Archive for the ‘Marathons’ Category

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

Gallopalooza — the horses of Louisville

Gallopalooza — a celebration of Louisville artistry & community

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

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

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

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

Then The Greatest died.

Muhammad Ali career record sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad Ali tribute collage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad Ali tribute collage2

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

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

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

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

The road to Hatfield McCoy Marathon in South Williamson

The road to South Williamson

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

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

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

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mile 1 fog at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The morning fog watches over its domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hill at mile 8 - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy Mini-dwarf horses at mile 10 of Marathon

Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses (mile 10)

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing into West Virginia at Hatfield McCoy Marathon halfway point

Crossing the West Virginia border at the halfway point

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

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

Loose gravel trail at the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, mile 18

The course transitions to loose gravel in mile 18

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

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

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

Wooden foot bridge_mile 19 of Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey approaching mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Approaching…

Departing mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

… and departing the mile 20 aid station

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy Marathon elevation profile

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

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

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

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

The mile 24 hill looms ahead - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The mile 24 hill looms ahead

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving Hatfield & McCoy at finish

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line

Happy to mediate a finish-line truce

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

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

It was Kentucky that won by a knockout.

Sunset outside Lexington, Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if @hotmail.com political train wrecks?

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

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy splits

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

Boston Marathon finish line

I’d made it to Mecca.

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

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

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

Boston Marathon course elevation profile

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Boston Marathon Athletes Village

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

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

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

Fenway Park panoramic view

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

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

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

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

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

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

50 Years of Women logo at Boston Marathon

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

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

Heading to Boston Marathon start corrals

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

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

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

Boston Marathon start in Hopkinton

The streets of Hopkinton were hoppin’ on Patriots Day

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

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

Boston Marathon finish line sign

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

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

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

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

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

Team Hoyt in Newton at mile 16 of Boston Marathon

Team Hoyt rolls through Newton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sandy Pitcher & Mike Sohaskey at Boston Marathon finish

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 16 in Newton at Boston Marathon

Looking better than I felt in Newton Lower Falls

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

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

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

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

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

View from Boston Marriott Cambridge

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

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

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

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

Citgo sign at mile 25 of Boston Marathon

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with one mile to go at Boston Marathon

One mile to go in Kenmore Square!

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 26 of Boston Marathon

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

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

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

Boston Marathon finish line shot

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

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

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

Boston Common post-Boston Marathon

The Boston Common after a very uncommon day

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

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

At Boston Marathon Expo

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Mile 27 sign

Tapering for Big Sur

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho with Red Sox World Series trophies

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

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

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

Because in Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

Mike Sohaskey with Boston Marathon medal 2016

Tips & Tricks for Boston Marathon weekend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Boston Marathon medal, finisher's shirt & bib

RaceRaves rating:RaceRaves-rating
FINAL STATS:

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

Boston-splits_BCH

As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.
– Alison Lurie

Mike Sohaskey with Skechers Los Angeles Marathon bus wrap
I do believe I owe my hometown race an apology.

Sure I’ve cheated on her, time & again (17 times in fact, but who’s counting?) since we first started seeing each other in March 2012. But that’s not it – after all, I’m a serial marathoner targeting all 50 states and all 7 continents, so no one could honestly expect this leopard to change its spots. And it’s not like she hasn’t been entertaining plenty of other runners in my absence.

And not to say I’ve taken her for granted, but I definitely underestimated her. It’s not every race in every major city that could deftly host an epic Olympic Marathon Qualifying Trials the day before its own 20,000+ person event. In fact, this year’s Los Angeles Marathon was moved up a month specifically to accommodate the Trials. As a runner, the thought of all this happening in my hometown without me would have been like Bernie Sanders suddenly coming out as a fascist. So after three years apart, it was time for my hometown race and me to start seeing each other again.

Saturday’s Olympic Trials were the perfect start to our reunion weekend. Admittedly the location of the finish line could have been better, as its positioning 100 yards beyond the start line arch/official clock caused several finishers – including women’s champion Amy Cragg and men’s third-place finisher Jared Ward – to mistakenly slow down or even stop prematurely, as screaming spectators urged them to finish (#runnersbrain). Luckily, none of the top three finishes came down to the wire, or cooler heads might not have prevailed on the hottest day in Olympic Trials history.

U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials 2016 in Los Angeles - start before finish line

There’s no arch and it’s tough to see, but the finish is ~100 yards beyond the start line

But WOW, what a jaw-dropping debut for 29-year-old Galen Rupp (2:11:12), the 2012 Olympics silver medalist in the 10,000m who was taking his first crack not only at the Marathon Trials but at the marathon distance. And are there any superlatives left to describe 40-year-old runner-up Meb Keflezighi, the ageless crowd favorite who’s spoiled us with so many thrills in his career, that the only surprise on this day would have been if he hadn’t placed in the top three?

The women’s race, though dominated by familiar faces, was no less exhilarating, highlighted by some spirited teamwork from training partners Cragg and Shalane Flanagan. As Flanagan began to succumb to the heat in the final miles, Cragg did everything she could – short of piggybacking her to the finish – to help her teammate fight through The Wall. As eventual second-place finisher Desi Linden came charging from behind, Cragg was eventually forced to pull away from Flanagan at mile 25. But in the aftermath of the race, after hanging on to third place and collapsing at the finish line, Flanagan made clear her appreciation for her teammate’s selfless support.

“Sweet baby Jesus I’m so thankful for her,” she said of Cragg.

Olympic Marathon Trials 2016 in Los Angeles collage

Scenes from the Olympic Marathon Trials (clockwise, from top left): Stampede start to the women’s race; leaders Amy Cragg & Shalane Flanagan run stride for stride at mile 20; runner-up Meb Keflezighi celebrates in the final turn; the strain shows on Chris Frias’ face

And while I’m dishing out apologies, I should probably offer one to Kara Goucher, whose fourth-place/first alternate finish (after a relatively ho-hum qualifying time of 2:37:03 at NYC 2014) honestly surprised me, despite two impressive 2015 wins at the Big Sur Half and San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Half. She’s clearly been working her Skechers off to get back to her 2012 Olympic form, and she deserves huge kudos for her effort in LA.

From my front-row seat near the start and finish lines, I cheered as elite marathoners with apt surnames like Payne, Fog, Comfort & Deatherage passed several times on the multi-loop course, the twin demons of heat & fatigue playing out on many faces thanks to an unusually late (10:06 am) start. And as the midday SoCal sun beat down, I reflected gratefully on the fact that we slow-footed runners would be starting our own 26.2-mile journey just after sunrise the next morning.

Mike Sohaskey spectating at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles 2016

Next up was the always inconvenient pre-race expo, located in the heart of downtown LA. Though I understand the need to placate the sponsors, I wish someone would re-invent the expo into something that makes sense for runners who can’t or don’t want to commit a large chunk of Friday or Saturday to preparing for the race. One side benefit of the Olympic Trials was that after the race, we were able to stroll next door into the Los Angeles Convention Center and pick up my race-day bib and other materials; otherwise I would have had to make the unpalatable hour drive into downtown LA.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of both Clif Bars and Dean Karnazes, but at this point the Clif Bar buffet o’ samples and the Ultramarathon Man have become such ubiquitous expo staples that I’d suggest they join forces in one booth, if for no other reason than to make the expo more efficient for the rest of us.

But if pre-race expos are here to stay, then for LA in particular I’d recommend the floor layout follow a more systematic flow. This could have the dual benefit of a) ensuring runners pass all sponsor booths, and b) introducing runners to the marathon course, with faux mile markers set up along the expo “course” along with visual highlights of what runners can expect to see in that mile of the actual marathon. This would familiarize participants with the course and build anticipation for the race ahead – all while avoiding the situation I encountered after the 2012 LA Marathon, when I read down the list of attractions listed on the race shirt and thought, “Really, I ran past all of these?”

Mural at Los Angeles Marathon Expo 2016

Like the city itself, the pre-race expo had its own cool mural

Sunday began unlike any of the 18 marathon race days before it – with me waking up in my own bed. And I took my time doing it – having spent most of the previous four days on my feet and sleeping poorly, I was in no hurry to hop out of bed for what promised to be more of a “long training run for Boston” than “race”. Seven hours after my head hit the pillow (a luxurious night’s sleep by pre-race standards), I rolled out of bed and we rolled out of our garage into a bizarre coastal fog – check that, marine layer – that enveloped the predawn sky like a scene from a Stephen King novel.

Heading east we quickly left the marine layer in our rearview mirror, and arrived at Dodger Stadium (a seriously great place for a staging area) just in time to park, make a quick pitstop and join the anxiously waiting congregation. The start “corrals” were aptly named, a mass of 20,000 brightly colored human cattle packed nose-to-neck, and I arrived just as Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” erupted over the PA, signaling the start of the stampede toward Santa Monica. With no chance to reach my designated “B” corral near the front, I let myself be swept along like a beach ball atop a department store fan.

Start to mile 12: Dodger Stadium, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Sunset Blvd, Hollywood
Los Angeles, much like Boston, begins with a steep and almost immediate downhill. Part of my strategy required me to ride the brakes to avoid the rookie mistake of flying down this first descent, only to pay for my zeal later. Fly now, drag later. It’s way too easy to start a marathon way too fast when your legs are fresh, your blood sugar levels are high and your myopic mind is telling you to “Go ahead and bank a few fast miles early, while you’re feeling good!” Take its advice, and that same voice will be cursing you three hours later for your arrogance.

