Posts Tagged ‘50 states marathon’

And I ran, I ran so far away.
– Flock of Seagulls (1982)

Little Rock's Broadway Bridge – in the morning, afternoon and evening
Saying good morning, good afternoon and good night to the Broadway Bridge

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, whose medal is the largest of them all?

This wasn’t quite my approach to choosing my first and (as it turns out) only marathon of 2020… but then again, if I could earn just one marathon medal for the year, why not make it the largest?

But let me take a step back…

As February 2020 drew to a close, life teetered on the brink of normalcy. News of a global outbreak caused by a novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China spread almost as rapidly as the pathogen itself. As Katie and I touched down at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock on Thursday, February 27, some 60 coronavirus cases had been reported in the United States. One day earlier, the Vice President had been appointed to lead the Coronavirus Task Force, nearly two months after the administration had first learned of the virus and one day after the CDC had reported that coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19, was approaching pandemic status. Given the administration’s own lethargic response to this new public health threat, clearly the rest of us had nothing to fear but fear itself… right?

As we had in Tulsa, Katie and I arrived well in advance of marathon weekend for good reason. After working with them to promote their 2020 event to our enthusiastic RaceRaves audience, the Chicks in Charge (CICs) of the Little Rock Marathon, co-directors Geneva Lamm and Gina Pharis, had graciously invited us to join them for their pre-race health & fitness expo Friday and Saturday. Having enjoyed our previous visit to Arkansas’ capital city for the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon, and having not yet had the chance to run one of the nation’s most popular marathons, we were quick to Jump at the chance to immerse ourselves in race weekend and share our passion with as many fellow runners as possible.

Little Rock Marathon race directors, Geneva Lamm & Gina Pharis – the Chicks in Charge
The Chicks In Charge get their Saturday party started (photo: Little Rock Marathon)

And so it was that on Friday morning we found ourselves in a happily familiar place, manning our RaceRaves booth at the two-day expo in the Statehouse Convention Center. There we were surrounded by nostalgic reminders, musical and otherwise, of the weekend’s “Totally Awesome” ‘80s theme. (A key part of Little Rock race weekend is the theme, which changes annually and which the CICs clearly enjoy bringing to life, starting with zany “theme reveal” videos such as this one for the 2020 event. A year earlier, the theme of “A Race Odyssey” had been downright prescient as hardy runners endured icy rain & snow on race day.) As you may sense from this recap, as a child of the ’80s I was happy to embrace the theme and Roll With It.

Although we’d be joined by fewer familiar faces than in Tulsa, we’d still meet plenty of cool new running friends in Little Rock, among them our next-door expo neighbor Amy, owner of Gypsy Runner. As the name of her company suggests, Amy and her husband travel the country running marathons and working a ton of race expos where they sell colorful, smartly designed women’s running apparel. And we met Tatum, who crackled with a frenetic energy as she spoke of wanting to run seemingly every race on the planet, her apparent Obsession counterbalanced by her stoic, military husband.

Katie all dressed up and 3 miles to go

Saturday began with a role reversal, as I enjoyed playing the noisy spectator cheering Katie in the home stretch of the Little Rock 5K, its hilly loop course leading runners past the nearby William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. That left me ample time for my own short shakeout run through nearby neighborhoods before we headed back to our booth for day two of the expo.

As on Friday, we spent the day on our feet talking to runners and washing/sanitizing our hands regularly to minimize the chance of contracting a virus we all still knew very little about. What we did know was that one of the world’s most prestigious marathons, scheduled for that same weekend in Tokyo, had already canceled its open (that is, non-elite) race, which annually hosts upwards of 35,000 runners.

Though the novel coronavirus was just starting to make its presence felt here in the U.S., Tokyo was the canary in the coal mine and an ominous sign of things to come. While the collective mindset inside the Statehouse Convention Center could best be described as pre-emptively cautious (no runner wants to get sick before a race, after all) with heavy-duty water coolers set up in lieu of the communal water fountains, this American life rolled on. Later that morning, in fact, expo-goers gathered round to watch the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials live from Atlanta, where Galen Rupp and Aliphine Tuliamuk won the top spots on the men’s and women’s teams, respectively.

That evening, after an excellent pre-race carbo-loading session at Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, we learned that the first U.S. death attributed to COVID-19 had been reported in Washington State. (The date of the first COVID-19 casualty would later be revised to February 6.) And less than a month later, the International Olympic Committee would announce that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games—also scheduled to be held in Tokyo—had been postponed for the first time since World War II.

U.S. and Arkansas flags


Here I Go Again
Sunday morning arrived with partly cloudy skies, temperatures in the high 50s, and rain in the forecast for late afternoon. In other words, ideal running weather. We’d lucked out, no doubt about it. I couldn’t help but feel this was Mother Nature saying “my bad” for the previous year’s ice storm.

Arkansas wouldn’t count as a new state for me, since I’d already run the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon in late 2018. Little Rock was simply a golden opportunity to run a race that had intrigued me for The Longest Time, even if I’d not been immediately sold on The Promise of its oversized medals.

At any rate, I had low expectations for my own performance in my first marathon of the year. I’d taken three weeks off in January to rest an injured heel and had run only one tune-up race at the Surf City Half Marathon a month earlier. There I’d maintained a leisurely pace alongside my brother Chuck, who was himself recovering from meniscus surgery. Add to that the 18 hours over two days I’d just spent on my feet at the expo, and my chances of Runnin’ Down a Dream on this Sunday were admittedly low. Even a four-hour finish felt like a stretch, but What You Need on race day is a realistic goal to chase and four hours seemed like my best bet.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at 2020 Little Rock Marathon

Toward that end, I lined up in the not-too-crowded, not-too-sparse start corral alongside the four-hour pace group to give myself at least a fighting chance at my goal. I’d rather Push It a bit too hard and run out of steam early than start too slow and find myself desperately trying to make up time late in the race. Neither is a good look of course, but every marathon is a beast, and an awful lot can happen over the course of 26.2 miles.

Little Rock’s 26.2 miles started with an immediate ascent on a one-mile loop of the neighborhood, followed by a brief downhill respite as we approached the Broadway Bridge. Ironically, Broadway hadn’t been one of the three bridges I’d crossed during my previous marathon in the city, so already I felt like I was expanding my horizons and enjoying the full Little Rock experience.

