Archive for the ‘World Marathon Majors’ Category

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

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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

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.
– Henry Ford

“I predict sub 3 30.”

My brother sent his text the week before I’d be running the Chicago Marathon, and at the time I thought little of it. Why should I?  My previous two marathons, the California International Marathon in December 2011 and the L.A. Marathon earlier this year, had yielded successive personal records (PRs) of 3:39:15 and 3:37:53 respectively, a not-so-whopping improvement of one minute, 22 seconds.  And both courses had been relatively flat.  Not only that, but Chicago Marathoners had experienced/endured unseasonably hot temperatures in four of the past five years (by contrast, the 2009 race saw temperatures dip below freezing).  So I’d automatically – and wisely, I thought – adjusted my mindset to expect hot temperatures on race day, and to deal with them as best I could.  When possible I’d even trained under the East Bay sun, with the pace for my most recent long run – 15 miles in 86°F heat – projecting to a sub-3:35 marathon pace.  But regardless of conditions, 15 miles is not 26.2.  And with all that in mind, the thought of somehow shaving another eight minutes off my PR seemed, well, not happenable.

So I was pleasantly surprised when, five days before the race, I received an email from Marathon organizers telling us that “the weather on race day is projected to be partly cloudy, with low temperatures in the upper 30s to low 40s, and high temperatures in the low to mid 50s (degrees F).”  This corresponded to an Event Alert Level of “Green” (Low), which promised favorable conditions for marathon running.  At that point I remembered Chuck’s text, and my mental gears began to turn.  Slowly, to be sure, but the seed had been planted.

Mike Sohaskey after running 2012 Chicago Marathon

To complement the race itself, I’d decided 2½ weeks before race day to run Chicago as a member of Team LIVESTRONG.  Originally established as the Lance Armstrong Foundation, LIVESTRONG is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide one-on-one support for cancer survivors and their families, to empower them and help them face the challenges of cancer head-on.  Unfortunately Armstrong’s ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and U.S.A. Track and Field’s weak-willed agreement to recognize the ban, extended to his running in this year’s Chicago Marathon.  Because Armstrong’s inability to run threatened to weaken LIVESTRONG’s fundraising efforts, I’d decided to help raise funds and awareness to support their cause.  After which many incredibly generous and supportive friends and family, in turn, stepped up to help me achieve this goal in a relatively short amount of time.

So then Chicago would be about more than setting a new PR or hitting a specific time goal… I’d also be motivated and inspired by Team LIVESTRONG and all those who supported my cause.  Particularly gratifying were the individual shout-outs of support that accompanied each donation, shout-outs ranging from sincere (“RunSTRONG, Mike!” and “We support your every step”) to painfully sincere (“Will look for your final time if my browser manages to scroll that far down”).

More on my LIVESTRONG experience, and those who made it possible, later in this post.

Thanks, Chicago… “We’re glad we’re here” too!

On THURSDAY Katie and I flew from Oakland to Chicago Midway, giving us two full days to acclimate our sleep schedules to the two-hour time change.  We’d be staying with close friends Pete and Faby (and their unflappable feline boss Chloe) in the threesome’s comfy and conveniently located 18th-floor high-rise apartment at the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Roosevelt Road, within a mile of both the start and finish lines of the marathon.  As an added bonus, their living space faces directly north overlooking Grant Park, the central hub of Marathon goings-on where the start line, finish line and post-race party would all convene.  With effectively zero planning on our part, this was a strong start to the weekend.

Race-day view facing north from Pete and Faby’s place: Michigan Ave. borders Grant Park on the west, while
E. Roosevelt Rd. (“the hill”) borders Grant Park to the south and is flanked along its length by red banners.  Marathoners can be seen on E. Roosevelt approaching the finish line.  Lake Michigan can be seen at right.