Luckily, finding myself trapped in the throng exiting Dodger Stadium was the perfect muzzle for the impatient voice in my head.

Rolling downhill out of Dodger Stadium into the mottled morning sunlight, the course leveled out as we passed under the Golden Dragon Gateway that spans North Broadway and which serves as the de facto entrance to Chinatown. The impressively ornate Chinatown Gate soon followed, and as quickly as we’d entered…

… we were leaving, past City Hall & the Los Angeles Times offices before transitioning into Little Tokyo, with its distinctive orange Watchtower looking out over the largest Japanese-American population in the country (plus, I noticed, a significant number of Korean shops & restaurants).

Los Angeles Marathon mile 2 - Chinatown's Golden Dragon Gateway

Chinatown’s Golden Dragon Gateway spans Broadway at mile 2 of the marathon course (Google Maps)

My pacing plan for the day was relatively simple, at least in theory: start slow and pick up the pace. In all 18 of my previous marathons I’d posted positive splits, meaning I’d run the first 13.1 miles faster than the second 13.1. To non-runners and even newbie runners, positive splits sound like an inevitable fact of life when you’re running 26.2 miles: you slow down as you get tired. DUH.

But marathons are like meals – you want to save the best for last. Meaning negative splits (a faster second half than first half) should be the goal for any marathoner looking to run their best race. Case in point, current marathon world-record holder Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. In posting his world record 2:02:57 at Berlin in 2014 (and we were there), Kimetto actually ran the second half 33 seconds faster than the first half (61:45 vs 61:12).

And a more recent example from the weekend’s Olympic Trials: seven runners achieved negative splits, with five of them ultimately making the team (Shalane Flanagan was the lone exception among Olympic Qualifiers, posting a 19-second positive split).

Not surprisingly, women tend to be better at marathon pacing than men, with a less significant dropoff in the final 13.1 miles than their impatient male counterparts. By extension, maybe it’s time we let the more patient gender try running the country…?

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 7 of Los Angeles Marathon 2016

All thumbs at mile 7 in Silver Lake

If you can stay patient, giving your muscles & joints time to warm up before the endorphins kick in and you hit your stride, then you’ll enjoy the second half of your race a whole lot more than the shuffling zombies you’ll pass at mile 22. Problem is, patience can be tough to come by at the start line of a marathon, when your gut feels like a playground for over-caffeinated butterflies and the adrenaline coursing through your system could wake a dead buffalo. Throw in the fact that for most of us, race day is the culmination of 16+ weeks of blood sweat & tears focused training, and it’s no surprise so many recreational runners (and even a few professionals) end up singin’ the “Start Too Fast” blues.

So then my pacing strategy was: start slow (8:15-8:30/mile in miles 1-10), pick up the pace (8:00-8:15/mile in miles 11-20) and finish fast (sub-8:00/mile from mile 21 to the end). All while enjoying every step of the way – not hard on LA’s awesome “Stadium to the Sea” course.

Miles 5 & 6 were punctuated by two nasty hills, the first up 1st Street and the next up West Temple, with the Disney Concert Hall (unmistakably a Frank Gehry creation) awaiting at the top of 1st Street for winded runners able to glance up from their shoetops. I wouldn’t call LA a “flat” marathon by any stretch, but once you pass mile 9 life gets easier… and the second half, with two notable downhills, feels faster than the first.

Past Echo Lake, a quick uphill jag began a two-mile stretch along Sunset Blvd through hipsterrific Silver Lake (Katie sighting #1!), highlighted by a postcard-perfect view of the iconic Hollywood sign overlooking its kingdom in mile 7.

LAM official program_Sunset&Benton

(photo Los Angeles Marathon official race program)

Miles 9-12: Hollywood Blvd
In mile 9 the route detoured from Sunset for a course highlight, the three-mile sightseeing tour of Hollywood Blvd. Bright pink banners for the musical version of “Dirty Dancing” adorned signposts on both sides of the street. Like Vegas, though not so dramatically, Hollywood Blvd is a very different setting by day than by night – and without their brightly lit marquees to catch the eye, popular destinations like the Pantages Theatre, El Capitan Theatre and TCL Chinese Theatre are easy to miss. Passing the Pantages also serves as an immediate cue to steal a glance up Vine St to your right, where you’ll glimpse the Capitol Records building with its distinctive tower resembling a stack of vinyl records on a spindle.

If this will be your only visit to Hollywood Blvd, don’t forget to sneak a peek at the 1.3-mile-long Hollywood Walk of Fame, with its almost 2,600 terrazzo and brass stars dedicated to celebrities past & present.

Los Angeles Marathon course - view of Capitol Records Building from Hollywood & Vine

View of the Capitol Records Building from Hollywood & Vine (Google Maps)

This being Valentine’s Day in LA, couples were encouraged to either marry or renew their vows in a ceremony at mile 10 sponsored by Universal Pictures and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2”. And although Katie are I are perfectly happy with our 12-year-old vows, this seems like the type of marketing gimmick more studios in LA should take advantage of with a captive audience on marathon day.

As if all this weren’t enough distraction, Ken Nwadike – Race Director for the Hollywood Half and USA Half Marathon – was greeting runners with (literally) open arms at mile 11 as part of his Free Hugs Project. Unfortunately I was running on the opposite side of the street, and by the time I realized Ken was on the scene I’d missed my opportunity. On the plus side, I did benefit from Katie’s own “Free Smiles Project” a mile later.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 12 of Los Angeles Marathon 2016

Just past mile 12, on the sunny part of the course near the palm trees

Miles 13-20: Sunset Strip, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica Blvd, Century City
Transitioning into West Hollywood we re-joined Sunset Blvd on the Sunset Strip, home to famous (and infamous) nightclubs like the Whisky a Go Go, Viper Room and Roxy Theatre – venues where musical bad boys like Van Halen, Mötley Crüe & Guns N’ Roses cut their teeth before dominating the world stage. With a nostalgic nod to the Whisky on one side of the street and the Viper Room on the other, I said my goodbyes to Sunset and let my momentum carry me down the steepest descent of the day, the 0.4-mile drop down San Vicente to Santa Monica Blvd.

There the course detoured briefly away from Santa Monica Blvd and through Beverly Hills’ high-priced Golden Triangle shopping district, where most of us could barely afford to window-shop and where I was careful not to sweat on any of the well-to-do clientele who frequent Rodeo Drive. Nor did I sweat on Katie, whose ubiquitous smile soon after was the highlight of mile 18.

With my tiring brain struggling to sort out course highlights, I recalled a genius touch from the 2009 San Francisco Marathon, where signs had been posted along the course with questions & interesting factoids about the city and its history. I remember thinking at the time, what a cool way to learn about the city we’re running through. The LAM organizers should take a page out of SF’s playbook and do something similar, or even something as simple as posting signs that call attention to course highlights. Because any runner can tell you: the more focused you are on the race itself, the less brainpower you have to soak in your surroundings. But if on-course highlights were pointed out in real time – now that would be a welcome distraction.

Similarly, we passed the occasional musical act/DJ along the course, but honestly unless I recognize the song or the musicians are very distinctive – say, a jug band with banjo, washboard and kazoo – I hardly notice music on race day. I tend to engage with music rather than let it wash over me, so the typical on-course music – unfamiliar & deafening – does nothing for me.

Los Angeles Marathon course runs by Latter Day Saints temple on Santa Monica

More money, Mormons at mile 20 – the Los Angeles LDS Temple on Santa Monica Blvd (Google Maps)

Speaking of doing nothing for me, all races have their “dead zones”, i.e. stretches of the course where there’s not much to see and little in the way of distraction (in some races, this dead zone covers most of the course). At LA the dead zone is miles 19 & 20 through Century City. This despite the massive LDS temple on the north side of Santa Monica Blvd that, with its perfectly manicured lawn, feels more like Beverly Hills mansion or expansive movie studio lot than legit house of worship.

These sun-exposed miles also contrast with the rest of the course, which offers frequent opportunities for shade. Luckily the 80-degree temperatures that were predicted for race day never materialized, and even this two-mile stretch o’ ennui passed quickly.

Miles 21-finish: VA Medical Center, Brentwood, Santa Monica & the Pacific Ocean
Due to federal regulations, the organizers this year were forced to do us all a favor and re-route mile 21 around the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, which effectively excluded LA’s equivalent of Heartbreak Hill. As the quads began to tighten, my Garmin chimed to signal mile 21 and I mentally readied for a voyage into unchartered waters: time to speed things up and finish strong. Easier said than done, though I knew if I could just make it to mile 24, it’d be (literally) downhill from there.

After the VA, the course makes a straight shot down San Vicente Blvd through posh Brentwood (think OJ Simpson). Here we entered the first real residential section of the day with its gated homes, pretty people & prettier lawns.

