Archive for the ‘Marathons’ Category

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

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

Sometimes, timing is everything.

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

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

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

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

Alas.

Run 3B2G sign at LIttle Rock Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Bridges Marathon course map

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

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

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

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

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

Two Rivers Park Bridge at dawn

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

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

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

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

Santa holding the American flag at 3 Bridges Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

Big Dam Bridge at mile 18 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 12 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 10 turnaround at the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

Halfway arch at 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Running on Big Dam Bridge during 3 Bridges Marathon

Flags a-flyin’ on the Big Dam Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 22 on the Two Rivers Park Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

The home stretch on the Two Rivers Park Bridge

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

That had hurt — literally and figuratively.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Santa Claus at the 3 Bridges Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote from President Clinton's 1993 inaugural address

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

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

Little Rock Central HIgh School

Little Rock Central High School

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

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

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

Finish line selfie at 3 Bridges Marathon

25 down, 25 to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3 Bridges Marathon medal at LIttle Rock State Capitol

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map (Dec 2018)

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Des Moines Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

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

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

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

Downtown skyline seen in Mile 1 of Des Moines Marathon

Downtown skyline seen across the Des Moines River, mile 1

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

Des Moines Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

Polk County Courthouse

Polk County Courthouse

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

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

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

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

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

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

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

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

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

Drake Stadium in mile 12 of the Des Moines Marathon

Drake Stadium, mile 12

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

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

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

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

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

The Drake campus flaunts its flamboyant fall foliage, mile 13

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

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

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

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

Finally! a spectator sign that nails the marathon mindset

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

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

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

Crossing the Raccoon River, mile 18

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

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

Mile 20 banner at the Des Moines Marathon

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

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

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

View of Des Moines skyline across Gray's Lake

View across Gray’s Lake, mile 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes we can! (and yes we did)

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Sam Adams recovery drink at Des Moines Marathon

Sam Adams: the founding father of post-race recovery

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

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

Scenes from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho Des Moines Marathon finish line selfie

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

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

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

Attending Game One of World Series at Fenway Park

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

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

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

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

I-35 Challenge medals

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

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with I-35 Challenge banner

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

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

Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t be disappointed.

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

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

National World War I Museum and Memorial by day

The National World War I Museum and Memorial by day…

… and at sunset

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

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

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

Kansas City Marathon start corrals

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

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

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

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

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

Western Auto sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 20 of Kansas City Marathon

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

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

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

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

Approaching Mill Creek Park, mile 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One down, one to go.

Kansas City Marathon finish line

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

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

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

KC Royals mascot and local celebrity Slugger

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

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

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

Iowa welcome sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Kansas City Marathon medal by Union Station

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

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

Mike Sohaskey by Welcome to Jackson WY sign

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

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

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

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

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

Oxbow Bend - Grand Teton National Park

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Snake River Overlook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, state #21 was underWaY.

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

Ken and I take a sunrise stroll across the start line

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

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

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

Mile 1 Jackson Hole Marathon - National Elk Refuge

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

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

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

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

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

Elk crossing sign at Mile 6 of Jackson Hole Marathon

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

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

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

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

Jeff R at mile 8 of Jackson Hole Marathon

Jeff ignores his knees and powers on, mile 8

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

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

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

View of Grand teton at Mile 14 of Jackson Hole Marathon

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

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

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

Bridge over Snake River at Mile 17 of Jackson Hole Marathon

Bridge over untroubled waters, mile 17

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

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

Tree Transformer seen at Jackson Hole Marathon

Would you have realized this isn’t a tree?

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

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

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

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

Cows as spectators at Jackson Hole Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 20 of Jackson Hole Marathon

Celebrating a Katie sighting, mile 20

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

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

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

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

Hiking Cascade Canyon after Jackson Hole Marathon

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

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

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

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

Finish line of Jackson Hole Marathon

One of the country’s most gorgeous finish lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken S finishing Jackson Hole Marathon

Ken finishes strong with Jenny’s support

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

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

50 States Finisher Grif at Jackson Hole Marathon 2018

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

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

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

Moose sighting in Cascade Creek, Grand Teton National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Susan K at Jackson Hole Marathon finish

Susan and I bask in another shared finish line

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho hiking in Cascade Canyon

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

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

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

Jackson Hole 2018 medal

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey 50 States map

RaceRaves rating:

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

Splits_JHM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey, Katie Ho, Jeff Rohleder & Susan S

Good times with Susan & Jeff in LA

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

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

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

Indiana University entrance

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon finish area around Yellowwood Lake

Finish area around Yellowwood Lake

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Jeff Rohleder at Tecumseh Trail Marathon

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon start area

Almost “go” time in Morgan-Monroe State Forest

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 1

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 3

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 12

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

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 9

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon elevation profile

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 12

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 19

Switchbacking uphill in mile 19

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing Tecumseh Trail Marathon

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

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

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

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

Yellowwood State Forest sign at Tecumseh Trail Marathon

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

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

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

Color me impressed, Indiana.

Mike Sohaskey - Tecumseh Trail Marathon finish line selfie

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

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

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

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon mile 8

Sometimes trail running simply means finding the path of least resistance

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

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

Tecumseh Trail Marathon sweatshirt and medal

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey 50 States map

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

MIke Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Welcome to New Mexico sign

Some states are easier than others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Sands Missile Range sign pre-race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bataan marchers hailed from all 50 states

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

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

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

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

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

White Sands Missile Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March opening ceremony

Laura and Chuck soak in the Opening Ceremony

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March opening ceremonies

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March weighing in of 35-lb packs

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March start line selfie

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

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

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

Who knew our first right turn would be so wrong…

Bataan Memorial Death March race start for Military Heavy Division

Forward, MARCH! Race start for the Military Heavy Division

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

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

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

Chuck Sohaskey running Bataan Memorial Death March

Chuck heads toward the horizon after a brief detour

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 elevation profile

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

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

And I think I saw every mile marker after that.

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

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

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March course route

(Click for a larger version)

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 7

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Bataan Memorial Death March mile 9

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

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

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

Up, up, up we went.

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

Up, up, up.

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

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 11

Pacing off my CU Buffs buddies in mile 11

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

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

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

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

Onward and downward!

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 13

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 15

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

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March – Hal Cox Ranch at mile 19

The ramshackle remains of Hal Cox Ranch, mile 19

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March aid station in mile 19

All business at Aid Station #8 in mile 19

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

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

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March mile 25

In the home stretch, mile 25

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing Bataan Memorial Death March 2018

Katie sighting! Making the final turn to the finish

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck and Laura Sohaskey finishing Bataan Memorial Death March 2018

Chuck and Laura show off their finishing kick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at White Sands National Monument

Looking SoCal-tan at the White Sands National Monument

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bataan Memorial Death March dog tags

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

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

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map
RaceRaves rating:

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

 

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

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

We Run For Houston sign at the Houston Marathon expo

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Rice University

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

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

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

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

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

Texas flag in floodwaters caused by Hurricane Harvey

(photo: Ralph Barrera / Austin American-Statesman)

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

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

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

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

Chevron Houston Marathon cookies

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

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

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

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

Houston Marathon Last Man Starting promotion

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

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

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

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

Because I’d never have another shot like this.

Houston Marathon banners downtown

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

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

Katie ringing PR bell for Houston Marathon 5K

Katie answered the PR bell in the ABB 5K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally starting the Houston Marathon

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

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

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

Whoops.

Mike Sohaskey dodging and weaving at the Houston Marathon start

Looks like that guy in the shorts had a wardrobe malfunction

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

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

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

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

Evaluate, anticipate, accelerate, repeat.

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

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

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

Mike's custom RaceRaves-Houston Marathon shirt

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

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

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

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

MIke Sohaskey high-fiving the Houston Food Bank mascot

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

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

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

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

Lovett Hall, Rice University

Lovett Hall, Rice University

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

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

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

And I thought running 26.2 miles was stressful.

Mike Sohaskey looking strong at Houston Marathon mile 13

Hankerin’ for 13 more miles

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

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

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

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

Houston Marathon Skechers shoes

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

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

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

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

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

Katie Ho finishing Houston Marathon ABB 5K

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluate, anticipate, accelerate, repeat.

CLIF Bar mascot at the Houston Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike closing the gap at the Houston Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike feeling the accomplishment after finishing the Houston Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-race in the not-so-notorious GRB

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

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

Don’t mess with Texas, indeed.