FRIDAY for us was Expo Day, the ritual pre-race boot camp where runners assemble to claim their registration materials, racing bib (i.e. number) and timing chip.  In a kinder, gentler age of running back when my brother was the sole (no pun intended) runner in our family, race officials would actually mail each runner’s materials to him/her before the race.  At some point in the past decade, however, race organizers (and their influential sponsors) must have realized they were missing out on a gem of a retail opportunity: a captive audience of adrenalized runners with racing on the brain and a magnetic attraction to any running-related paraphernalia promising them that elusive “edge”.  And with that, the mandatory pre-race expo was born.

No matter what your expectations for the pre-race expo, this year’s “Health & Fitness Expo” at McCormick Place in downtown Chicago did not disappoint.  It was among the largest expos I’ve attended, with Long Beach, L.A. and San Francisco being the other contenders.  After our shuttle bus dropped us off between Gates 26 and 27 (maybe, say, 26.2?), we followed the signs through the cavernous hallways and up the escalators to where fit-looking folks by the thousands – the vast majority of them reflective white like me – filled one enormous bustling hall.  Nearly all of these marathoners-to-be carried unwieldy Bank Of America-sanctioned swag bags while eliciting glances of (was that envy or scorn?) from the buttoned-up suits filing into and out of the “GRAPH Expo” next door.

When the Nike-bots issue an order, you Just Do It.

Some folks tackled the expo with more deliberate mindsets, whereas most behaved instead like human examples of Brownian motion, diffusing semi-randomly between sponsor booths.  Katie and I fell somewhere between these two extremes: not quite overwhelmed enough to diffuse aimlessly, yet in no real hurry to leave.  And as we strolled the aisles, I noticed a distinct difference between this expo and those I’d attended in California, reflecting perhaps the “Midwestern sensibilities” I’ve heard so much about.  Chicago resembled a more straightforward trade show featuring the most reputable names in running – names like Nike, Asics, Brooks, Saucony, Merrell, Clif Bar, PowerBar and Gatorade.  Representatives manning the booths were for the most part helpful without being pushy.  And although an expo’s an expo, and Chicago’s expo still left me restless for the more carefully choreographed chaos of the Marathon itself, it was decidely more positive than my usual expo-rience.

Because in contrast, California running expos are more likely to feature overcaffeinated meatheads and bronzed booth babes loudly hawking the latest in barely digestible energy bars, alkalinized drinking water, unproven nutritional supplements, and even over-the-top gimmickry such as rubber “Power Balance” bracelets that even the parent company admits are a complete sham.  Not to mention (but I will) that the organizers of possibly the state’s most popular marathon, the Big Sur Marathon, insist on having a booth at nearly all California running expos, despite knowing full well that they’ll be peddling an already sold-out event.  Ah, the hardships we endure who live and run on the West Coast.

Friday night we attended a pre-race dinner for Team LIVESTRONG members at Wrigley Field, featuring a few words by Team LIVESTRONG representatives as well as Chicago Cubs first baseman and Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor Anthony Rizzo.  This was the first time the LIVESTRONG folks had organized a pre-race event, and hopefully it won’t be the last… the evening provided an excellent opportunity to meet fellow fundraisers/runners in a relaxed setting, and to hear more about LIVESTRONG’s mission without the discomforting feeling of being slammed through a propaganda and marketing machine.  We even had a chance to stroll the dugouts and home plate area of Wrigley Field.  This was Katie’s first visit to Wrigley, and I doubt many other first-time (or any-time) visitors can boast a similar on-field experience.  All in all, a well-planned and well-executed event on LIVESTRONG’s part.  If only the bar hadn’t run out of 312 Urban Wheat Ale so early in the evening….

Team LIVESTRONG members at Wrigley Field… together we raised more than $237,000 at the
Chicago Marathon.  Katie and I are in the center, near the back.  (photo © 2012 Stephen Green Photography)

SATURDAY was spent stepping off curbs very carefully, restricting my diet (though not my calories), running a slow 3 miles with Pete along Lake Shore Drive, brunching with former labmate Vivian, visiting the Field Museum, and avoiding the torrent of Coors Light-toting college football fans streaming toward Soldier Field to watch Notre Dame play the University of Miami.  Hey Notre Dame fan: nothing says “Catholic family values” like a t-shirt that reads “Sucks to be U” or “If you don’t bleed blue & gold, take your bitch ass home.”