On both sides along this stretch, running clubs & charities had pitched tents to cheer on their runners as they struggled through The Wall. And it struck me – despite the LAM’s reputation for limited spectator support, there was no shortage of bystanders lining the course this year. Sure it’s no Chicago or New York, but in LA’s defense its sprawling, point-to-point course (with minimal public transit) is designed for runners, not spectators. And maybe the crowds were largely friends & family, or local running clubs, or even volunteers assigned to designated cheer zones. But no matter – throughout the race I was surprised and motivated by the frequency of spectators cheering loudly and waving signs from the sidelines.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 finish line view

Exhausted (& ecstatic) finishers soak up the fog in Santa Monica

Speaking of signage, there was a lot more than I’d expected, including at least 20 “Touch Here for Energy/Power” signs. Seeing yet another of these late in the race, I chose instead to slap palms with a fellow on the opposite side of the street sporting a Boston Marathon tee – my kind of power!

Three memorable signs that stuck in my addled, endorphin-soaked brain:

  • “You’ve got great stamina – call me!” (also saw this at Surf City 2011… it was clever then and it’s still clever now)
  • My favorite of the day: “If Jeb can keep running, so can you!”
  • And the Tony Robbins tribute of the day: “The task ahead of you is never as great as the power behind you” (ouch my brain, ouch my brain…)

Despite taking in only 300 calories (via Clif Shot Bloks) during the race, my training – which focused on burning fat rather than sugar – coupled with my measured start ensured I’d avoid the energy crash that usually precedes the downward spiral of miles 20-26. Instead, I was able to ignore my stiffening quads and focus on clocking sub-8:00 miles, fueled by the screams and cheers from the raucous tents lining San Vicente.

Then, like a high-five from the heavens, two things happened as we crossed 26th Street: the course began its final 2+ mile descent, and we re-entered the cool marine layer we’d left behind four hours earlier. That was my cue to step on the gas, and blissfully I cruised downhill toward the ocean, every step feeling stronger than the last. I even took the opportunity to leapfrog another fast-moving runner who clearly had reserves left in his tank as well.

With just under a mile to go we banked left onto the home stretch of Ocean Ave and spied, dead ahead – nothing but fog. Santa Monica was eerily unrecognizable, its trademark palm trees and distant pier swathed in gray. I continued to accelerate, trusting the finish line would soon appear straight ahead, right where it had every year since the Stadium-to-the-Sea course was unveiled in 2010. I wasn’t disappointed. As cheering onlookers materialized like spirits out of the haze, lining the home stretch on the left side, so too did the dark blue finish arch.

Mike Sohaskey leading the pack down the Los Angeles Marathon homestretch

Down the stretch they come!

With one final surge I hit the finish mat in a time of 3:34:39, posting my first-ever negative splits (1:50:07/1:44:32) in my 19th marathon. My first and last mile splits told the tale, with mile 1 being my slowest of the day (8:58) and mile 26 my fastest (7:27). I’d even covered the final 0.42 miles at roughly the same pace (6:30/mile) as my 5K PR. Clearly I should have kicked in the afterburners a bit earlier.

All in all, my Sunday long run had been a great success, as it had allowed me to train for the last 10K of the marathon in the best way possible – by running the last 10K of a marathon.

Barely feeling the chill coastal air on my skin, I ambled through the finish chute past the food offerings and exuberant MarathonFoto minions to where Katie and our friend Paul were waiting. Paul always makes the annual pilgrimage up from San Diego to run LA, and he and I will be running Boston together next month. So an earlier-than-usual Los Angeles Marathon was a timely warmup for both of us.

Mike Sohaskey with Paul & Laura at Los Angeles Marathon Finish Festival

All smiles at the suddenly sunny Finish Festival with sister-in-law Laura & Paul

Together we wandered over to the post-race festival, held in a nearby parking lot where local favorite Angel City Brewery was hosting a free beer garden for finishers. I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ll never refuse a post-race beer – and in fact, the Goose Island IPA I enjoyed in Chicago remains a vivid memory from my first World Marathon Major.

Speaking of World Marathon Majors, the honest truth is that LA is a better race than any of the three Majors I’ve run ­­– better than Berlin, better than Chicago, better even than (blasphemy!) New York City. There’s more to see along its point-to-point course, more hilly bits to keep things interesting, and more natural beauty throughout – mountain views en route, beach and Pacific Ocean awaiting at the finish. And though it tends to fall on the hot side, particularly in March, the weather is always SoCal reliable.

Reunited and it feels so good – so consider this a heartfelt apology to my hometown race, having not experienced it for myself since LA became our hometown in 2013. I’d forgotten all that its scenic Stadium-to-the-Sea course has to offer. Big Sur may be California’s classic “must run” road marathon; San Francisco may be the most stunning city in the country; but Los Angeles has its own underestimated race that I’d recommend to any marathoner seeking the quintessential California experience. You probably won’t run a personal best here, but you probably won’t care either.

Sipping our beers as the sun at last cleaved a path through the stubborn morning fog, it struck me (again) how lucky I am to live in a place where cutting-edge creativity is a way of life, and where I can run alongside the ocean for 20 miles at a time, 12 months a year. So it was that the same refrain which had started the morning’s journey was still stuck in my head at the end.

I love LA!

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Los Angeles Marathon finish line

BOTTOM LINE: Los Angeles should be high on any serial marathoner’s list. California has something for every road runner – the breathtaking beauty of the California coastline in Big Sur, the classic SoCal beach vibe of Surf City, the enchanting allure of San Francisco. LA in turn shines with its unique mix of big-city energy, iconic attractions and laid-back SoCal ambience. If preconceived notions of smog and plastic people are all you know of LA, then you don’t know LA.

Aside from San Francisco, Los Angeles is start-to-finish the most interesting road marathon course I’ve run. Don’t let the net downhill profile (789 ft up, 1,192 ft down) fool you though – most of that downhill is at the very beginning and very end. Nor is the rest of the course particularly flat, so be prepared for several uphills, particularly in the first half.

Another positive note from this year’s race: the number of spectators seemed much greater than I recall from 2012. So if spectator support is important to you, don’t let the LAM’s reputation as a spectator-sparse event dissuade you from running. Sure it’s no Boston, Chicago or New York, but then again not every race can be a World Marathon Major.

LA isn’t a cheap race (I paid $160 on opening day of registration), but it’s reasonable relative to other big-city marathons, and you definitely get what you pay for. And weather-wise, the year-round warmth that draws so many visitors to SoCal is a double-edged sword for runners, since it means temperatures on race day tend toward hot. Just a word of warming warning for those hoping to chase a personal best at LA.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 elevation course profile

Net downhill yes, but the shortest distance between Dodger Stadium & Santa Monica is not a straight line

PRODUCTION: Aside from the usual expo chaos in downtown LA (with suggestions for its improvement noted above), the entire weekend – from the Olympic Trials to the marathon itself – was a seamless production. As staging areas go Dodger Stadium is among the best, and parking there is relatively easy. Post-race snacks were abundant, and any post-race festival with a free beer garden (+ short lines!) is a sure winner.

That said, I was admittedly disappointed by several aspects of the production & marketing:

1) that on a course with so many iconic landmarks, the organizers didn’t do a better job of calling attention to those landmarks during the race;

2) that pre-race emails lacked personality and were used primarily for sponsor messaging, rather than taking the opportunity to highlight the Stadium-to-the-Sea course

3) that the organizers haven’t done more to #UniteLA, to embrace the community and rally the locals around their event – the truth is that the LAM simply doesn’t resonate with many Angelenos.

4) that the organizers don’t seem to treat their race with the respect that it deserves. Case in point: rather than pre-race communications focused on the course and getting me excited for the marathon, one dedicated email let me know that by running both the LAM and another SoCal relay race, I’d earn a kitschy-looking double medal in the shape of the state of California. How this odd partnership stands to benefit the LAM or its brand is unclear.

Watching mural near Downtown Los Angeles

I always feel like, some building’s watching me (and I have no privacy, woh)

Plus, no other heavyweight race would move its date up a month for no good reason, much less for an event like the Olympic Trials which few recreational runners even notice. In 2012 when Houston hosted the Trials, the Houston Marathon didn’t budge from its traditional mid-January weekend slot. By moving this year’s race so it fell a week after the nearby Surf City Marathon (which is always run on Super Bowl Sunday), the LAM organizers cannibalized their own audience, including runners who usually run Surf City as a warmup for LA. And that’s not just my opinion – the race failed to sell out this year, and with just 20,627 finishers, this was the first year since its inception in 2010 that the Stadium-to-the-Sea course boasted fewer than 21,000 finishers. That number is down 6% from just one year ago.

So let’s hope the organizers stop treating their marathon like a small-town race and start marketing it like the world-class event it is – you’re Los Angeles, not Omaha!

All that said, these are behind-the-scenes details that don’t affect the actual runner experience, and overall race production was impressive by any standard – so much so that I happily used the discount from my virtual event bag to buy a pair of Skechers LAM model running shoes after the race. Turns out Skechers makes a comfy running shoe!

SWAG: Keeping with the Valentine’s Day theme, both the short-sleeve tech tee and finisher’s medal are a nice shade of red. The shirt lists course highlights on the front, though in small dark font that sort of defeats the purpose. The medal, though, is the real keeper ­– it’s a shiny round keepsake with the year & downtown LA skyline emblazoned on one side, along with the race logo & iconic LA scenery on the other. It’s among the most substantial medals in my collection, with a heft similar to Chicago or New York.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves review_LAM

FINAL STATS:
February 14, 2016 (start time 6:55am)
26.42 miles in Los Angeles, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:34:39 (second time running the Los Angeles Marathon), 8:07/mile
Finish place: 1,170 overall, 128/1,301 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 20,627 (11,499 men, 9,128 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 52°F), cool & foggy at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 789 ft ascent, 1,192 ft descent

LAM-splits_BCH

The only real negative to the 2016 Los Angeles Marathon was my splits

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

Cactus silhouette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Tuscon Marathon Expo

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

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

Clearly a morning person, our bus driver.