Crossing the Broadway Bridge into North Little Rock, mile 2 of Little Rock Marathon
Across the Broadway Bridge into North Little Rock, mile 2

Across the Arkansas River we ran, the bridge’s twin-arch superstructure soaring overhead against an unbroken ceiling of dense gray cloud cover. Reaching the quaint town of North Little Rock, we circled its attractive neighborhoods, passing cute homes and cute shops and plenty of red brick. As we cruised past the Diamond Bear Brewing Company—or as the bright blue letters on the side of the building announced it, “BEER OF ARKANSAS”—I thought, This would have made a great aid station for the home stretch. Clearly more than three months later, I still had Route 66 on the brain.

Looping back south and then west along Riverfront Drive, we enjoyed a ground-level view of the Broadway Bridge’s brilliant white arches above us. My lasting memory of North Little Rock would be our final right turn past nostalgic Dickey–Stephens Park, home of baseball’s Arkansas Travelers, Double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. With its red-brick gable entrance and green awnings, the park—visible from our hotel room across the river—is a charming throwback that looks like it belongs in The Natural or A League of Their Own.

I was feeling decidedly ok as we retraced our steps across the Broadway Bridge. This certainly wasn’t the worst I’d ever felt on race day, and at this point that was good enough for me. Because for the first six miles my focus lay primarily with my convalescing right heel, which along with my right glute was a bit sore here to start. Normally this would have been enough to occupy my mind, but compounding the problem was my lack of marathon-specific training due to that same gimpy heel. And that, in turn, had me wondering if or (more likely) when in the next 3+ hours my body would suddenly betray me and {SPLAT} right into that physiological wall that marathoners know all too well.

For now, though, all I could do was run.

Spotting Mike Sohaskey early on at the Little Rock Marathon

I felt about five drops of rain hit my skin. Uh oh, I thought, Here Comes the Rain Again. And then—nothing. Unlike the freezing rain and snow that left an indelible mark on 2019, those five drops would be the extent of our precipitation for the day.

Back in Little Rock, we passed an outdoor Soul Cycle class on stationary bikes—a cool touch I thought, despite one of the female cyclists holding up an ill-conceived sign that read, “Who said long and hard was such a bad thing?” Immediately the Michael Scott voice in my head wanted to blurt out, “That’s what she said!” Luckily my last name isn’t Scott, and so in my head it stayed.

Aside from two out-and-back stretches, most of the marathon course would consist of pleasant neighborhoods with frequent cheer support. While I don’t recall seeing (or hearing) a ton of spectators à la Boston or Tokyo, I did notice decent-sized crowds throughout the morning. And a few dedicated spectators showed up at several spots along the course, including one fellow who was recognizable at a glance by his prosthetic leg.

Soon after passing the Clinton Presidential Library & Museum we embarked on the first of those out-and-backs, a sparse and less than scenic two-mile stretch that started industrial but soon transitioned to wide-open, fenced-off fields as we approached Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. This was East Little Rock, but no matter the neighborhood there was no mistaking—this was Bubba’s town.

Mike Sohaskey at the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport in mile 7 of the Little Rock Marathon
Turnaround time at Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport, mile 7

Reaching the airport, we U-turned past a small-scale replica of a jet in flight and headed back the way we’d come. Here I surprised myself by inadvertently catching the 3:55 (projected finish time 3 hours, 55 minutes) pace group. Figuring what the heck, I decided to hang with them for as long as the pace felt comfortable.

Glancing across at the steady stream of oncoming runners headed toward the airport, I called out to fellow traveling runner Jim Diego, who’s not only completed a marathon in all 50 states but who has sung the national anthem in all 50 states as well. This was the first of two occasions I’d see Jim, both on out-and-backs, as his pastel ‘80s jazzercise outfit with curly black wig made him easy to spot even in a crowd of colorfully clad runners, many of them sporting ‘80s apparel of their own.

Leading the 3:55 pace group was a sinewy, tough-looking woman who seemed to know all her fellow pacers and half the spectators. She’d Shout out to someone coming in the other direction, then excitedly wave at a bystander and weave over to the side of the road for a high-five. Wow, I thought, this must be an awfully comfortable pace for her, otherwise that’s a lot of energy to waste over 26.2 miles. But she was the one holding the pace sign, and so naturally I assumed she knew what she was doing.

Turns out that was wishful thinking, as time would tell.

Mike Sohaskey cruising past MacArthur Park, mile 10 of the Little Rock Marathon
Cruising past MacArthur Park, mile 10

Nothin’ but a Good Time
As the miles mounted my heel pain faded, my Legs loosened up, and I started to feel almost… good. Then again, what reasonably trained runner doesn’t feel good in the first half of a marathon? It wasn’t until the second half that I expected my legs to turn to stone like victims of Medusa’s gaze.

Someone after the race said there’d been folks offering communion along the course. And while that may be true, being a California heathen it’s possible I mistook the moment for a high-end aid station. (I’m guessing more than a few takers were tempted by the wine.)

What the context was I have no idea, but somewhere in the first half I glanced my favorite sign of the day hanging from a gate:

What do you do when you’re attacked by a gang of carnies?
Go for the juggler!

Governor Asa Hutchinson greeting runners with a smile and fist bump at mile 11 of the Little Rock Marathon
Governor Asa Hutchinson greets runners with a smile and a fist bump, mile 11

In mile 11 we passed the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, where Governor Asa Hutchinson himself stood outside the front gates fist-bumping runners as we passed. Regardless of your political views—and I’m sure the governor and I would disagree on plenty—this was a uniquely cool and memorable moment. And I’m confident Little Rock will be the first and only time I ever fist-bump a governor on a marathon course. I’ve run the California International Marathon twice now, a race that finishes at the State Capitol in Sacramento, and I’ve yet to see the governor rubbing elbows with the (literally) unwashed masses. So props to Governor Hutchinson for taking the time to say Hello and celebrate a bunch of sweaty, appreciative runners.

As usual, Katie was everywhere on race day. At times I almost felt as though I were running on an outdoor treadmill (minus the unchanging scenery) because every time I looked up, there she was. Eventually I’d lose track of how many times I’d seen her, since counting past three or four can be a challenge in the later miles of a marathon. (Note to potential spectators: she found the marathon course easy to navigate.)

Diverging briefly from the half marathoners in mile 12, we passed historic Central High School, where in 1957 nine black students—known collectively as the Little Rock Nine—were denied access to the school by the Arkansas National Guard and faced an angry mob of over 1,000 white protestors. Notably, this took place three years after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public school was unconstitutional. And though the battle for racial justice clearly continues to this day, this particular standoff would end when President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the school.