By the time 5:40am arrived on SUNDAY morning and my alarm began to jangle incessantly, I was good and ready to be good and running.  After all the training, all the tapering, all the expo-sure, and all the anticipation and visualization, it was go time at last.  As Katie and I prepared for our morning, we watched the sky over Grant Park and Lake Michigan likewise wake up and progressively brighten as the nervous, shivering throngs gathered in the park below.  Soon we joined them and headed immediately toward Start Corral “B”, where I’d begin my circuitous running tour of Chicago with the thousands of other Wave 1 runners anxiously awaiting the 7:30am start.  Slower runners would follow in Wave 2 at 8:00am.

The elite runners stretch before the race… they look even leggier in person (Agora sculpture in Grant Park)

7:18am, and the Wave 1 Start Corrals closed promptly at 7:20am.  Katie was radiating her own nervous energy as we said our good-byes at the gate to the corrals.  “Are you sure you don’t want those?” she asked hurriedly as I stripped off my arm warmers.  “Yes, that’s why I’m taking them off,” I assured her.  Despite the chill in the air (temperatures ranged from 40°F at the start to 47°F at 11:00am), the electricity of the day was invigorating, and I had no trouble staying warm as we were herded, like cattle in compression gear, into our designated Start Corral to await the official start.

I excuse-me’d my way between tightly-packed bodies and positioned myself between the 3:30 and 3:35 pace groups. I’d resolved to keep the 3:35 pacers behind me and then decide on the fly whether to pursue the 3:30 group.  I’d rather run the first half too fast and lose steam later, than start too slow to give myself a legitimate shot at a PR and maybe even 3:30.  I didn’t necessarily expect to break 3:30… the thought of running an entire marathon at an 8 minute/mile average pace may sound good in the Start Corral, with the buzz of pre-race adrenaline and 5-Hour Energy coursing through my bloodstream.  But once we hit the streets, the reality of the race could be dramatically different. As always though, I urged myself to trust my training and push it as far as it would take me.

What do you mean you don’t see me??? I’m RIGHT THERE in the gold shirt!
(photo © 2012 Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media)

With a collective cheer from the teeming masses and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” blasting from what sounded like a McDonald’s drive-thru speaker (no fries with that, gotta run!), the 35th Bank of America Chicago Marathon was under way.  Pete and Faby, at home watching the local NBC affiliate’s marathon broadcast, caught a glimpse of me staring down at my Garmin as I crossed the start line.  Not exactly prime-time stuff, but still more auspicious than my 1996 television debut on “Good Morning Texas”, something those who know… know.

As the first wave of spectators loudly showcased their lung capacity from the BP Pedestrian Bridge, we exited Grant Park, passed through the Columbus tunnel and made our first of six crossings over the Chicago River.  These bridge crossings over the river would be the only “hills” (more like fat speed bumps) on the course until the final 400m along Roosevelt Road.

Aerial view of the BP Pedestrian Bridge overlooking the Marathon start line on Columbus Drive (photo © 2012 Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media)

I was careful not to let the fired-up mob mentality dictate my early pace… many runners surrender to their adrenaline and fly out of the chute like their hair’s on fire, only to pay for that decision later.  For the first time in a race, I’d set my Garmin to display both my current mile pace and my overall pace, so I’d know my status at all times.  Early in a race when you’re feeling good, it can be tough to gauge your precise pace… at one point between miles 1 and 2, a fellow next to me asked, “How fast are you running?”  I glanced down at my watch – my current pace read 7:01, yow – and quickly backed off the accelerator, as the voice of experience in my head reminded me that every second I ran too fast at the beginning would come back to haunt me several-fold at the end.

I first saw (and heard) Katie with her yellow LIVESTRONG pompom in the raucous crowd at mile 2.  Soon after a physical median created a fork in the road on N. LaSalle… I forked left, ahead of the 3:30 pacers who forked right. Ne’er again would we meet.