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

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

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

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

Tucson elevation profile_official

Tucson elevation profile_Mike Sohaskey Garmin

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

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

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

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

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

Tooth sculpture in Oracle

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

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

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

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

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

Flags

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dyslexic runners unite! at mile 19

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

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

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

Taiko drummers at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Taiko performers beat the drum slowly at mile 21

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

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

Mile 23 hill on Edwin Road - Tuscon Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving a Tuscon cactus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Tuscon Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

Sunset on grounds of Hilton Tuscon El Conquistador resort

Sunset on the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador

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

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

Tucson Marathon 2015 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating_Tucson

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

Tucson Marathon splits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston.

Sunset over downtown Ventura

Sunset over downtown Ventura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 9

Returning to the Ojai Valley Trail at mile 9

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

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

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

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22

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

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

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 10.5

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

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

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22 17

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

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

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

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

San Antonio Creek footbridge on Ventura River Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon homestretch

Mile 26.2 in progress

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

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

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

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

Post-race on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

Speedy guy and motivational pacer Gil Perez

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

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

Boston Qualifying Mike Sohaskey at Mountains 2 Beach Marathon

That mallet’s for the Boston Qualifiers gong behind me

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

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

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

And the only sound missing was “Happy”.

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

Another weekend, another PR for the RaceRaves shirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon medal

RaceRaves rating:
RaceRaves rating

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

Mountains 2 Beach mile splits

Walt Disney quote - BlistersCrampsHeaves.com

What if I were to tell you that somewhere:

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

Florida.

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

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

Sorcerer's Hat in Disney's Hollywood Studios

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic Kingdom Park collage

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

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

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

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

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

WDW Marathon Weekend Expo floor 2015

This is where the (pre-race) magic happens

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

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

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom

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

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

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

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

Epcot’s Spaceship Earth aglow with race-day anticipation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney World Marathon start line fireworks

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

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

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

Toy Story three-eyed aliens

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz

Don’t wreck me, bro!

Mike Sohaskey & Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with White Rabbit, Donald Duck & Goofy

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Mary Poppins & Aladdin

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

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

Villain squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Jiminy Cricket

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

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

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

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

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

Incredibles

Mike Sohaskey with Sully & Mike Wazowski

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

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

Mike Sohaskey approaching Walt Disney World Marathon finish line

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

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

Heigh HO!

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

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

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

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

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

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

3:25 pace sign in trash

My 7th grade English teacher might call this symbolism

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Daisy Duck

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

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

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

Us_finish line

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

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

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

 

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

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

Mike Wazowski wearing Walt Disney World Marathon medal

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie with Russell & Dug

And they lived UP-ily ever after

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

WDW splits

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

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

CIM start line

“Go!” time in Folsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tower Bridge, a Sacramento landmark

The Tower Bridge, a Sacramento landmark

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

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

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

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

Just like heaven at miles 6 and 11

Feeling just like heaven at miles 6 and 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, as it turns out, was an understatement.

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

BONK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 23 passed in 8:20.

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

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

Mile 24 crept by in 8:34.

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

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

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

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

Mile 25 trickled by in 8:38.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating a capital day in the capitol city

Celebrating a capital day in the capitol city

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

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

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

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

He’s a tough little critter to shake

He’s a tough little critter to shake

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

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

CIM medal

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

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

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

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

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

CIM splits

cim-elevation-profile_bch

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

It is only exceptional men who can safely undertake the running of twenty-six miles, and even for them the safety is comparative rather than absolute…. For the great majority of adults, particularly in an urban population, to take part in a Marathon race is to risk serious and permanent injury to health, with immediate death a danger not very remote.
The New York Times, “Marathon Racing Dangerous”, February 24, 1909

Get Your Signage On
You’re going to need a bigger bridge.

Sure I’d seen the pictures, and so I knew all these runners really would fit (in waves) on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. And yet gazing out over the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – the shivering runners who covered seemingly every square inch of Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island – I understood how Police Chief Brody must have felt upon seeing his great white shark breach the water’s surface for the first time.

Puny. Overwhelmed. And wholly exhilarated.

Admittedly New York City and I don’t see eye to eye. As the country’s biggest cities go, L.A. is our home for its year-round sunshine and creative culture, Chicago beguiles with its Midwestern affability and striking architecture, and Houston imprinted me with some of my fondest memories for having spent my college years there.

New York City, though, has always filled me with meh. Subway stations infused with the waft of indifference and the unmistakable stench of… seriously? A half-full (or is that half-empty?) coffee cup thrown from a passing car that lands at our feet on a stroll through industrial Brooklyn. Piercing screams of “Shut the fuck up!!” exploding from the open windows of a battered black sedan as it accelerates through the intersection in front of us to beat a red light. Car horns that seem a natural extension of their driver’s arm, and which raise stress levels far more often than they raise awareness. And in the summer months, urban “drips” that {bloop} on your head unannounced and which you can only hope came from that overhead A/C window unit.

Speaking of the summer months, being a Red Sox fan doesn’t help to nurture a love for New York.

Like its residents, a city that never sleeps starts to get bloodshot in the eyes and ragged around the edges. Its reaction times slow and its patience thins. It requires ever more caffeine and adrenaline to maintain its façade of invulnerability. And Times Square, with its perpetual luminescent glow, gaudy advertising and food carts selling soggy hot dogs at 2:00am, starts to look and feel an awful lot like the Vegas strip.

As if that weren’t enough, the Shark Foundation tells me I’m 10x more likely to be bitten by another human in New York City than by a shark anywhere.

So the upshot is that blasphemous though it may be, I don’t ❤ NY. And yet, if you chum the autumn waters with the world’s largest annual 26.2-mile running party, you can bet I’ll bite hard. At least once.

Scenes from NYC - (C) Mike Sohaskey

Scenes from the NYC (clockwise from upper left): the Rink at Rockefeller Center; Lady Liberty, seen from the Staten Island ferry; Central Park; the Empire State Building dominates the night skyline

I’d arrived at the start line of the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon via a more circuitous route than most of my fellow runners. This had nothing do with the 6-hour flight from LAX to JFK, the 60-minute rush-hour cab ride from JFK to Brooklyn, the 15-minute subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the 30-minute ferry ride from Manhattan to Staten Island and the 30-minute bus trip to the start line at Fort Wadsworth. Rather, after failing to gain entry via the New York Road Runners (NYRR) lottery system for the past three years (at $11 a pop), I was able to invoke their excellent “3 strikes and you’re in” policy. Meaning that having lost out in the lottery for three straight years, I was automatically accepted for the 2014 race.

Apparently this rule rubbed someone at NYRR the wrong way, because 2014 would be the last year they’d honor it. So despite the fact that I’d just run another huge World Marathon Major in Berlin five weeks earlier, my timing for NYC would be perfect.

We’d arrived at our hotel in Park Slope, Brooklyn on Thursday evening. On Friday, after lunching at a super-speedy Chinese dumpling restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, we’d spent a cool and cloudy afternoon on the other side of the East River in Manhattan. There, as all good marathoners do, we’d attended the pre-race expo in the impressive glass belly of the Javits Convention Center.

Mike Sohaskey - World Marathon Major #3!

They say you never forget your third…

Clearly a lot of forethought was given to the expo’s design and execution, because it was surprisingly intimate and easy to negotiate. All sponsor booths were contained within one reasonably sized conference hall, where upon entering we immediately found ourselves in the registration area. There, after a zero wait time to pick up my race number, drop bag and t-shirt from friendly volunteers, we were channeled through the Asics store where colorful racks of official marathon merchandise stretched in all directions. Diffusing into the expo proper, a thirsty Katie appreciated that water (courtesy of Poland Spring) and Gatorade greeted attendees exiting the Asics store. Other booths laid out the usual free samples of protein bars, Stinger waffles, electrolyte drinks and smoothies. BERLIN ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?

A separate hall upstairs hosted various NYRR presentations and appearances (e.g. Kathrine Switzer). And speaking of halls, Ryan Hall was scheduled to appear at the Asics booth on Friday, since apparently he doesn’t run the actual race anymore. Then again, American marathon record holder and 41-year-old bad-ass Deena Kastor also appeared at the Asics booth that same day, before finishing as the third American woman in Sunday’s marathon.

New York City Marathon stats from Expo

From these stats I learned 1) as in life, men fade sooner than women in the marathon (upper left); and 2) NYC is understandably popular with first-time marathoners (lower right)

The expo consisted primarily of large corporate sponsors – TCS (TATA Consulting), Gatorade, Poland Spring Water, Oakley, PowerBar, GU, Saucony, runDisney, The North Face, Tag Heuer and even Tiffany – along with a smattering of smaller players, such as Altra and Vitamix. The highlight of our expo time was a visit to the Marathon Tours & Travel booth to catch up with Thom, Scott and Jeff… always great to see those guys preaching the globerunner’s gospel to a receptive audience.