Mike Sohaskey in front of historic Central High School at mile 12 of the Little Rock Marathon
Historic Little Rock Central High School, mile 12

I reached the midway point in just under one hour 55 minutes; assuming a target finish time of less than four hours, this left me a nice cushion of nearly ten minutes for the second half. And I sensed I’d need all the cushion I could get.

We rejoined the half marathoners briefly on S Chester St before turning west again en route to the State Capitol. This was the only place along the course where I’d see a “Photographer ahead” sign, and sure enough the result was a great shot (as shots of me running go) with the Capitol dome framed in the background. Shout-out to the Chicks in Charge, whose route does a terrific job of hitting the city highlights.

Leaving the Capitol behind we started a steady 1.5-mile climb, the longest of the day. When asked whether their course is hilly, the CICs typically respond matter-of-factly: “What hills? It depends on your perspective. There are some bumps in the road, but life is full of bumps in the road.”

Still having a capital time, mile 14 (© RBS PICS)

Running Up That Hill led us past one of my course highlights. Glancing to my right as we huffed and puffed our way up mile 16, I glimpsed the scoreboard that announced the “Arkansas School for the Deaf Leopards,” with matching sharp-toothed leopard heads facing off on either side of the scoreboard. You read that right—the mascot for the Arkansas School for the Deaf is… the leopard. What could be more perfect for an ‘80s-themed marathon??

But before anyone starts slinging accusations of trademark infringement, I should say the school adopted the leopard mascot well before the world was introduced to the British rock band that’s now enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And in a fantastically meta moment that won the Interwebz, several members of the school got to meet Def Leppard in person and take a Photograph when the band performed in Little Rock in May 2016. How’s that for a happy ending?

The school sits adjacent to the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and so together the two campuses provided much-needed inspiration for the toughest section of the course.

After mile 16, the course leveled out a bit before peaking near mile 17.5. What followed was a fast downhill alongside Allsopp Park that—nonintuitive as it may sound—quickly made me appreciate the gradual ascent that preceded it. Because nothing wakes up the quads quite like a steep downhill grade late in a marathon.

With that hammering of the quads, I could feel my legs growing heavier as we reached the most mentally punishing stretch of the day, the 5-mile out-and-back on Riverfront Drive (out) and the Arkansas River Trail (back). Struggling to maintain pace, I envisioned my body as an hourglass emptying over the course of 26.2 miles, gradually filling my legs with sand—not exactly the winning imagery I needed to keep me moving forward.

Mike Sohaskey all smiles in Allsopp Park, mile 18 of the Little Rock Marathon
All smiles in Allsopp Park, mile 18

Eye of the Tiger
Normally, I imagined, this would have been a verdant stretch of tree-lined road; now, though, in late winter it resembled more the setting for The Blair Witch Project, a seemingly endless stretch of largely leafless trees to our left and browned-out Rebsamen Park Golf Course to our right. No water was visible, though I knew the Arkansas River lay just beyond the golf course. So instead I focused on the task at hand and putting one foot in front of the other, knowing I’d need whatever fortitude I had left to avoid surrendering to fatigue.

Nearing mile 20, I heard someone Call Me from behind and glanced over my shoulder to see (who else?) Katie running toward me from about 30 yards away on the intersecting road, the last available drop-off point before I entered the park. My first impulse was to wave her off—selfish as it sounds, did I really have a Desire to stop and wait for her to catch up, knowing any further slowdown might mean I could Kiss four hours goodbye? My brain responded with a resounding YES—I wanted my bottle of Maurten sports drink for fuel and, more importantly, the rest of my 5-hour Energy from earlier in the morning. And a brief pause would do me good.

Having raced to catch me in street clothes and jacket, poor Katie struggled to catch her breath as I downed the 5-hour Energy, took possession of the bottle of Maurten, and rejoined the flow of foot traffic on Riverfront Drive.

Mike Sohaskey on the Arkansas River Trail, mile 24 of the Little Rock Marathon
Heading home along the Arkansas River Trail, mile 24

As I’d hoped it would, the 5-hour Energy had an immediate impact; I could feel both mind and body perk up, and each stride became a bit less labored. Meanwhile I sipped on the Maurten, at least until I dropped the top of the bottle a mile later and ended up sloshing most of the viscous liquid on myself, practically lacquering my Garmin in the process.

Luckily I could tell my body didn’t need the nutrition for the home stretch, and so I tossed the bottle at the mile 22 turnaround and focused instead on staying strong as we headed toward Home Sweet Home. It would be close, no doubt about it, but now that I’d worked so diligently to put myself in position for a surprising sub-4 finish, I needed to prove to myself I could seal the deal.

Heading back the way we’d come on the Arkansas River Trail, I shared a few words of encouragement with a fellow in Puerto Rico flag shorts. The Look on his face spoke of Physical exhaustion and for good reason, as he told me he’d paced the 4:10 group the day before at the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, a five-hour Drive from Little Rock. But he was appreciative of the support and still looked to be in good spirits, all things considered. Because when it comes to the marathon, nothing Hurts So Good.

Running Alone alongside the golf course I caught up to Tatum, who even in mile 23 of a marathon still emanated the same agitated energy we’d experienced at the expo two days earlier. In a frustrated tone she talked about her husband (who was running the half marathon) slowing her down in the first half. Moments later the 4:00 pacer passed us running by himself, which if you’re chasing a four-hour finish late in a marathon can feel like a shot to the solar plexus.

Tatum would have none of it. “Are you fucking KIDDING me?!” she demanded in exasperation. “I’m ahead of schedule,” he responded, which I’d sensed to be true with 2+ miles still to go. Then again, why was he running so far ahead of schedule when his sole responsibility was to maintain a reliable four-hour pace? Slowing down I could imagine as fatigue set in, but speeding up?

"Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument" at the Little Rock State Capitol
“Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument” at the State Capitol

Soon after and just before the “first of the last uphills,” we passed my former Chief Motivating Officer, the 3:55 pacer with whom I’d run for roughly 11 miles. After all her earlier élan, she was now walking by herself, the 3:55 sign dangling from her hand. So far I was less than impressed by the pacing here today, though passing her did provide a momentary surge of adrenaline.