Chicago is a stylish city to be sure, and the powerful verticality of its skyline is always breathtaking.  The city’s most imposing glass-and-steel monoliths, the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and John Hancock Center, were both visible at different points along the course.  And we ran through several interesting neighborhoods, most notably Little Italy and Chinatown with its fuzzy, oversized red dragon masks and “Welcome to Chinatown” arch engraved in gold cursive letters.  But for the most part, the neighborhoods we traversed didn’t stand out in my (admittedly tired) mind. And I have to admit… as big-city marathons go, I prefer Los Angeles. Starting at Dodger Stadium and ending next to the ocean on the Santa Monica Pier – with Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and the legendary nightclubs of the Sunset Strip in between – is a tough act to follow.  And for better or worse, unlike L.A. I saw no barefoot runners at Chicago.

But no matter where we were on the course, the volunteers and assembled spectators were invariably rowdy and incredibly supportive.  Chicagoans, for the most part, genuinely seem to embrace the marathon and its runners, and I’m told that Marathon Sunday in October is practically a city-wide holiday.  Upon seeing my medal, several people on the street afterward were quick to smile and tell me “great job, congratulations!”  That was very cool, and it’s not something I’ve ever felt in California where people tend to be more… well, self-involved.  In the most densely packed areas along the course, spectator enthusiasm – as communicated by the sheer volume of their cheering – provided a brief but welcome distraction from the monotony of step-step-breathe, step-step-breathe….

Race volunteers were fantastic, though a ceramic bowl can be tricky to sip Gatorade out of while running (Inside Ancient Egypt at The Field Museum, Chicago)

On the other hand, whereas the quantity was high, I couldn’t help being disappointed by the quality of spectator signage along the course… the generic (i.e. non-personalized ) messages along the course were for the most part uninspired.  Usually I see at least one sign I haven’t seen before that makes me laugh, and I’m sure that sign (and at least a few other clever messages) were out there on Sunday.  I just missed ’em.  Instead I found myself counting the number of “WORST PARADE EVER” (I stopped at six) and “_____ MILES UNTIL BEER” (I lost count) signs.  The “GO RANDOM RUNNER!” sign was more annoying than anything.  And in my own non-violent way, I always want to punch the idiot holding an “ALMOST THERE!” sign anywhere in the first 20 miles… you’re not clever, you’re not funny, and you’re not the first.

But turning gators into Gatorade, I was able to co-opt the motivation from several “GO MIKE, GO!” signs along the course, as well as briefly running alongside a fellow with “MIKE” written on his shirt who was being cheered by name sometime after mile 20.

And speaking of spectators, none of ’em were more spec(tator)tacular on this day than Katie, who legged out roughly 9 miles of her own so she could see me and take pictures at miles 2, 13, 17, 20 and 26… and who still managed to squeeze in a Starbucks stop between miles 2 and 13.  She’s my performance-enhancing, not-so-secret weapon.  GO KATIE, GO!

Katie and I were both happy to reach the post-race party… we covered more than 35 miles between us!

Consistent with my usual racing strategy I avoided the aid stations, though they seemed to be well laid-out with Gatorade in front and water in back.  Starting at mile 9 and then every other mile or so after that, I forced myself to sip my trusty liquified Cytomax/Gu potion.  I discontinued this ritual at mile 22 for two reasons: 1) I was concerned that my faster-than-usual pace might distress my stomach, and 2) I realized that nutritional considerations wouldn’t be a factor over the final 4.2 miles.

As I waved to Katie at mile 13 and passed the halfway point 0.1 miles later (first half split 1:42:22, 7:49/mile), I understood that the real race was just beginning.  Most marathoners would agree that 26.2 miles feels more than twice as far as 13.1, and although those first 13.1 miles are clearly necessary, that finisher’s medal is unquestionably earned in the second half of the race.  There’s a compelling reason few recreational runners venture beyond 13.1.

Mike Sohaskey at halfway point of 2012 Chicago Marathon

If you notice nothing else in this picture, please do notice that both my feet are off the ground.