From the expo we walked straight to the Theater District, where we enjoyed dinner in the excellent company of fellow traveling runners and Antarctica/Berlin buddies Jeff and Susan. Jeff and Susan are the type of folks you hope to meet as a traveling runner – very fun, call-it-like-they-see-it couple with a much-appreciated edge to them, and always with entertaining stories from their travels. After a meal that flew by way too quickly (and which ended with Jeff recounting his awkward meeting with a couple looking for a good time in a Vegas hotel pool), we ventured out to catch the Halloween night freakery around Times Square.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at dinner with Jeff & Susan at Lattanzi

Susan, me, Jeff and Katie at Lattanzi

It didn’t disappoint. Looking at the pint-sized superheroes on one hand and the blood-soaked zombies on the other, it struck me that nowhere is the stark difference between a child’s and an adult’s mindset more apparent than in their Halloween costumes. My favorite was the fuzzy, three-foot-tall great white shark with menacing teeth and an impressive dorsal fin, sobbing in its mother’s arms after swimming right into the sidewalk. Clearly this predator was of the “Fish are friends, not food” lineage. But the most memorable exchange was overheard on the stairs of the subway station heading back to Brooklyn:

Dude #1: “Hey, you get my mask?”
Dude #2: “What’s that?”
Dude #1: “My mask! My mask! My mask! Did you get my mask?”
Dude #2: “IDIOT! It’s on your fucking HEAD!”
Dude #1 (feeling for the mask atop his head): “Aw, maaaaaaan…

Saturday would have been the calm before the storm, except that an actual storm rolled in early and dropped rain for much of the day. In any case we spent the day close to home, joining friends Eric and Betsy and adorably rambunctious 3-year-old Phoebe for brunch at their stylishly decorated loft condo, which overlooks the Gowanus Canal and offers breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline.

The rest of the afternoon was spent pounding out work at a café and strolling the cold, wet and windy streets of Brooklyn. That evening we settled in at Broccolino, a comfortably authentic Italian restaurant across the street from the Barclays Center (home of the New Jersey Nets) for my customary carbo-loading session. Another diner passed our table and instantly identified me as a runner, saying “You look like you’ve done this before.” He seemed like a pleasant and earnest fellow, so without further elaboration I chose to accept this as a compliment.

Back in our hotel room I organized my race-day gear, along with the extra layers needed to weather the two-hour wait outdoors on Staten Island. On the bright side, thanks to either lucky coincidence or shrewd planning by the NYRR, we’d be gaining an extra hour overnight with the end of daylight savings. Settling into bed for an extravagant 6½ hours of sleep, I lay in the dark listening to the Ghost of Marathons Yet To Come whistling and howling outside our window.

Getting there is half the battle (and half the fun)
And a restless ghost it was, as Sunday began just as Saturday had ended – dark and windy. If my iPhone alarm were not insisting it was 4:50am, I would have guessed I’d just fallen asleep. T minus 4 hours, 50 minutes until marathon start. Pulling aside the curtains, I was pleased to discover that at least the rain had subsided, which would make the wait on Staten Island significantly more tolerable, if not quite comfortable.

Methodically I dressed, donning my RaceRaves t-shirt along with black arm sleeves (for warmth) and calf sleeves (for compression). Jamming my gear into my drop bag along with my standard granola/yogurt/peanut butter breakfast for later, I bid Katie farewell until mile 6, when the course would pass in front of our hotel. Then I embarked on the subway-to-ferry-to-bus-to-start line journey that is a logistical hallmark of the NYRR’s flagship race.

Groggily poking at my phone on the near-deserted subway, my first real sense of forboding arrived as an email from the NYRR:

Due to high winds, we are reducing the amount of tenting, directional signage, and other structures at the marathon staging areas at the start, along the course, and at the finish.

Good thing I’d left my running cape back in California.

Staten Island Ferry - (C) Mike Sohaskey

Even in my groggy state at 6:15am, this was hard to miss

Twenty minutes later, listening to the animated chatter around me while awaiting the Manhattan ferry to Staten Island, I recalled Dan’s half-joking reference to NYC as the “Europe Descends Upon America” Marathon. Nowhere else in the U.S. have I ever been so grossly unable to eavesdrop. Myriad languages and conversations jostled for space in the crowded terminal, and only the PA announcer and the clearly readable ads decorating the walls confirmed I was no longer in Berlin.

My second real sense of forboding came on the ferry ride, when I stepped outside momentarily to snap a photo of the Statue of Liberty. Instantly my cheeks felt bombarded by tiny ice daggers, my eyes began to water and my nose began to run its own race.

You may think it’s funny that my nose was runny… but it’s snot.

Roughly an hour later, after a protracted but uneventful bus ride from the ferry terminal to Fort Wadsworth, I stood scanning the area where the “blue” runners gathered. (Runners are typically organized into three groups by color: blue and orange runners start on the upper deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, green runners start on the lower deck.) Although an orange runner myself, I was now in search of Otter, who’d been assigned to blue and had caught an earlier ferry. According to his Saturday text he’d be wearing a royal blue long sleeve shirt and dayglo orange running cap, a bright combination I figured would stand out in even a crowd this size.

Turns out the running gods have a wicked sense of humor.

Many among the assembled masses wore their official race shirt, an attractive royal blue long sleeve tee. Many others wore pom beanies bearing the orange-and-pink color scheme of race sponsor Dunkin’ Donuts. Hunting for Otter in the royal-blue-and-orange throng brought to mind the final museum scene from “The Thomas Crown Affair”. Admitting defeat and still needing to check my drop bag, I headed grudgingly toward the orange gathering area.

Did I mention I had 50 minutes to kill in a crowded corral

I had a “burst” setting and 50 minutes to kill in the start corral

Thirty minutes later I stood in my start corral, where all orange runners in Wave 1 would remain for another 50 minutes until race start. Luckily the corral was largely shielded from the wind. As in the ferry terminal, excited chatter in a thousand (or so) languages added to the electricity. I’d shed all my non-running clothes except for light gloves and January’s Mississippi Blues Marathon fleece with the broken zipper. Waiting in line for the porta-potty, I had to admit ignorance (if not indifference) to a fellow who saw the logo on my fleece and asked who’d won the Mississippi State vs. Arkansas football game.

Not knowing what to expect with the high winds, and planning to carry my iPhone so I could take pictures along the course, I lined up near the 3:30 pacer as a starting point.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at New York City Marathon start

Yes people of the world, RUN! Run from me and my mighty iPhone camera!

Staten Island start
Finally, at around 9:30am, the corral surged forward toward the direction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the waiting start line. Outer garments of all colors and sizes were discarded in the Goodwill bins, my own fleece among them. My prize for “most expendable garment” goes to the woman wearing a “Kerry/Edwards Iowa Election Team 2004” fleece with the price tag still attached.

In the distance the final notes of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” drifted faintly toward us before being whisked away on the prevailing gusts. Adrenalized runners jogged toward the start line, only to endure another “hurry up and wait” moment as race organizers made last-minute announcements over the PA, introducing Mayor Bill de Blasio and (twice) the elite runners.

Unlike the clear skies we’d left behind in Manhattan, a patchwork quilt of gray clouds had gathered over Staten Island and the Verrazano-Narrows. The weather – well, I’ll let The New York Times describe it:

The runners were greeted with a sunny day for the marathon, in contrast to Saturday’s rain and gloom, but it was cold and windy for the entire race. The temperatures poked into the mid-40s, and the winds were about 31 miles per hour at the start but gusted to nearly 50.

Nearly five hours after I’d awoken in the dark in Brooklyn, the starter’s pistol fired at last. Months of mounting hype and anticipation coursed through my body. My legs awoke from their four-day slumber and fired to life, carrying me confidently out onto the bridge…

… and into the teeth of Mother Nature’s ferocious lung power. After 60+ races, the wind on the Verrazano-Narrows was unlike any I’ve ever raced in. In fact, concerns over wind strength had compelled race organizers to shorten the wheelchair and handcycle races by three miles and move their start line to the Brooklyn side of the bridge. I can see how having your challenged athletes blown into the East River might make for a suboptimal race and some bad publicity.

Dunkin’ Donuts hats soon littered the road bed, and “tempest-tost” runners pushed forward with one hand on their chest as if to prevent their safety-pinned numbers from taking flight. With my head focused on battling the wind and struggling not to be blown off balance, I never felt the steady incline that makes mile 1 among the steepest on the course. At the same time I soaked up the scene around me – on Jeff’s recommendation I had begun on the left side of the bridge with the Manhattan skyline visible in the distance. Now I drifted cautiously toward the center divide to capture the runners streaming toward and away from me.

I glanced down as my Garmin chirped and vibrated to signal the end of mile 1 in 8:49. This certainly wasn’t beginning like a 3:30:00 marathon (average pace 8:00/mile)…

New York CIty Marathon - Brooklyn on 4th Ave

Heading north on 4th Avenue, with One Hanson Place on the horizon

Brooklyn
After mile 1, the bridge’s steady incline transitioned into a gradual decline, finally dropping us down into South Brooklyn. Here sunnier skies and gentler breezes greeted us on the six-mile trek north along 4th Avenue. Miles 2-8 passed through largely commercial/industrial neighborhoods, with One Hanson Place (formerly the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower) standing tall in the distance.