I’d known there’d be one last hill in mile 25, and as it turns out I was half right—there were actually two, neither of which were as bad as expected. Somewhere in the past three miles, in what’s normally the most brutal stretch of a marathon, I’d found my 6th or 7th wind. Now I was feeling relatively strong and eagerly anticipating The Final Countdown as our long but gratifying weekend in Little Rock neared its own finish line.

The L’Oreal Lipstick Stop at mile 26 (a clever diversion for runners who want to look great for their finish-line photos) was more understated than expected and could have benefited from some advance warning. Unfortunately I couldn’t spare the time 💋, but I felt good—check that, great—as I flew by the beautification station and along the final few undulations. Seeing Katie I clapped my hands and held up four fingers—chasing four hours had been a Thriller, but in the end I’d Beat It. Then I cruised through the familiar Marriott tunnel and heard my name announ—

Seeing a blur of movement in my peripheral vision, I glanced to my right to see Tatum go sprinting by like a Maniac with steely focus etched on her face, before crossing Down Under the colorful ‘80s finish arch just ahead of my official time of 3:58:08. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate finish. And finally, I could Relax.

Mike Sohaskey in the final homestretch of the Little Rock Marathon
Even after 26.1 miles, my Katie radar remains as sharp as ever

I’m Still Standing
What. A. Day. Beneath overcast skies, I was Walking on Sunshine as I passed a bell in the finish chute begging to be rung, though for what reason I couldn’t be sure: personal best? Boston Qualifying time? First time running Little Rock? Or maybe all of the above.

My attention quickly turned to the familiar face that greeted me as I exited the finish chute, and I thanked/congratulated Geneva (one of the Chicks In Charge) on an Epic, Totally Awesome race day. Then I moseyed ahead into the convention center ballroom where post-race activities awaited, pausing on the way to gratefully accept the spoils of a jog well run—the pride & joy of the Little Rock Marathon.

The ginormous, glittery finisher’s medal was even more ginormous and glittery than I’d envisioned, and more beautiful too in a garishly ‘80s sort of way. Though I’m a bit mortified to admit it after 40+ marathons (and I blame the finish-line endorphins), a child-like giddiness washed over me, manifested by an even-goofier-than-normal grin at having finally earned the nation’s largest, blingiest medal. I know some runners complain the medal is too big, too heavy, too showy, too this, too that, too much. I get it, and at one time I might’ve been one of them. But as I sit here typing and occasionally glancing up to see my Little Rock Marathon medal playing remarkably well with the other medals on my wall, I Can’t Fight This Feeling and now count myself squarely among the believers.

"I'm the reason mommy runs" t-shirt
Pretty in pink—as spectators go, she stole the show

A word of advice to prospective Little Rock runners deciding between the full and half marathon: if you’re able to train your body to run 26.2 miles, then Whip It into shape and do it. The marathon course includes Central High School and the State Capitol, and while those last 13.1 miles don’t come easy, you’ll know you made the right decision when it comes time to claim your heavy medal, which is twice the size of the (still impressive) half marathon medal. Because the only thing worse than FOMO is the actual MO.

With my legs and core muscles already wiped out from my morning tour of the city, every step taken with that medal hanging around my neck was a full-body workout. I kept reminding myself to lift with my legs, not with my back as I wound my way through the indoor finisher’s area where chocolate milk, soft drinks, bananas and pizza awaited us, the latter of which I avoided due in part to COVID-19 concerns. Our finisher status also afforded us two free Michelob Ultras, though few people seemed to be taking advantage of that particular perk.

Here I traded “How’d it go?” updates with our expo neighbor Amy from Gypsy Runner, who’d apparently finished close behind me. And I had the chance to congratulate my friend in the Puerto Rico flag shorts, who after pacing 4:10 the day before had finished the second of his back-to-back marathons in a strikingly consistent 4:07. Two days, two marathons. I could empathize.

Once through the line Katie greeted me with Open Arms—we hadn’t seen each other in 15 minutes, after all. Then I settled into a chair in the crowded ballroom to take a load off (i.e. remove the medal) and gather my wits as a big-screen TV broadcast live footage from the finish line. After running 26.2 miles, to sit and do absolutely nothing feels Just Like Heaven. As I sat unwilling to move, volunteers made the rounds offering hot dogs and breakfast burritos wrapped in foil. It was a comfortable, climate-controlled post-race venue. And it wasn’t long before I felt Closer to Fine.

Mike Sohaskey and Bart Yasso at the finish line of the Little Rock Marathon
Big Time: Holding down the finish line with the legendary Bart Yasso

After a long and blissful rest, I pulled myself to my feet and we circled back outside to the finish line. There with microphone in hand, long-time running icon Bart Yasso was welcoming and encouraging the last few finishers across the line. Affectionately dubbed the Mayor of Running, Bart is a wonderful guy and one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors, even in “retirement.” And if Little Rock is any indication, he still brings plenty of enthusiasm to every race he announces.

Back upstairs in our room a short time later, I asked the question that needed no answer:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, whose medal is the largest of them all?

Our nostalgic weekend in Little Rock left me with a fairy-tale feeling, an afterglow that would prove short-lived with the awful realization that where 2020 was concerned, there’d be no happily ever after. The next weekend we volunteered at our hometown Los Angeles Marathon, where 20,000+ finishers unknowingly bid farewell to normalcy as they crossed the last urban finish line of the year. Days later, races across the U.S. began to cancel en masse as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, one which as I write has claimed more than 540,000 American lives. And finally, one year later, thanks to science many of us are finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel… while anxiously hoping it’s not just another Crazy Train headed our way.

But life is a much bigger story than I came here to tell. Aside from leaving Arkansas with painfully chapped hands thanks to all the washing, Little Rock was a Straight Up success and as Totally Awesome as advertised. And that’s in large part because the CICs recognize a fundamental truth.

No matter what distance they run, guys and Girls Just Want to Have Fun.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho finish line selfie, proudly showing off our Little Rock Marathon medals

BOTTOM LINE: If I were to sum up a terrific Little Rock weekend in one pithy statement, I’d say the medal is large and the Chicks are In Charge. And if I could earn only one non-virtual marathon medal for all of 2020 (which unexpectedly turned out to be the case), I’m glad I earned it in Little Rock. Arkansas’ capital city may be renowned among marathoners for its intimidatingly large finisher’s medal, but while every race does need something to hang its hat on, the truth is that Little Rock’s appeal goes well beyond the bling.