Mile 14 was the “Charity Block Party”.  Immediately I spotted the familiar black and gold of the Team LIVESTRONG tent and its members on the right side of the street.  They cheered frenetically as I passed, I clapped for them, and the scene rolled on as I glanced around at all the other worthwhile charities who would benefit today from the masochism of so many runners.

After the Charity Block Party mile 16 arrived fairly quickly, along with the always-sobering realization that the elite runners had already finished their race.  Unfortunately, I’ve yet to watch the elites race in person because I’m always running an hour and a half behind them.  And my hometown San Francisco Marathon, with its significant hillage, is understandably not a race that attracts the top elites.

The elites approach mile 13… realistically, I could run/sprint at their marathon pace for about 200m.

Although there was frequent music along the course, I honestly wasn’t paying attention and don’t remember anything specific other than the obligatory “Eye Of The Tiger” (which was appropriate in this case… Survivor’s a Chicago band). The only other thing I remember about the music was two or three moments when I ran very close to a cranked-up, beyond-distorted LOUDspeaker that, rather than energizing me, hit me with a momentary wave of nausea like I was standing on the deck of the Pequod in high seas.  But on the bright side, at least I didn’t have to hear “Call Me Maybe” for 3½ hours.

When I reached mile 22, The Wall I hit was more subtle and insidious than in previous marathons.  After all, my muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments were still cooperating and (as far as I could tell) working properly, and my effort felt much the same as it had throughout the race.  But I noticed that my mile pace times had begun to creep up into the low 8-minute range, and my lower body just felt more leaden, as though I now had the Pequod’s anchor wrapped around my waist (no idea why the “Moby Dick” references, I haven’t read it since high school).  At that point I felt a fleeting sense of “ugh” pass over me, as I reached back in search of that final wind that would carry me to the finish. Fortunately I knew I could run through this feeling of heaviness – both experience and training runs longer than 26.2 miles told me so.

Mike Sohaskey just past mile 20 of 2012 Chicago Marathon

What is there not to be happy about at mile 20?  It’s another Katie sighting!

But as I focused on maintaining my cadence (leg turnover) and stride, I needed something to motivate and distract. And that’s when I called on all the inspiration I’d reserved for just this moment: inspiration from my LIVESTRONG donors, expecting (and in some cases demanding) my best effort; from cancer survivors I knew personally; from all the cancer survivors I would never know who would benefit from this effort; from all the miles of dedicated training I’d put into this moment; from the thought of my brother running his own 26.2-mile training run in sunny Long Beach at that moment (though not at sub-3:30, the cheeky bastard); and from the now-animated (in my mind) finish line taunting me, questioning my runnerhood while daring me to finish strong.

These were just a few of the more-or-less successful mind games I played with myself over the last 10 miles.  Other mental gymnastics included the standard marathoning strategy of telling myself at the 18-mile mark “It’s just an 8-mile race from here,” or at the 20-mile or 23-mile mark “You’ve got this, just a short 10K/5K to go!”  I was now running with the 3:30-or-bust crowd, and these people clearly knew how to finish a marathon.  I noticed very few people pulling up to walk, though it’s also possible that my brain just refused to acknowledge them.

This poor fellow clearly knows what it feels like to hit The Wall
(Tired Man statue by József Somogyi)

The last 6 miles were made significantly easier – or maybe “possibler” would be a better word – by my decision to shadow a thin blonde woman in a periwinkle tank top sporting an unofficial “3:30” bib on her back.  I fell in step behind her for a short time before cautiously deciding, based on her regular cadence and steady pace slightly faster than my own, that she would be a reliable pacer to lead me through the last 6 miles.  I wasn’t disappointed.  She maintained a solid pace in the low-8 minute/mile range, which was just fast enough that I struggled at times to keep up without being left behind.