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho – Houston Marathon finish line selfie

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston Marathon medal with Rice University owl

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

Updated 50 States Map:

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

RaceRaves rating:

Mike Sohaskey's Houston Marathon review on RaceRaves


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

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

View of Clark Fork River

Behold! The Clark Fork River

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

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

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

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

Missoula Marathon welcome sign in Missoula airport

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Grand Teton

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

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

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

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

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

Missoula Marathon 2017 start line

Awaiting the go-ahead to run wild

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

Missoula Marathon 2017 mile 4

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - mile 9 of Missoula Marathon 2017

Two thumbs up at mile 9

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

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

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

Kona Bridge - mile 11 of Missoula Marathon 2017

A river runs under it: Kona Bridge, mile 11

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

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

Mile 14 of Missoula Marathon

Heading up Halfway Hill, mile 14

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

Maclay Bridge - Mile 17 of Missoula Marathon

Maclay Bridge, mile 17

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

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

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

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

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

Missoula residents misting marathon runners

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Missoula Marathon

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

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

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

Missoula Marathon finish line

(Photo: Gameface Media)

I was liking these signs more and more.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing Missoula Marathon

Ain’t nothin’ so fine as a finish line

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Tim Mullican at Missoula Marathon

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Because I enjoyed the dickens out of Missoula.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Missoula Marathon finish line selfie

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

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

Huckleberries in the wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated 50 states map:


RaceRaves rating:


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of the Zambezi River from the Zambezi Bridge

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

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

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

Crossing the Zambezi Bridge, mile 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miles 6 and 17 of the Victoria Falls Marathon

Climbing in mile 6 (and 17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Back to the start, mile 14

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

And this was no zoo.

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

I could already picture the next day’s headline:

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

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

Encountering elephant at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Best. Spectator. Ever.

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

I guess I just have a way with wildlife.

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

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

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

Pre-race instructions for Victoria Falls Marathon

Instructions posted at the pre-race expo

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

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

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

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

Miles 9 and 20 of Victoria Falls Marathon

The turnaround point at mile 9 (and 20)

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

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

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

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

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

Grazing wart hogs at mile 22 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Grazing wart hogs in dappled lighting, mile 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon elevation chart

Those two sharp downward spikes are Garmin error on the bridge

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Victoria Falls Marathon finish

Entering the finish chute

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

Where was that fucking arch?

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

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

And I have an agitated pachyderm to thank for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if not? Well tusk, tusk on you.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Victoria Falls Marathon finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon Expo at Kingdom Hotel

The pre-race expo at the Kingdom Hotel

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

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

Victoria Falls Marathon medal
RaceRaves rating:


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

Red arrow indicates my elephant encounter and fastest mile

 

 

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

Louisiana Marathon start
State 15 would beckon from

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

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

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

Welcome to winter in the Deep South.

Louisiana Marathon start line shrouded in fog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horace Wilkinson Bridge over the Mississippi during Louisiana Marathon weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running south in a literal haze we passed The Book Exchange, one of the few edifices I could make out and the most dilapidated building we’d see all day. The store looked abandoned to say the least, as though it had exchanged its last book sometime during the Eisenhower administration.

Team JoJo at mile 9 of the Louisiana Marathon

Team JoJo looking strong in mile 9

Teams of Ainsley’s Angels were out on the course providing plenty of inspiration, and I clapped and cheered as I passed James and Joey on a slight incline in mile 3. James ran with a smile on his face while Joey stared straight ahead, keenly focused on the task at hand. And though I’d miss seeing them again as they’d finish an hour before me, father and son would celebrate their 13.1-mile accomplishment with Joey crossing the finish line on his own two legs—legs that I have no doubt will cross a lot more finish lines in the future. Congrats, Team JoJo!

Continuing along Park Blvd, the sprawling oaks lining each side of the street formed an extended “tree tunnel” that would have offered much-needed shade on a warm day. The green expanses of Baton Rouge City Park swept by, followed by City Park Lake, which seemed to morph almost seamlessly into the creatively named University Lake that borders the Louisiana State University (LSU) campus.