I wrote a bit about the city itself in my recap of the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon, but one of the coolest things about Little Rock is that unlike 3 Bridges, which runs mainly along the tree-lined Arkansas River Trail, the city’s namesake marathon treats its runners to a living, breathing history lesson. The course passes Little Rock Central High School (which in 1957 became the epicenter in the battle for forced desegregation), the State Capitol, the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, the governor’s mansion, and even the Arkansas School for the Deaf with its leopard mascot (hence the deaf leopards, which totally fit with the weekend’s ‘80s theme). As urban marathon courses go, Little Rock is high on the list and particularly among mid-size cities. I’m even willing to forgive the two ho-hum out-and-backs from miles 6–8 and 19–24, since finding 26.2 miles of runnable roads typically requires some ingenuity.

Oh, and a word of advice for anyone deciding between the full and half marathon in Little Rock: if you have the training to run either, this is a no-brainer. Only the 26.2-mile course passes Central High School and the State Capitol… and though you may question the wisdom of your decision in the closing miles, all skepticism will fade once you cross the finish line and get your mitts on the nation’s largest and blingiest medal. Because the only thing worse than FOMO is the actual MO.

A year later, I admit our Route 66 and Little Rock weekends—separated by just over three months—tend to blend together, forming a memorable mid-size marathon smoothie in my brain. Then again, that’s a compliment to both since each features a festive atmosphere, top-notch organization & competence on the part of the race staff, a comfortable post-race gathering venue, great swag, and a lively Southern host city with its own Hurts Donut shop. And even though Little Rock is a city of bridges, the one brief section of the Route 66 marathon course that actually runs on Route 66 also happens to cross a bridge. So it’s understandable I might mix and match the two races in my head at times (luckily I’m a meticulous note-taker). My recommendation would be that you visit both cities and run each race for yourself to see how they compare In Your Eyes. The truth is you can’t go wrong with either, and I’d argue that both will quickly earn Your Love.

As you may expect in Downtown Little Rock there’s no shortage of lodging options, chief among them the uber-convenient Little Rock Marriott, which borders the start & finish line and which shares a building with the Statehouse Convention Center, home to the pre-race expo.

Mike Sohaskey in front of Arkansas painting

PRODUCTION: Event Directors Geneva Lamm & Gina Pharis (aka the Chicks In Charge, or CICs) and their team know how to throw a 26.2-mile party and have a fabulous time doing it. Case in point their carefully crafted, always creative event theme (2020’s was “Totally Awesome” ‘80s) which changes annually but which never disappoints, and which the CICs clearly put their heart & soul into bringing to life. Seeing the two of them dancing atop the riser alongside the start line on race day, silhouetted against the rising sun with megaphone in hand, felt like the perfect start to my first and (as it turns out) only marathon of the year. And the two deserved to enjoy the fruits of their year-long labor, as race weekend itself was organizationally flawless, from the high-energy expo to the historic course (see above) to the comfortable post-race celebration inside the Little Rock Marriott where volunteers strolled the room offering exhausted runners hot dogs and breakfast burritos. The indoor venue in particular was a strong finishing touch, since Little Rock weather in early March tends to be less than totally awesome.

2020 Little Rock Marathon medal in front of State Capitol

SWAG: Ask any traveling runner about Little Rock, and the first thing you’re likely to hear about is the finisher’s medal. It’s unabashedly ginormous and hefty with plenty of sparkle, and you can expect a solid core workout if you plan to showcase it proudly around your neck. (Given this year’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme, I hope the CICs model the medal after the White Rabbit’s pocket watch so the post-race gathering resembles a Flavor Flav fan convention.) Each year on the first weekend of March, the Little Rock medal elicits an outpouring of oohs and aahs on social media from amazed/envious/horrified commenters. And I heard several runners admit they opted to run the full marathon rather than the half based simply on the size of the medal, training be damned—because whether you race to collect shiny hardware or do it strictly for the purity of competition, few things trigger such inexplicable FOMO as the Little Rock Marathon medal. Don’t ever let a runner tell you size doesn’t matter.

Participants also received a short-sleeve race tee that fits nicely and… wait, did I mention the medal?

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Mar 1, 2020 (start time 8:00 am)
26.41 miles in Little Rock, Arkansas
Finish time & pace: 3:58:08 (first time running the Little Rock Marathon), 9:01/mile
Finish place: 184 overall, 20/112 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,389 (738 men, 651 women)
Race weather: partly cloudy & cool (57°F) at the start, cloudy & cool at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 637 ft gain, 641 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 230 ft, 488 ft

It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66.

“(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” Bobby Troup (1946)

Mike Sohaskey in front of Tulsa Route 66 Rising sculpture

Ladies and gents, we have a milestone! (No pun intended, for once.) With this race report, I’ve reached 💯 blog posts—and I hate to imagine how many words—here on Blisters, Cramps & Heaves. And while 100 certainly isn’t a number I ever envisioned when I started 8½ years ago, I daresay I’m enjoying the process at least as much now as I did then—it’s more satisfying than social media and cheaper than therapy. In a world of vanishingly short attention spans I realize this blog is the opposite of Twitter, and I like to think that’s a good thing. Thanks for sticking around and joining me on the journey!

With the all-consuming presidential election finally over and American democracy safe for at least another week, I want to end a dreadful 2020 on an upbeat note by immortalizing my final marathon of 2019 before the calendar flips to 2021 (apologies if that sentence read like something from Back to the Future IV: Spirit of the Marathon). Because as it turns out, if you’re looking to end the racing year on a high note, it’s tough to do better than Tulsa.

Three weeks after the Marshall University Marathon in West Virginia, Katie and I found ourselves in chilly Northeast Oklahoma for what would be my 5th state of the year and my 30th overall at the Williams Route 66 Marathon. Even better, we (meaning RaceRaves) would be joining “Oklahoma’s biggest block party” as an exhibitor at the two-day expo preceding the race, where we’d meet runners from across the state and around the country (Route 66 is one of the more popular marathons in the U.S. and a favorite among 50 Staters). Because nothing says “marathon taper” like being on your feet all day for two straight days! Luckily, I’d very much been looking forward to this weekend. And it wouldn’t disappoint.

With race day on Sunday, Friday and Saturday were spent working for the weekend and walking one of the most enjoyable expos in the country. Complementing its energetic vibe, the Route 66 expo featured plenty of relevant booths without (to quote fellow 50 Stater and expo veteran Evelyn) a lot of “pushy salesmen.”