I distracted myself by scanning the spectators to my left, in the hopes of glimpsing Eric with Phoebe atop his shoulders cheering from the sidelines. I wasn’t sure where to expect them, and of course they could be on the right side of the road, in which case I’d miss them completely. At the same time I tried to appreciate the abundant spectator signage, while mentally filing away three of my favorites:

Restrooms are conveniently located at the finish!

If a marathon were easy, it would be called your Mom! (i.e. “Welcome to New York!”)

You are my density, Kosuke.

And I’ve gotta admit to enjoying the “big head” signs that spectators create for their favorite runner. If I saw a ginormous and disembodied image of my face bouncing up and down on the sidelines, I’d speed up if for no other reason than to escape the horror.

Approaching mile 6, my attention turned to where Katie waited outside our hotel on the (agreed-upon) left side of the road. The bluster atop the Verrazano-Narrows had yielded to now-perfect running weather, and I tossed her my gloves which by that point served only to hinder operation of my iPhone.

New York City Marathon elite packs (men and women) at mile 6

The men’s (not surprisingly with Meb in the lead) and women’s lead packs chew up mile 6 in Brooklyn

Nearly half the race (~12 miles) would be run in Brooklyn. During our stay, I appreciated Brooklyn for the simple fact that I saw more Dodgers apparel than Mets and Yankees gear combined, despite the fact that the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1957.

Other than bagpipes (always cool!) early in our Brooklyn segment, I can’t recall where I heard who for the musical entertainment. Sprinkled along the course were a gospel choir, assorted rock bands, Jack Johnson-type singer-songwriters and a horns section playing what sounded like “Eye of the Tiger” performed on whoopie cushion as we passed.

Finally around mile 9, our surroundings transformed into real Brooklyn – residential neighborhoods lined with traditional brownstones. Here immodest trees lined Bedford Avenue, scantily clad in green, orange and gold leaves and deep in the throes of their autumn striptease. Our more attractive surroundings helped to fend off the ennui that normally strikes around miles 9-13, which for me are the “gotta get through ‘em” miles.

Then it was past more shops and stores, past cheering Jews and gentiles and up onto the Pulaski Bridge, where we marked the halfway point of the marathon on our way out of Brooklyn. Stretched out ahead of and below us lay Queens.

New York City Marathon - Pulaski Bridge halfway point

13 down, 13 to go on the Pulaski Bridge leading from Brooklyn to Queens

Queens
Queens was probably – check that, definitely – the least memorable segment of our 26.2-mile journey. But in defense of Queens, this was largely due to the brevity of the segment rather than any shortcoming of the borough itself. Only two miles elapsed before our next transition, over Roosevelt Island and into Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge.

As the only bridge crossing where we didn’t run on the top deck, and which felt claustrophobic with its dark and rusted steel infrastructure overhead, Queensboro was my least favorite of the bridges.

The “highlight” of Queens was not a highlight at all; rather, I missed seeing Katie at mile 14 when she exited the subway on the right (i.e. wrong) side of the street and couldn’t cross over to the left side in time to catch me. Here, despite her innocuous position just off the curb, a walkie talkie-toting officer brusquely grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back, suggesting belligerently that “If you like running so much go join them, otherwise back away.” And Katie wasn’t alone – apparently Otter’s friend got to wear the metal bracelets after calling another officer a “prick” and telling him to “get off [his] high horse” in the face of similar treatment. Hey race security, hands off the spectators!

New York City Marathon - on 1st Avenue in Manhattan

Heading north on 1st Avenue in Manhattan – even the spectators had Dunkin’ Donuts hats

Manhattan
Most of the runners I talked to after the race – and especially the first-timers – said they hit a low point if not a wall right around the Queensboro Bridge (miles 16-17). This jibed with a telling statistic shared by one NYRR member at the expo on Friday. He cautioned runners to be wary of the transition off the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, saying an energizing burst of spectator support causes runners to accelerate by nearly 5% on average during this mile. For an 8:00 mile, 5% equates to 24 seconds… probably not what you want to be doing in mile 17 of a marathon. Especially as a first-timer.

Growing up in Texas I’m a fair judge – everything in Manhattan was bigger. The buildings, the crowds, the sense of being in the nation’s largest city. Running up 1st Ave, I tipped my imaginary cap as we passed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, one of the world’s foremost cancer research and treatment hospitals where several friends have and (in Eric’s case) still do work.

New York City Marathon - fun t-shirt

In my defense I only followed this guy for, like, 24 miles

Sometime in mile 17 or 18 I glanced up to see Kenya’s finest Wilson Kipsang smiling broadly on a huge video screen set up above the crowd to my left. Kipsang wore the laurel wreath crown declaring him the 2014 World Marathon Majors champion and (by extension) the NYC Marathon winner. Though I didn’t catch his finish time (a wind-swept 2:10:59 at a relatively lethargic 5:00/mile), I smiled knowing his victory had just earned him the $500,000 World Marathon Majors prize. Dennis Kimetto’s world record in Berlin notwithstanding, it’s tough to argue – after setting a course record in London and winning NYC outright – that Kipsang isn’t currently the greatest marathoner in the world. In any case, I’m amazingly lucky to have run my past two races with the two most recent world record holders.

And as I cruised along at my reasonably taxing 8:00/mile pace, the fact that Kipsang and I had started within two minutes of each other wasn’t lost on me. As the t-shirts say, in my mind I’m a Kenyan.

As if suddenly realizing it had only four miles left to wreak havoc, the northern wind awoke as we made our way up 1st Ave. Strong gusts reared their head for the first time since the Verrazano-Narrows, and discarded paper cups blew toward and swirled around us as we approached aid stations. It wasn’t ideal, but then again it wasn’t as debilitating as I’d imagined. Of course I’d imagined my pants and shoes blowing off, so clearly perception is all about expectations.

You’ve heard of shrinkage? That’s exactly what happened to the buildings as we transitioned into East Harlem and high-rises turned to low-rises. Soon we found ourselves heading up the Willis Ave Bridge, over the Harlem River and into the Bronx.

New York City Marathon - Willis Ave Bridge entering Bronx

That fellow straddling the rail to the right? Definitely not running the tangents

The Bronx
Our mile+ in the Bronx passed quickly, and given that it was mile 20 I’m guessing most runners were preoccupied with their own mind games and trying to coax their hip flexors back to life. In any case my own memories of the Bronx were limited to 1) red brick facades, and 2) an older lady holding up a sign that read “Thanks for visiting the Bronx. See you next year!”

Crossing five major bridges within 21 miles (literally) elevates NYC above other urban marathons. Starting and running on the Verrazano-Narrows is hands down the highlight of the course; however, the Madison Ave (138th St) Bridge by which we re-entered Manhattan from the Bronx, with its Erector Set-like construction and arch bridge design, holds a certain charm of its own.

Five bridge crossings sounds like an intricate bit of course choreography on the NYRR’s part, until you realize that the city has over 2,000 of them. Basically, New York City is one big bridge.

New York City Marathon - 5th Avenue in Manhattan

By the time we reached Manhattan for the second time, many runners were shadows of their former selves

Manhattan, the sequel
Approximately 9 miles of the marathon were run through the streets of Manhattan. Together with the 12 miles or so through Brooklyn, this meant roughly 80% of the race would take place in Brooklyn and Manhattan. This also meant that in hop-skip-&-jumping through the other boroughs, the course bypassed both Citi Field (home of the Mets) in Queens and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Ah well, can’t win ‘em all – especially if you’re the Mets! {rimshot}

Heading south down 5th Ave toward Central Park, buildings and spectators were silhouetted against the midday sun directly ahead of us. I spied Katie – smiling and cheering as always – for the second and final time at mile 22. And the wind – damn, we were still running into a headwind! I should have known better than to trust that a headwind would seamlessly morph into a tailwind once we turned the other cheek(s) – winds like these don’t blow in one direction, they swirl.

New York City Marathon - Mike Sohaskey in mile 22 (Harlem)

Cruising through Harlem in mile 22

As usual I bypassed the aid stations, opting instead to pop the occasional Clif Shot Blok and use that time to snap photos. With every stop I noticed the 3:30 pacer gradually fading in the distance, until his sign was engulfed in the surging wall of bodies ahead of me. Stifling my competit-osity, I chose not to put my head down and give chase, since what did I stand to gain other than more quickly finishing a race I was in no hurry to finish?

As we skirted Central Park along 5th Ave I was too busy sightseeing and picture-taking to feel the steady tug of gravity. Even so, with its deceptively steady uphill mile 24 (Museum Mile) ended as my second-slowest of the day. Understandably this late-stage ascent broke some wills, and a couple of runners stopped right in front of me in the middle of the street, so that I barely avoided rear-ending them (note to reader: don’t never ever NEVER do this). Others showed Rocky Balboa-like stamina in refusing to concede; these exhausted souls simply drifted into or out of my path, as though inebriated or blown gently by the crosswind.

As my Garmin chimed to signal the end of mile 25, I glanced down for the first time since mile 1 to see the display reading 3:22:something. And I decided that a sub-3:33:00 would be an excellent goal.

New York Marathon - Central Park home stretch

Mile 26: fall foliage meets finishing fever in Central Park

In and out of Central Park
At last we skirted Columbus Circle and turned north into Central Park. Reaching the final straightaway, with the world’s flags flanking the road along with bleachers of rowdy spectators, I momentarily considered pulling up short to snap one final photo. Then I quickly came to my senses, discarded that idea as borderline reckless and crossed the multi-hued mat to finish World Marathon Major #3 – and the largest marathon ever held – in 3:32:04.