We hit the mile 5 marker outside what I’d guess is the centerpiece of the campus and the most popular center of worship in Baton Rouge—Tiger Stadium, which hosts the football team and undoubtedly as many LSU faithful as it can fit during the football season. I’ve said it before—I’m a sucker for a good college campus, and certainly the opportunity to run around and through the LSU campus may have influenced my choice of Louisiana marathons (that and not liking New Orleans). Like Austin, Baton Rouge is a college town moonlighting as a state capital.

Louisiana Marathon running by Tiger Stadium at LSU

The church of college football: Tiger Stadium (aka “Death Valley”) at mile 5

The highlight of the marathon route, had I not been distracted by the massive football monolith on the opposite side of the street, would have been the 15,000-square foot outdoor tiger enclosure, constructed in 2005 for a reported $3 million. The enclosure’s sole inhabitant is the campus mascot, Mike the Tiger—since 1936 there have been a series of “Mikes” who have called the campus home. Sadly its most recent occupant, Mike VI, lost his battle with sarcoma (soft tissue cancer) in October, and so the habitat currently sits empty.

I’m not an advocate of zoos, and so I was glad not to see another regal animal cooped up in a small space. And I’m not alone—after Mike V’s death in 2007, PETA had apparently urged the LSU chancellor at the time not to bring in a new tiger, a request that was roundly rejected in favor of Mike VI. But in LSU’s defense, Mike VI had been a rescue animal donated by an Indiana-based large cat and carnivore rescue facility, so it’s not like the chancellor sent a campus task force out to the Serengeti to poach a Bengal tiger. Nevertheless, the thought of such a magnificent beast living alone on—of all places—a college campus left me with mixed emotions, and I was admittedly relieved not to see it for myself.

Making a brief detour away from University Lake, we ran on narrow streets that read like a “greatest hits” of U.S. higher education—Cornell, Harvard, Emory, Stanford—past well-maintained homes with immaculately groomed yards and patios set off by white balustrades. Telltale signs of faculty housing.

By the time we rounded the campus and reached the opposite side of the lake, now headed north the way we’d come, the fog had lifted and I could finally appreciate our surroundings. Nutrition-wise I was sticking to a schedule, downing one Clif Shot Blok every 20 minutes and one gel on the hour, a strategy that seemed to be keeping my energy levels stable. I was feeling good, and I continued to pull back on the throttle as I regularly dropped below an 8:00/mile pace.

Mile 9 of Louisiana Marathon around University Lake

Fog-free mile 9 around University Lake

But no matter how good I felt as I pulled alongside the 3:35 pace group on the narrow lake path, it was tough to appreciate Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasting its time-tested chorus of “WHOAAAAAA, we’re halfway there…” in mile 9. With 17+ miles to go. (This is the running equivalent of an “alternative fact”.)

Entering double digits at mile 10, I passed the bizarre “Supreme Race selfie station”. From what I recall based on a fleeting glimpse, this featured a wooden cutout of a large bag of race primed for picture taking. And you’ll probably be shocked to learn there was no one waiting in line when I passed. No offense to Supreme Rice, I’m sure they make an awesome grain and I appreciate their sponsorship of this event since we couldn’t run without them—but how high on endorphins or Insta-crazed do you have to be to pose in the middle of a race with a fake (or real) bag of rice?

The miles flew by on a fantastic day for running, with long stretches of residential roads featuring pockets of cheer zones, though never any oversized or overly raucous groups of spectators. And now that I think of it, though they’re referenced on the website I don’t recall hearing any live bands along the course, either.

Speaking of spectators, my shout-out for best of the day went to an enthusiastic 4-year-old drill sergeant-in-training, with his blonde crewcut and impassioned cries of “LET’S GO RUN-NERS! LET’S GO RUN-NERS! LET’S GO RUN-NERS!” For a second I thought he might see my smile and tell me to drop and give him 10 pushups. He didn’t miss a beat or pause for breath as I passed, his boisterious chants receding in the distance behind me.

At mile 11 the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, with the half marathon course headed back toward the Capitol and the marathon course continuing east. This splitting of the two courses thinned the crowd (~75% half marathoners, 25% marathoners) dramatically and left me essentially running by myself. Just the way I like it.

Mike Sohaskey selfie in mile 10 of Louisiana Marathon

There’s always time during a marathon for a selfie (University Lake, mile 10)

To maintain an aggressive pace
whether naïve or bold,
Leads our story to an ending,

and the ending must be told.