Though I was eager to get out and explore Tulsa, the expo reminded me why I love talking to runners, who typically are more diverse, more interesting and more sociable than the folks I used to meet at scientific conferences. Manning our booth for two days, we met friends old and new including Tulsa resident, fellow Rice Owl and RaceRaves member John P. We’d first met John at the Fargo Marathon in May before reuniting at the Clarence DeMar Marathon in September, and we’d quickly come to appreciate how an outgoing, good-natured fellow like John had earned himself the tongue-in-cheek moniker of “The Mayor of Tulsa.”

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2019 Route 66 Marathon expo
Manning (and woman-ing) our RaceRaves booth at the Route 66 Marathon expo

We were likewise joined by Shilpa, whom we’d met at the Tokyo Marathon in March and who had told us she’d be making the two-hour drive from Oklahoma City and “bringing a friend.” She then surprised us by showing up on Saturday alongside another of our favorite human beings in fellow Antarctica adventurer and Tokyo mate Louann. As if seeing the two of them together weren’t enough of a kick, they wasted no time grabbing a handful of flyers and evangelizing zealously to any passerby within earshot, telling them why RaceRaves was the missing secret ingredient in their lives. All while Katie and I sat behind the booth happily admiring and appreciating their salesmanship.

Saturday evening, with expo duty behind us, our focus turned to race day as the four of us—Katie, Louann, Shilpa and me—joined John and his wife Jen at their home for one of the most enjoyable pre-race meals we’ll ever have. Also joining us was the trio of fellow guests whom John would affectionately refer to as the “Yoopers,” since Donna, Laurie and Nancy all hail from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Like us, they’d met John in their running travels and were all in town for the marathon. John and Jen graciously hosted a fantastic evening of carbo-loading and camaraderie, highlighted in part by his remarkable portfolio of creatively carved jack o’ lanterns. Trust me, if you’ve never seen David Bowie’s face carved into a pumpkin, you’re missing out.

Later that night, back in our room at the Aloft Tulsa Downtown, it occurred to me as I laid out my racing gear that after a lively two-day expo and a memorable evening with friends, running 26.2 miles the next day might actually feel—anticlimactic.

Fortunately, as happens once or twice a year, I was mistaken.

Bird's eye view of downtown Tulsa at dusk
Dusk to dawn, a bird’s-eye view of the one-time “Oil Capital of the World”
Bird's eye view of downtown Tulsa at dawn

Tulsa, here we come (Start to mile 7)
Location, location, location. As advertised, the Aloft was located less than ten minutes (on foot) from the marathon start line, which as it turns out wasn’t quite as convenient as the Holiday Inn located 100 yards from the start where Louann and Shilpa were staying.

We met them on Sunday morning in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in plenty of time for the relatively late 8:00am start. I’d slept well after our busy two-day expo-rience; fortunately, I’ve run enough marathons now that I’m largely past the point of pre-race jitters. So sleep usually isn’t an issue unless the wakeup call comes brutally early, as in the case of the Comrades Marathon in South Africa which demands (and receives) a 2:00am wakeup. ‘Cuz if you plan to run 90 km in a day, you best get an early start.

With Thanksgiving just four days away, the morning was understandably chilly but otherwise perfect with clear, cerulean skies and just the hint of a breeze. This was autumn at its finest and the type of morning that looks stunning in pictures. Luckily, I’d be taking a few today.

Mike Sohaskey with Shilpa and Louann at the Route 66 Marathon start line
Shilpa and Louann are two of the best things about this running world tour

After a quick group picture, we each headed to our respective start corrals. I’d be running the full marathon while Louann and Shilpa would each be tackling the half, a fact that Shilpa—who’s run 120+ marathons in every state and on every continent, including both poles—made sure to remind me of one last time. She urged me to listen for her at the midway point, where the marathon and half marathon courses split and where she’d be the voice yelling, “SEE YA, SUCKERS!” at the marathoners. I hoped she wouldn’t get herself either arrested or chased off the course before I got there.

Another highlight from the expo had been a chance encounter with Route 66 race announcer Rudy Novotny, a high-energy guy and a well-known face/voice in the industry. Rudy had dropped by our booth to say hi and introduce himself, and on hearing I’d registered late and been assigned to start corral “D” at the back of the pack, he’d excused himself for a couple of minutes and then reappeared with a corral “A” sticker, which now lived proudly on my bib number. A super-cool gesture on his part. Now, as I listened to his familiar voice energize the restive crowd over the PA, I visited the raised stage alongside the start line to give Rudy a shout-out and a wave before retreating to my much-appreciated spot in the “A” corral.

Feeling good I bounced up and down in place, loosening my legs and craning my neck to witness the Native American drum ceremony at the start line followed by an a cappella singing of the national anthem. As I joined in the applause I took a deep breath, soaking up the morning and calming any last-second nerves as the hand cycle and wheelchair athletes crossed the start line. Let’s do this.

2019 Route 66 Marathon start

I was roughly 50 yards behind the start line when the famed Route 66 confetti gun fired, signaling the start of the race. Hmm, I thought as the first wave of runners surged forward, confetti raining from the sky. That was cool I guess, but not really the big deal I expected. Then the confetti continued to fall.

And fall.

And fall.

Turns out the Route 66 confetti gun is more of a confetti hose, with every starter in corral “A” (and presumably those in the following three corrals as well) being showered in colorful confetti as they crossed the start line. Much like runDisney with its start-line fireworks, this was a fun way to begin the race and one that embodied the all-inclusive Route 66 spirit of every runner matters.

Immediately the course headed away from downtown, and I felt amazingly good as I reflected on our RaceRaves success of the past week. Among other things, we’d published the results of our Runners Choice: Best Half Marathons in the U.S. initiative two days before hopping a plane to Tulsa for race weekend, and now the holidays lay ahead. So this was a great time to give thanks.

Mike Sohaskey in front of "Tulsa does it better" sign

My carefree mindset translated to an unexpectedly effortless stride—a bit too effortless in fact, and if my Garmin could talk, at that moment it would have howled at me to Slow down, stupid! Glancing at my wrist I saw an average pace of 7 somethin’ somethin’ minutes; so much for the adage that the slowest mile of any marathon should be your first. Thing is, after two days on my feet I had no intention of chasing a Boston Marathon qualifying time across Tulsa, and I quickly dialed back my pace so that by the time we reached the first mile marker, I was clocking a much more reasonable 8:30/mile.