Realizing I’d quickly be herded away from the finish line in the opposite direction, I took a few steps forward to get out of the way before turning and taking one final photo of the oncoming finisher’s traffic. Soon afterward I received an awesome text from Jen back in the Bay Area, who’d been watching the marathon coverage on ESPN2 and had seen me with camera raised at the finish line.

And just like that, RaceRaves had our first national TV exposure!

New York City Marathon - Finish line

Victorious runners stream across the finish line, all warmed up for the long walk out of Central Park

I gratefully (as always) accepted my medal and mylar heatsheet from a friendly (as always) volunteer, and began the long mile 27 walk toward 85th St at the northern end of the park. A huge swath of Central Park was designated as a “frozen” zone inaccessible to spectators, and so runners had to exit the park before reuniting with friends and family. Meaning the next 30-45 minutes just sucked. Exhausted yet elated runners shuffled north toward their designated exits, those who’d checked bags having to walk farther than those who had not. Meanwhile, Central Park’s inviting green expanses lay inaccessible behind makeshift fences to our right.

Race organization and execution was unrivaled, it really was… and I can’t imagine what goes on behind the scenes to choreograph so many moving parts. But my one (significant) complaint to the NYRR would be this: I understand that New York as a city is hypervigilant about security, but YOU HAVE TO OPEN UP CENTRAL PARK TO RUNNERS AND SPECTATORS. Roll in food trucks and sponsor booths and let the runners celebrate their accomplishment (keep in mind that upwards of 75% just finished their first marathon!). And if security is your primary concern, throw up your makeshift fences around the post-race party and install metal detectors at the entrances – it worked on Staten Island before the race, so why not in Central Park after?

New York Marathon - Heatsheet crowd at finish

It was as if the Dunkin’ Donuts hats turned into mylar heatsheets after the race

This long cold stroll out of Central Park prevented finishers from cheering on other runners at the finish and from easily finding each other after the race. I had no chance of hanging around to catch either Jeff or Otter – once your race was over, your race was OVER. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Without the benefit of 8:00/mile progress to keep me warm, and with cold gusts blowing my heatsheet up around my armpits like Marilyn Monroe’s iconic wind-blown dress, self-congratulation soon turned to self-preservation.

Runners who chose not to check a bag would have a shorter post-race walk and receive a Marathon finish poncho upon exiting the park. Given we live in a region where it never rains and rarely drops below 50°F, I opted for the bag drop, deciding I needed a poncho like Lebron James needs a pair of cleats. In retrospect, had I known a) how nice the ponchos would be (were those vinyl?) and b) by the time I retrieved my bag I’d be shivering too hard to even tap out a text, I might have reconsidered.

“You just ran 26 miles, don’t stop smiling now!” offered one female volunteer to shivering, slack-jawed finishers along this stretch. Thanks, shiny happy volunteer in jacket, gloves and long pants!

But all’s swell than ends swell, and my New York state of mind quickly returned once I found Katie and donned warmer clothes.

New York City Marathon winners (1970 & 2014)

Then and now: Gary Muhrcke wins the 1970 inaugural NYC Marathon in 2:31:38 (photo @NYCParks via Instagram); Wilson Kipsang crosses the 2014 finish line in 2:10:59 (photo AP)

Not only was the 2014 New York City Marathon the largest marathon ever held (with 50,564 finishers), but the race also celebrated the one-millionth finisher in its 44-year history. Congrats to Brooklyn native and one-millionth finisher Katherine Slingluff, whose 4:43:36 performance guaranteed her entry into the NYC Marathon for life. If you haven’t gotten your “funny photo fix of the week” yet, check out this awkward gem.

As World Marathon Majors go, NYC was a better overall experience than Berlin (PR notwithstanding), due in large part to its stellar production. So then how did this windy city compare to The Windy City? Setting aside my preference for Chicago the other 364 days a year, the NYC Marathon is a remarkably ambitious production, epic in scope and challenging by design. And yet I still think the flatter course in Chicago does a better job of showcasing the city’s distinct neighborhoods, ethnic diversity and architectural grandeur. Nowhere else but Chicago have strangers on the street congratulated me upon seeing my medal. And Chicago even lets its runners step on the grass in Grant Park after the race.

So as much as I’d recommend NYC, and though I’m not quite ready to buy Dan’s impassioned argument for Chicago as the “best race in the world,” I would give the World Marathon Majors edge to Chicago. As huge and impersonal races go, Chicago just felt more personal. But you can bet all three medals will hang proudly on my wall alongside each other for a long time.

That night, as we nestled all snug in our hotel room bed, the Ghost of Marathons Past took the baton from its predecessor, whistling and howling and raising a ruckus outside our window. Only this time I smiled to myself, knowing we had nowhere to go.

So let it blow, let it blow, let it blow.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at the New York City Marathon finish line

Getting our “hurry up and smile before they dismantle the finish line” on

BOTTOM LINE: New York City is a marathon in every sense of the word, and if you don’t like your races epic, you probably won’t enjoy New York. But I’m willing to bet you will – and that like the rest of us, once you’re running through its five boroughs with thousands of raucous strangers cheering you on, you’ll be willing to forgive New York its logistical hoops. The lengthy lag time between rise-and-shine and time-to-run is now an engrained part of the New York experience; it’s well worth the chance to start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and it hella beats running several loops within Central Park (as runners did until 1976). And by the time you reach that start line, you’ll be ready to run through a wall. Besides, what marathoner doesn’t want to be part of the world’s largest running party? Boston may be the marathoning mecca for the fast kids, but for everyone else, that distinction goes to New York City.

New York City Marathon 2014 medal
PRODUCTION: Not once did I hear – nor have I ever heard – a single runner complain about the marathon’s $255 entry fee ($288 for me, taking into account my three previous lottery entries at $11 apiece). Because it’s clear where all the money goes. This is a first-class production, choreographed down to the smallest detail and on par with the Best of Broadway. The NYRR did a {insert superlative here} job of ensuring the race and the entire weekend went off without a hitch. The expo was easily navigable, the swag (nice shirt, cool medal, sleek finisher poncho) was great, and the entire weekend was laid out in a colorful 53-page PDF, of which half the pages were ads.

So race production was silky smooth from the time we set foot in the expo to the moment I crossed the finish line. Which makes the NYRR’s misstep in mile 27 even more perplexing. Once the cheering died, and despite finding ourselves in the city’s emerald oasis, exhausted finishers were unceremoniously funneled out of the park and regurgitated onto Central Park West. Even – or maybe especially – with post-marathon brain it struck me: Why can’t we hang out here?

Note to NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg: official post-race party or not, that’s your call… but you need to convince the city to open up Central Park to your runners and spectators. You already have the biggest race on the planet – this will bring you one step closer to having the best.

You must know better than anyone that endorphins sell merch. Were I in your position, I would a) be overwhelmed, but b) take full advantage of each and every runner’s post-race euphoria and hard-earned sense of accomplishment by setting up food carts, sponsor booths, a massage tent, the Asics finisher gear store and a medal engraving station right there in Central Park. My guess is the NYRR lost a lot of potential profit by inexplicably herding runners out of Central Park immediately after the race, and by asking them to return on Monday to buy finisher gear and have their medal engraved. Many folks were on their way home or already back at work by Monday, so this finish-line faux pas was a head-scratcher.

FINAL STATS:
November 2, 2014
26.37 miles in New York, NY (state 8 of 50, World Marathon Major 3 of 6)
Finish time & pace: 3:32:04 (first time running the NYC Marathon), 8:03/mile
Finish place: 4,772 overall, 864/5,881 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 50,511 (30,097 men, 20,414 women), largest marathon ever
Race weather: clear and windy (starting temp 43°F, winds 31 mph gusting up to 50 mph)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 499ft ascent, 529ft descent

Mile split times

One chance is all you need.
– Jesse Owens

Berlin Marathon - runners finishing through Brandenburg Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Berlin Marathon Expo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon - Tiergarten start & finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho straddling boundary of former Berlin Wall

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

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

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

KT_6K finish

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

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

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

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

Tom Grilk_Executive Director Boston Athletic Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at 7KM marker - Berlin Marathon 2014

Almost missing Katie at the 7-km mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey on Berlin Marathon course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon - Top 3 female finishers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - finishing Berlin Marathon through the Brandenburg Gate

On the shiny happy side of the Brandenburg Gate

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - at Berlin Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Daniel Otto at Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Herzel celebrating Berlin Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon 2014 medal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin splits

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

The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other… but to be with each other.
– Christopher McDougall, Born To Run

Bixby Bridge, midway point of Big Sur International Marathon

The iconic Bixby Bridge, midway point of the Big Sur International Marathon

There’s a lot to be said for running on the ragged edge of the Western world.

I could happily fill this post with my usual edge-of-your-seat, 4,000-word race report.  After all, there’s a reason the Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM) appears on so many “must-run” lists, including the Men’s Health bucket list of “11 Races to Run Before You Die”.  There’s a reason (aside from his likeness appearing on the mile 24 course marker) Bart Yasso of Runner’s World says, “If we were told we could only run one marathon in our lifetime, Big Sur would have to be it.”  And there’s a reason this year’s race sold out in a record 59 minutes (after the 2013 edition had taken, appropriately enough, 26.2 hours to fill).

