently one of the passengers that year had been a qualified race distance certifier, and he mapped out a 26.2-mile course that comprised 422 laps around the upper deck.  The race was run over a 24-hour time period, and don’t ask me how each runner kept track of his/her number of laps completed.  Most strategically, the ship had been moored such that the anchor just touched the continent of Antarctica, thereby validating the venue.  Thus went the story of how the 2001 Antarctica Marathon was staged under the most challenging conditions to date, a testament to human fortitude and resolve that exactly nobody on our ship had any interest in repeating.

Speaking of human fortitude… with our plans for an afternoon expedition foiled, everyone gathered in the bar/lounge to watch “Crossing The Ice,” an intimidating/inspiring documentary about two Aussies and one Norwegian who found themselves competing against each other to become the first persons to complete the trek to the South Pole and back unassisted.  I then retreated to the basement gym to, if nothing else, get the blood pumping and stretch my legs before I’d have to use and abuse them the next day.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 pre-race briefing (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

A weary Thom addresses a roomful of restless runners during his pre-race briefing

After dinner – the last supper before the race, which happened to coincide with this being Good Friday – Thom stepped to the microphone for his pre-race briefing looking ruddy and dog-tired from his afternoon excursion.  He informed us that the hilly course would consist of two different out-and-backs that marathoners would run three times, with the start/finish line separating the two.  The first out-and-back would take us past the Russian base, then out to the first turn-around point at the Uruguaryan Artigas Base and back, while the second out-and-back would lead past the Chilean Eduardo Frei Base and out to the turn-around at the Chinese Great Wall Station before retracing its steps.  There would be icy (if not muddy) patches to negotiate that Thom estimated at around 5% of the total course distance.  And based on today’s course conditions, he and his crew would be strictly enforcing the 6-1/2-hour time limit – anything longer and we risked hypothermia.

Google Earth rendering of the Antarctica Marathon 2013 course (credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Google Earth rendering of The Last Marathon course – thanks to Dan, from whom I stole the idea;
my personal detour can be seen leading toward the airstrip near the yellow church
(Click on the map for a larger image)

As we’d suspected, the day had been a rough one for Thom and his crew – John predicted that if we’d had to run the race that day in those conditions, nobody would have finished.  But he concluded the briefing by injecting a shot of humor, warning the room that “Bandits (runners who race without paying an entry fee) will be pulled off the course.”

Back in my cabin I systematically organized my apparel, bottles of Cytomax/GU, Garmin (don’t be silly, of course GPS works in Antarctica!) and thoughts for the day ahead.  And I realized that realistically, I had no idea what to expect.  Cold to be sure, but beyond that I had zero expectations: could I run a sub-4:00 marathon in these conditions?  Probably not, though “probably not” wouldn’t stop me from trying.  Runners are notorious for downplaying expectations – case in point, those ultra-competitive types who qualify for the Boston Marathon and then vow to treat it as a “victory lap”.

But this time, I realized as sleep engulfed my upper bunk – this time I really was out in the cold.

Continued and concluded in Act 2… with an actual race report!