Transitioning from commercial to residential along a tree-lined stretch of E 15th St, we entered the first of several charming neighborhoods. Here a sign welcomed us to the “Maple Ridge Mile” and let us know that if we’d forgotten anything (gloves, Vaseline, etc.), it would be available directly ahead of us. Sure enough, seconds later we passed a table where gloves and other goodies were laid out for the taking. And with that, we were introduced to Route 66 hospitality. (There’d be plenty more to come.)

I was careful to maintain a comfortable pace as we cruised past nicely manicured lawns and handsome homes that, architecturally speaking, were surprisingly diverse. Turning left onto E 21st St we passed the Skelly House, one-time home of oil tycoon William G. Skelly and now the residence of the University of Tulsa president. The home is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Hello from Tulsa" mural in Downtown Tulsa
One of the many murals in colorful Downtown Tulsa

In mile 3, with many runners still finding their groove, we were introduced to a hugely popular hallmark of the Route 66 Marathon—the “unofficial aid station.” Unlike official race aid stations which offer predictable marathon hydration like {yawn} water and Gatorade, frequent unofficial stations are set up along the Route 66 course—often in front yards—as a labor of love by the locals; these typically feature much more diverse and de-hydrating (read: alcoholic) options.

At this particular dehydration station we were greeted by a jovial group of spectators relaxing alongside a table of drinks. “Bloody Marys!” one offered as we passed. Yikes, I thought instinctively. If you’re stopping for a Bloody Mary at mile 3 of a marathon, you’ve got a looong day ahead of you. On the other hand, by mile 20 you’d probably be feeling very little of the pain the rest of us would be fighting through.

The next five miles featured a delightful tour of upscale neighborhoods that showcased high-end homes set back from the road by sprawling, well-kept lawns and lengthy driveways. Mile 5 began alongside the gated grounds of the Philbrook Museum of Art before ending in expansive Woodward Park, itself a recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places. Briefly diverging from this residential route, a ¾-mile stretch on Peoria Ave led us past shops and restaurants including the most official unofficial aid station of the day, the 3 Tequilas Mexican restaurant. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, FLOOR.

Mike Sohaskey cruising through Maple Ridge at mile 6 of the Route 66 Marathon
Cruisin’ through Maple Ridge, mile 6

Meeting the Mother Road (Mile 8 to midway point)
Heading west we ran (figuratively) into the Arkansas River, where a right turn led us north along Riverside Dr for the next three miles. “Eye of the Tiger” (finally!) blasted from a balcony to our right, and a tent alongside the course played Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” which oddly enough I’d just heard three weeks earlier at the finish line in West Virginia after not hearing it for years. Was the song making a comeback? Had Bell, Biv or Devoe won The Masked Singer? I doubted all three of them could fit into one of those garish costumes together.

Running parallel to the river on closed roads was a course highlight even before we reached The Gathering Place, a world-class riverfront park voted “Best New Attraction of 2018” by USA Today. Not surprisingly, running past without stopping isn’t the best way to appreciate Tulsa’s hottest new family attraction, and especially given the two tunnels along Riverside Dr which actually routed us below The Gathering Place. Fortunately, Katie and I made time on our way out of town the next day to return and explore the park a bit. It’s ambitious to say the least.

Passing the Gathering Place in mile 10 of the Route 66 Marathon
No time to gather at USA Today‘s “Best New Attraction of 2018,” mile 10

Onward we ran, the smokestacks visible across the Arkansas River giving way to a steady line of tree cover—and beyond that, the hidden sights and sounds of West Tulsa. As we approached two spirited young volunteers with bullhorns, one of them called out “KNOCK KNOCK!”

“WHO’S THERE?” asked the other, to which the first responded, “MOO!”

“MOO WHO?” her fellow volunteer and I inquired in unison. I braced myself—this was gonna be good, I could tell. Then a moment of silence, and as I passed her the first volunteer blurted out, “WAIT, I MESSED UP!” Laughter ensued, so at least the joke had its desired effect. And as this a-moo-sement faded behind me, the last thing I heard was: “KNOCK KNOCK!” “WHO’S THERE?” ”COW!”…

Reaching the end of Riverside Drive, we turned left for a short out-and-back across the Arkansas River on the Mother Road itself—this stretch of less than a mile would be the lone segment of the marathon course to follow the original Route 66.

Mike Sohaskey on Riverside Drive in mile 11 of the Route 66 Marathon
“Why do all the cute ones run away?” (mile 11)

Search for Route 66 on a map today, and you’re likely to be disappointed. Established in 1926 to connect Chicago and Los Angeles as part of the original U.S. Highway System, Route 66 was instrumental in Tulsa’s growth and development before it was decommissioned in 1985. The route was the brainchild of Tulsa businessman Cyrus Avery, who recognized the potential economic impact of a federal highway system and who would later be known as “The Father of Route 66.”

One of the determining factors that enabled the passage of Route 66 through Tulsa was the existence of the 11st St Bridge across the Arkansas River, which connected Downtown Tulsa to the oil fields to the west and which Avery himself played a pivotal role in constructing. Though now in disrepair and closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, the bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996 and renamed the “Cyrus Avery Route 66 Memorial Bridge” in 2004. The structure would eventually be deemed “too expensive to repair, too historic to demolish, and too valuable to ignore;” as such, it remains standing alongside the Southwest Blvd bridge on which we now ran. Unless you know it’s there, however, you could be forgiven for failing to notice its presence, much less appreciate its significance. And especially in mile 12 of a marathon.

Retracing our steps across the Arkansas River and heading back toward downtown, we ran beneath the historic Route 66 sign overlooking Cyrus Avery Centennial Plaza—the man got his props from the city, no doubt about it.

Running beneath the historic Route 66 sign during the Marathon

As if leaving Route 66 was our cue to get back to business, the course immediately headed up another short but nasty incline. As I was discovering the hard way, the Route 66 course has more than its share of hills what Marathon Executive Board Chairman Tim Fisher likes to call “character.” And that character was now threatening to suck the life out of my tired legs.

My Garmin’s mile alerts gradually fell further and further behind the official mile markers, which is typically the sign of a well-measured course. It’s when my GPS suddenly gains or loses half a mile relative to the official markers that I start to worry about course measurement. I wouldn’t have to worry in Tulsa.