And keep up I did until the mile 25 marker, when I stopped tracking her and began to enjoy the process of that final mile up Michigan Avenue.  The sun had finally broken through around mile 24, radiating just the slightest bit of comfortable warmth.  And to ensure that marathoners received the full Windy City experience, a chilly headwind kicked in as we tackled that final stretch up Michigan.  During mile 26 I kept repeating the mantra “Keep doing what you’re doing, just keep doing what you’re doing….” This chant intensified as I passed a fellow runner who was clearly fighting cramps, and whose rigid gait made C-3PO look limber by comparison.  My immediate motivation became the end of Michigan straight ahead, where Katie, Pete and Faby waited outside their towering apartment building to cheer me across the finish.  As I high-fived the three of them and turned on to Roosevelt, I knew this marathon was all but over.

Mile 26  the happiest mile of them all

But first I had to get over the ~200m stretch of Roosevelt that those who have run Chicago jokingly (or not) refer to as “the hill”.  The power of this ever-so-slightly uphill stretch derives from its location at mile 26, tantalizingly close to the finish.  Coming from the Bay Area where “flat” is often a state of mind, I was mortified to feel my legs protesting as I slogged up Roosevelt.  But once I crested that hump and turned left on to Columbus where this all began, the immediate sight of the “200m” sign to my left and the red-and-white finish line straight ahead was indescribably adrenalizing.  WOW.

In that final 60 seconds, as I drifted right to avoid the main crush of finishers to my left, my mindset was a mental purée of wanting to bask in the moment, to embrace it, to squeeze every last iota of accomplishment out of it, blended with the stark reality of seeing that finish line oh… so… close.

The end in sight: the final straightaway on Columbus Drive (hopefully nobody followed the arrows) 

It’s impossible to articulate the stimulative sensation of the ‘runner’s high’, to do justice to the effect that intense physiological stress has on brain chemistry… you have to experience it for yourself.  It’s why some people take recreational drugs, while others run marathons.  Without hesitation, I’d recommend the experience to anyone who’s mulling over the idea of their first marathon, or who’s never run a huge road marathon like Chicago, New York or even L.A.  It’s not that you have to run the course… as I’ve pointed out, the Chicago course per se is not particularly special or memorable.  It’s that you have to feel the course, on a Sunday in October when 37,000 other runners and 1.7 million spectators are all pushing collectively for the same goal.

As I pumped my fist and crossed the finish line, the official race time on the giant digital clock read 3:31:13.  But I already knew I’d done it, and a glance down at my Garmin confirmed it: 3:28:45.  My first sub-3:30 marathon.  And my giddyup pace of 7:54/mile over the final 0.4 miles equaled my average pace for the marathon.

It’s not easy to time your finish so your head fits through the giant orange “O”
(photo © 2012 – believe it or not – MarathonFoto)

The 27th Mile (i.e. the long walk from the finish line to the post-race party) doubled as my victory lap, and I took my own sweet time moving through it.  Not because I was in pain – I wasn’t – but because I felt aglow with success.  And not that my timing would matter; I’d still arrive at our post-race rendezvous site 15 minutes before Katie, Pete and Faby, who had to painstakingly make their way down Michigan, around the barricades, and back up Michigan to Butler Field in Grant Park.  Unfortunately the distracted thrill of finishing, along with the donning en masse of heat-retaining “space blankets” caused me to lose track of my periwinkle-clad pacer, and I never had a chance to properly congratulate or thank her. But at least I know she also hit her 3:30 target.

In the finishing chute I giddily received my medal, posed for pictures, and eavesdropped on other runners’ accounts of the past 26.2 miles.  One finisher faux-boasted to his running mate, “Think what we could’ve run if we’d trained for this… I’d say 3:20.”  Another beamed with pride and quietly celebrated his first sub-3:30 effort in four tries at Chicago. Still another (admittedly I prompted this one) evangelized in an Irish brogue about how “fuckin’ awesome” his Newton running shoes were and how, after some initial getting used to, they’d taken his running to another level.

Mike Sohaskey with Chicago hosts at 2012 Chicago Marathon

Thanks to Faby and Pete (and Chloe, not pictured), the best hosts in the Midwest… we’ll be back soon!