I could easily fill this post with shameless shout-outs to all the friends who reminded me that the benefits of running extend far beyond the cardiovascular:

  • Bay Area buddies Jen and Tim, who enjoyed what may have been Jen’s strongest marathon to date. Whether you’re planning to run Big Sur yourself or prefer to race vicariously, I’d recommend her meticulously detailed race report.
  • Otter, who I’d first met in Portland last year and who showed serious fortitude with a sub-4:15 finish at Big Sur, despite a nagging knee injury that had prevented him from running anything longer than ten miles since November. An awful lot of life stuff can happen when you commit to a race nine months in advance.
  • And a remarkable contingent of fellow Antarctica 2013 travelers in Donn and Rod, Wally and Larissa, Melissa and Wayne, Drew, Gerard, Karen, Liz, Louann and Mike.  Amazingly, of the 100 passengers who boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov last March, 13 of us (plus one crew member in Liz) were reunited in Monterey.  And my loudest shout-out would go to Mike, who in support of his sister Mindy’s battle against breast cancer left nothing in the tank, running a 3:22:49 on what may be the toughest road marathon course in the country.
Mike Sohaskey and Jen with Big Sur International Marathon finisher's medallions

Me and Jen got it, so we gonna flaunt it!

Mike Sohaskey & Otter at Big Sur International Marathon start

Sporting a tan camel’s hair blazer over teal race shirt, Otter was an easy find at the start line
(photo credit the nice lady holding Otter’s cell phone)

Drew, Mike Sohaskey and Donn after Big Sur International Marathon

Great to catch up with Antarctica travel mates including Drew (left, celebrating his 24th state and
28th marathon) and Donn (right), without the ground swaying beneath us

If I were to reference old friends, I’d be remiss in not acknowledging new ones – particularly Big Sur Marathon veteran Bala from Sunnyvale, who has the questionable distinction of being the first person to officially recognize and approach me based on having read the blog.  Thanks for introducing yourself Bala, it was a pleasure to meet you despite the ribbing I took afterward as “famous blogging guy”.  Hopefully your own weekend in Big Sur was a resounding success… and hopefully you’re still reading!

Turning away from the sunbeams and rainbows, I could try (unsuccessfully) to share my angst from the week leading up to the race, an angst I owed to a stubborn case of plantar fasciitis (PF) that had taken hold of my left heel in mid-March, causing both foot and training regimen to suffer.  A 26 x 200m track workout ten days before Big Sur – which ironically felt good and seemed like a good idea at the time – reduced me to a zombie-like limp for two days afterward.

But it wasn’t so much the idea of running the Big Sur Marathon with PF that stressed me out – it was the idea of not running the Big Sur Marathon with PF.  Big Sur was unequivocally not a race I wanted to DNS.  And if I started the race, then I would finish the race, even if it meant awkwardly limp, step, limp, step-ping my way through 26.2 miles.  For this reason, I set my “A” goal for race day at a don’t-do-anything-stupid four hours, with my “B” goal being simply to cross the finish line under my own power.  I figured if I could complete a hilly midnight marathon at altitude on a sprained ankle in less than four hours, then four hours should be a reasonable goal for Big Sur.  All in all, a very scientific appraisal.

Hurricane Point, mile 12 of Big Sur International Marathon

View from Hurricane Point, three days after the race (the Bixby Bridge is just visible in the distance)

As for the race itself, I could fill paragraphs reflecting on the easily navigated pre-race expo, the flawlessly executed pre-dawn (4:00am) shuttle ride to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the start-line sendoff from American marathon record-holder Deena Kastor, the finish-line massage tent, and every vivid detail in between.  I could recount the most memorable snippets of conversation overheard during my 3:56:19 journey (“A raisin or pistachio out the window in a big city is not littering – fact.”).

And normally I would.

But at the Big Sur International Marathon, the point-to-point course – beginning in Big Sur and running north to Carmel – is the star of the show.  With its seemingly infinite blue-on-blue oceanscapes of swirling whitecaps pounding rocky outcroppings, the ragged coastline is quintessential California.  And it’s a key reason so many Californians will tell you that the relatively high cost of living here is negligible compared to the higher cost of not living here.

Big Sur International Marathon course on Google Earth

(Google Earth; click on the image for a larger version)

The BSIM course speaks for itself.  And so for once – with the help of the GoPro camera I wore (with variable success) during the race – I’ll let it.  Apologies for the oft-shaky video… but then again I am running, and despite our proximity this ain’t Hollywood.  So turn up the volume, and keep an eye out for:

  • the soaring, awe-inspiring redwoods of Big Sur (~0:17)
  • Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes, seen at several points wearing a white-and-orange singlet.  Dean was running his own Karnazesque version of the BSIM, having already run 32 miles from Monterey to the start line in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park earlier that morning.  I even seized the opportunity to strike up a brief conversation (not shown in the video) – after all, what better time than during a marathon to talk shop with a man who once ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days?
  • the Watsonville Taiko Drummers, just before the climb up to Hurricane Point (~1:30)
  • the iconic Bixby Bridge at mile 13 (~2:25)
  • pianist Michael Martinez on a Yamaha Grand Piano, just past the Bixby Bridge (~3:20)
  • a fleeting glimpse of a cheering Katie leaning over the Barnyard sign at the finish (~5:15)
  • as well as crazy ocean views and quirky-cool mile markers (unfortunately I didn’t catch the best of the day’s markers at mile 14, which showed Kenyan marathoner Stephen Muange “motivating” oncoming runners with taunts of “In my country, we call that walking”).

Thanks for watching!

BOTTOM LINE: Not to disagree with the fellow singing plaintively in the above video, but I’d go back to Big Sur in a heartbeat.  Nearly as impressive as the course itself is that the BSIM boasts an impressive field of national and international runners (from 50 states and 30 countries) while maintaining a decidedly low-key vibe.  Yes, the BSIM will be among the toughest road marathons you’ll ever run, and if you’re looking for a Boston Qualifier then keep looking.  But if you’re the type of runner who prefers to run with your head up regardless of pacing, you’ll be richly rewarded with stunning views on even the cloudiest day.  And if I were to recommend just one road marathon in California, I have to agree with Bart Yasso that this would be it.

Unfortunately, change for the not-better may be imminent, as rumors swirling around race weekend hinted that registration for next year’s race could move to a {shudder} lottery system.  We’ll know for sure come May 15, when new registration procedures are announced.  Don’t do it, BSIM organizers!

If you’ll be running the BSIM as a destination race (smart choice!), your most convenient option will likely be to fly into the San José International Airport, then either drive or catch the Monterey Airbus down to the Monterey Peninsula.  Alternatively, the Monterey Airport – with direct flights to Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and San Diego – is located only minutes away from downtown, site of both host hotels as well as the race expo.  Leave yourself time for a leisurely self-guided tour of this quaint seaside town including its premier destination, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Mike Sohaskey heading toward Big Sur International Marathon finish line

Homeward bound!

PRODUCTION: Not to be outdone by the course itself, race production was almost picture-perfect. The Goldilocks-style expo (not too big, not too small, but just right), conveniently located adjacent to both host hotels, was easy to navigate. The pre-race pasta dinner, though a bit pricey at $25, hit the spot without poisoning any runners. The 4:00am shuttles assigned to carry marathoners the 30+ miles to the start were dispatched efficiently and ran on time – and if I’m not mistaken, I thought I heard Race Director Doug Thurston say they mobilized 185 buses (!) on race day. Where they found 185 buses in Monterey and Carmel, I have no idea.

The most consistent element of every race I run seems to be the fantastic volunteers, and the BSIM was no exception. The selfless folks in maroon shirts worked tirelessly to ensure that every runner’s race experience was as positive and as worry-free as possible. Special thanks to Cheryl for my first-ever post-race massage, which refreshed my tired legs despite its inability to appease my overworked plantar fascia.

On a more somber note, my condolences go out to the family and loved ones of the volunteer bike marshal who died after collapsing near the 21-mile mark during the race.

Aside from the prominent Michelob Ultra tent in the post-race Marathon Village (all the appealing local microbrews to pick from, and we end up with Michelob?), my only legitimate gripe from the weekend would be the disappointing performance of the runner tracking app, which after the 13.1-mile mark became increasingly unreliable. I’m not exactly sure why runner tracking is such a difficult technology to implement correctly, but its erratic behavior in this case wreaked havoc on my ability to catch friends at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie at the finish of Big Sur International Marathon

At the finish line, “PF” stood for “Pretty F@#&ing happy to be done”

 

Big Sur International Marathon medallion

Big Sur is a road marathon with some serious mussels muscle

FINAL STATS:
April 27, 2014
26.4 miles from Big Sur to Carmel, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:56:19 (first time running the Big Sur International Marathon), 9:01/mile (moving time 3:55:15, including one pit stop in mile 6)
Finish place: 630/3,338 overall, 74/264 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 3,338 (marathon), 631 (21 miler), 1,225 (10.6 miler), 755 (9 miler), 571 (5K)
Race weather: cloudy and cool (starting temp 54°F), with minimal wind
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,235ft ascent, 2,521ft descent

BSIM splits


Official first-half split = 1:57:01; second-half split = 1:59:18