I continued to hit my 8:08 mile paces comfortably as I approached mile 16, the end of my planned 13-mile tempo run. I decided to maintain that comfortable pace beyond mile 16 rather than intentionally slowing down, since the latter ironically struck me as the more laborious option. If I got tired I got tired, and at that point I’d slow down. All I had to do from here was maintain an 8:30/mile pace to ensure an easy sub-3:45.

Through attractive subdivisions we ran, along oak- and magnolia-lined streets decorated with homes whose distinctive architecture hinted at their antebellum roots. The city’s charming Southern architecture helped distract my mind from the mounting mileage.

The more marathons I run, the less likely it becomes I’ll see a new spectator sign that strikes my fancy—and Louisiana was no exception. “Your couch misses you” may have been my favorite of the day, though a shout-out to the lady with the “You run marathons, I watch them on Netflix” sign. And I’ve noticed in the past year that “Run faster, I farted” has become the go-to race day motivation of kids across the country.

Louisiana Old State Capitol building and Baton Rouge 200 sign

Louisiana’s Old State Capitol—used as such for 60 of the town’s 200 years—is now a National Historic Landmark

“Great job, random stranger!” is one of the more popular spectator signs at any marathon, and I couldn’t help laughing when a runner behind me responded on one occasion with an exuberant shout of “Thanks, random citizen!”

I reached mile 23 before fatigue finally insinuated its way into my quads and hip flexors. Recognizing that I’ve got a lot of racing miles ahead of me in 2017, I consciously slowed to avoid blowing out my legs in my first race of the year. Even so I continued to pass other runners, and I can only recall a single runner passing me in the last 13 miles, with that coming in the final mile. Not since last year’s Los Angeles Marathon had I run a marathon this comfortably. Good to know my legs ain’t broke.

I held off on my last gel until just before the mile 24 aid station, leaving me no choice but to accept a cup of water from a fellow dressed head-to-toe in Green Bay Packers gear. Those same Packers would jettison my Dallas Cowboys from the NFL playoffs on a last-second field goal later in the day. Unfortunately, at mile 24 of a marathon beggars can’t be choosers, so I smiled and thanked him while silently wishing a soul-crushing and season-ending defeat on his team. Apparently he was wishing just a little bit harder.

Louisiana Marathon finish line homestretch

1/10 of a mile to go with half marathoners on the left, marathoners on the right

Mile 25, and the marathon and half marathon courses merged once again as we turned back toward the Capitol. And here the organizers demonstrated the kind of keen foresight that runners appreciate (and remember), keeping the two courses separated with half marathoners on the left and marathoners on the right. Not that there were many half marathoners remaining after more than 3 hours, but it’s never fun to have to weave tiredly around a pack of shoulder-to-shoulder walkers spread out across the street and oblivious to exhausted runners coming up behind them. It’s a small thing to be sure, but small things add up—and attention to detail is what distinguished the Louisiana Marathon from some other small-town races I’ve run.

The course is almost entirely flat, the most noticeable “hill” being the North Blvd overpass located in mile 2 and—as course layout would have it—mile 26. Still feeling good but ready to be done, I ran step-for-step with another determined fellow as we crossed the overpass and approached the short-but-nasty uphill jag leading to the final turn.

One last surge of adrenaline hit me as we turned up 4th St. into the home stretch, and I could just make out the finish arch faintly visible nearly half a mile away. I’d done what I came here to do, and as I passed the mile 26 marker I soaked up the crowd’s energy and genuinely enjoyed the last 385 yards, returning to the State Capitol in much less of a haze than I’d left it and in a time of 3:31:13, my fastest marathon in nearly two years.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Louisiana Marathon

Bienvenue à la ligne d’arrivée! Celebrating a jog well run

I reunited with Katie who had been everywhere as usual, covering the course almost as efficiently as the fog. We compared notes and cheered in other finishers before slowly diffusing toward the finish festival. It’s not often I look forward to a post-race party, but I’d heard and read so much about Louisiana’s hospitality that I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

And the festival didn’t disappoint, with food and vendor booths set up around the perimeter of State Capitol Park, giving finishers a place to stretch, lounge and munch while a live band entertained with the musical stylings of the Deep South. If you’re wondering how two vegetarians found their way in a state known for meat-heavy dishes like jambalaya and crawfish étouffée, the Whole Foods Vegan Village featured a variety of tasty options, even if they did run out of several items early. And the beer was flowing freely for carnivores and herbivores alike.