Turns out the day had been a fast one for the elites as well.  Not only were the top three male finishers from Ethiopia, but all three including the winner Tsegaye Kebede broke the course record set last year with finish times of 2:04:38, 2:04:52 and 2:05:28.  The top American (and the top non-Ethiopian/non-Kenyan) finisher, Dathan Ritzhenhein, placed ninth in an impressive 2:07:47.  The women’s race ended in a dramatic near-photo finish, as the winner from Ethiopia broke the tape in 2:22:03 to hold off the Kenyan runner-up by less than one second (2:23:04).  Russian Liliya Shobukhova, trying to become the first runner (man or woman) to win Chicago four years in a row, finished fourth in 2:22:59.  And the top American woman, Renee Metivier Baillie, crossed the line in 2:27:17 to finish eighth.

And not that marathon training or long distance running in general is taxing on the lower body, but both Ritzhenhein and Metivier Baillie had previously suffered Achilles injuries that required surgery to repair.

Once my post-race levels of adrenaline, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin etc. gradually returned to normal later that day and the next, my own aches and pains would be minimal and in all the “right” places… quads, hamstrings, IT bands.  And Sunday evening would feature the usual unsettled stomach and litany of immunosuppressive symptoms caused by intense physical exertion: mild cough, a few chills, nothing a good night’s sleep wouldn’t cure.  And certainly nothing that would keep me away from the LIVESTRONG post-race party at the Rockit Bar later that evening.

I lamented the fact that the post-race party didn’t include an ice bath – it’s the single most effective (and uncomfortable) recovery tool I know. After taking the plunge and reaping the benefits following my first marathon in Long Beach in 2010, I was sold. And since then, I’ve been promising myself I’m gonna get me one of them some day.

I had plenty of motivation in Chicago. Certainly there was the selfish internal motivation of all marathon runners, that of wanting to set a PR or qualify for Boston or even, in my case, break an arbitrary time barrier like 3:30.  But unique to this race was the external motivation provided by all the friends and family who supported me and Team LIVESTRONG. When so many people are willing to rise to a challenge, to step up and sacrifice from their own pockets, to say by their actions “I believe in you and your cause”… that’s motivating.  And there’s no doubt that motivation powered me through the streets of Chicago.  Together we raised over $2000 to help those affected by cancer, and I hope I have the opportunity to do it again soon.

Chuck wasted little time in his post-race texts congratulating both of us – me for my accomplishment, and himself for his sub-3:30 prediction.  In effect his prediction had been self-fulfilling: he’s run better and for longer than I have, and if he thought I could run a sub-3:30, well then I couldn’t very well go out there and fall flat.  Now I’m hoping he doesn’t fire up the “Boston qualifier” prediction, which would require that I shave another 13min45sec off my Chicago time.  Then again, maybe that’s just what I need… who knows what I could do with the right training, mindset and motivation?

As I moseyed my way through the finishing chute, a woman manning the 312 Urban Wheat Ale table smiled broadly, held out an invitingly full plastic cup and declared “You need a beer!”

She was absolutely right.

LIVESTRONG provides free, confidential one-on-one support to anyone affected by cancer – whether you have cancer or are a loved one, friend, health care professional or caregiver of someone diagnosed.  To get help, call them toll-free at 1-855-220-7777, or visit them online at http://www.livestrong.org/Get-Help/Get-One-On-One-Support.

FINAL STATS:
October 7, 2012
26.41 miles through the streets of Chicago, IL (state 3 of 50, World Marathon Major 1 of 6)
38,535 starters, 37,476 finishers
Finish time & pace: 3:28:45, 7:54/mile
Finish place: 3,887/37,476 overall; 3,282/20,682 men; 558/3,451 M(40-44) age group
Race weather: mostly cloudy, 40°F (7:30am start) and 47°F (11:00am finish)
Elevation change (Garmin Training Center software): 121ft ascent, 119ft descent
Footwear: Saucony Mirage 2 shoes, Injinji Midweight toesocks