On the leisurely walk back to our hotel we stopped to chat with Jim, a fellow finisher clad brightly in INKnBURN gear, hot pink headband and rainbow calf sleeves. Jim also happened to be the singer of that morning’s National Anthem. We chatted briefly about his own 50 states quest (running and singing), and he mentioned that he celebrates every finish with a post-race headstand. Clearly the man is—in his own words—not a wallflower.

Upon learning he’d be running SoCal’s own Surf City on Super Bowl Sunday, we promised to keep an eye out for each other. And as luck would have it, three weeks later we’d reunite after crossing the Surf City finish line within seconds of each other, Jim finishing the half marathon (which started 90 minutes later than the full) while I wrapped up my second marathon of the young year. It’s a small world, after all.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Louisiana Marathon finish line
Parting ways with Jim, we’d have one last acquaintance to make before saying our goodbyes to Baton Rouge. As we strolled down 4th Street away from the finish line, I saw slowly approaching the distinctive stride of marathoning legend Larry Macon, accompanied by two other runners. His labored stride—suggestive of a man carrying a bag of rocks slung over one shoulder—betrayed the accumulated miles of a man who’s run over 1,800 marathons in his 72 years. His face, however, told a different story.

“Nice to meet you, Larry!” I called, stopping to applaud. “You too!” he smiled back as he shuffled past without breaking stride. As we watched, his blue “LARRY – 1,800 Marathons and counting” vest faded into the distance, passing the mile 26 marker en route to the same finish line I’d crossed nearly 3½ hours earlier. And the question flashed across my mind—will I still be running 26 miles at a time 26 years from now? It’s tough to imagine, but one thing is certain: I won’t need four digits to count ‘em up.

Larry Macon at mile 26 of the Louisiana Marathon

Larry Legend and friends close in on mile 26 and the finish line

Few of us will ever catch a touchdown or hit a home run or dunk a basketball—but anyone can cross a finish line. If an indomitable 7–year-old with cerebral palsy can do it, and a 72-year-old can do it over 1,800 times while still smiling, then there’s no excuse for sitting on the sidelines. You don’t have to run marathons, or even half marathons, but the cliché is cliché for a reason: Where there’s a will, there almost always is a way. In an increasingly bitter and divided country, running is everyone’s sport. As the nation continues to accumulate negative energy, challenging yourself to reach your personal finish line regardless of obstacles—physical or otherwise—will always be among the most positive things you can do to improve yourself, inspire others and make a difference.

Because there’s nothing like a good run to lift the fog.

The lesson learned? Keep this in mind:
though (s)he be young or old,
A runner’s story may just be
the best that’s ever told.

Baton Rouge sunset

BOTTOM LINE:
Whether you’re a 50 stater
or just seeking a great race,
I can tell you with conviction
Baton Rouge is just the place.

With Deep South hospitality
and lagniappe to spare,
you get the sense the folks in charge
do really give a care.

Logistics are easy, the course shows off
the campus and the town,
and ‘cross the finish line awaits
the best post-race fest around.

Free photos, awesome volunteers,
aid stations laid out well—
if the devil’s in the details
Louisiana gives ‘em hell.

Sure, the swag may not excite
with simple shirt and bling.
But ask me would I run again?
No doubt—and that’s the thing.

So a final word for runners
looking for a top-notch show:
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
is the place you want to geaux!

#GeauxRunLA

Louisiana Marathon medal by state capitol building

Baton Rouge wins the medal for tallest state capitol building in the nation

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves review of the Louisiana Marathon
FINAL STATS:

January 15, 2017 (start time 7:00am)
26.38 miles in Baton Rouge, LA (state 15 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:31:13 (first time running the Louisiana Marathon), 8:01/mile
Finish place: 76 overall, 8/71 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 951 (537 men, 414 women)
Race weather: cool, cloudy & foggy at the start (temp 61°F), cool & cloudy at the finish, humid throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 170 ft ascent, 173 ft descent

louisiana-splits