I quickly lost track of the number of unofficial aid stations along the course, though Shilpa counted ten on the half marathon course alone. (This is in large part because the marathon and half marathon courses share the first 13 miles, hence more runners.) Beer, fireball (whiskey + cinnamon) shots, Jell-O shots and other adult beverages were happily being served, and as I passed one table covered with assorted bottles of liquor, I was reminded that John likes to roll up on aid stations—which usually means a friendly volunteer proffering a cup of water or Gatorade—and ask good-naturedly, “What’ve we got, bartender?” Now I understood that here at his hometown race, this was a legitimate inquiry.

This Land is Your Land mural on wall of Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa
Mural on the wall of the Woody Guthrie Center alongside Guthrie Green

Don’t get me wrong; yes, I’ve (over)emphasized the unofficial aid stations to this point, but Route 66 also features plenty of “Official Block Party” tents and aid stations plus other helpful reminders—case in point the official race sign reminding runners to “Drink water first” and “DO HYDRATE.”

I can barely stomach one ounce of energy gel during a marathon, so alcohol certainly wasn’t happening; nonetheless, I keenly appreciated the lively local support. And if that’s how other runners choose to enjoy their race, more power to them—my enjoyment comes from reaching the finish line as quickly as possible while staying attuned to my surroundings. I don’t need to stop and interact with the course to appreciate its charm and quirkiness, but I can understand the appeal. And especially in the case of Route 66’s unofficial aid stations, which arose organically as an innovative way for residents to take part in race day, rather than out of any operational “spontaneity” on the part of race officials.

Passing the BOK (Bank of Oklahoma) Center in Downtown Tulsa the marathon course split from the half marathoners, and I heard Shilpa’s heckling in my head as we turned uphill into a slight headwind, our first of the day. Welcome to the next 13 miles, the course seemed to say. With an exasperated sigh, the woman running next to me said, “I should’ve run the half.” I laughed and told her I planned to enjoy this second half. Then I powered up the hill, intent on escaping the towering shadows that had usurped the soothing warmth of the late-morning sun.

Still I felt good as we passed the 13.1-mile mark in the city’s Blue Dome entertainment district. Here the roads became rougher and the course more commercial. Most of the roads along the course were relatively smooth and well maintained, though as with any urban race there were times when I felt the need to stay vigilant for cracks and potholes. Luckily, such sections were few and far between.

Halfway home.

Passing Centennial Park in mile 14 of the Route 66 Marathon
Passing Centennial Park, mile 14

Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’ (Midway point to finish)
Along with the hills, the other aspect of the Route 66 course that discourages speedy finish times is its sheer number of turns—there are a lot of turns, with the three miles along the Arkansas River being the longest uninterrupted stretch of the day. The course’s convoluted layout made running the tangents (i.e., the shortest possible distance from start to finish) nigh impossible, but it did keep things interesting while doing nothing to impede my enjoyment.

Just after mile 14 (and again at mile 24) we passed Oaklawn Cemetery. As if being a cemetery weren’t ominous enough, Oaklawn made national news recently as the site where a forensic team excavated at least 12 coffins in its search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which as many as 300 Black residents were killed and the prosperous Black neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” was destroyed. None of us blithely running past Oaklawn (twice) on that crisp November morning had any idea of our proximity to a mass grave, of course, but even in retrospect the thought is chilling.

It was around the midway point that two days at the expo began to catch up with me as my right hamstring tightened a bit, followed by my upper right quad in mile 16. I wasn’t overly concerned since a) I’d expected this and b) neither ache affected my already conservative pacing, though they didn’t exactly make running more comfortable, either. Luckily I knew that as soon as I crossed the finish line, I’d be taking a break from marathons for at least the rest of the year.

After sitting out West Virginia three weeks earlier, Katie made up for lost time with appearances at miles 6, 9, 15.5, 20 and 25.5, not to mention both the start and finish. In other words, she was everywhere—everywhere except, ironically enough, on Route 66.

Mike Sohaskey in mile 16 of the Route 66 Marathon
Still within sight of the 3:50 pacer, mile 16

On-course musical entertainment included live acts such as a memorable honky-tonk band in the early miles and classic go-to favorites like “Eye of the Tiger.” One unofficial aid station greeted us with “Sweet Home Alabama,” and I was disappointed not to hear any spectators or volunteers step up and seamlessly substitute “O-kla-HO-ma” in the chorus. Talk about a missed opportunity.

With every race I run, it becomes harder to find new signs I appreciate—creative marathon humor seems to be in short supply. And yet in Tulsa I did see:

“This parade is too fast” (a welcome riff on the tired “Worst Parade Ever”)

“You’re the slowest runner yet!” (which sounds insulting at first blush but which was simply true)

“You’re running better than the government” (a personal favorite I’ve seen with increasing frequency the past few years)

Owing to the lack of half marathoners (who outnumbered marathoners in Tulsa nearly 3:1), spectators were understandably more sparse in the second half. This is typical in races like Route 66, where half and full marathoners share a course for the first 13-ish miles. It also meant the organizers had saved the best for first, meaning a more scenic and attractive first half. Indeed, the second half featured a steady diet of pleasant but forgettable neighborhoods, although in their defense late November isn’t the best “dress to impress” time of year with both grass and trees sporting monochromatic brown wardrobes. And while I still appreciated these neighborhoods (since too many marathons rely on monotonous second halfs), I didn’t feel the need to admire each and every one as I struggled to maintain pace.

The hands-down highlight of the second half arrived in mile 21 as we reached the University of Tulsa, which we entered via a smoothly paved, tree-lined semi-oval before circling the campus. I know nothing of its academic programs, but from an architectural perspective TU was newer and more impressive than Marshall had been. And its shrewd placement here in two of the most difficult miles of any marathon was a much-needed distraction.

Mike Sohaskey running on the University of Tulsa campus in mile 21 of the Route 66 Marathon
Walking on sunshine at the University of Tulsa, mile 21

Every urban marathon has its nondescript patches, its less scenic sections that feel inevitable in the search for 26.2 miles. In Tulsa this was the two mile-stretch after the university, as we navigated homeward past the usual lineup of fast food, pharmacies and bail bond shops. By that point, though, scenery mattered not as my attention was focused largely on the tops of my shoes.

Heading west we enjoyed our second-longest straightaway of the day, and suddenly it hit me how tired I was of making turns. Running straight ahead with no immediate turn in sight felt good, and my fatigue lifted momentarily with the realization of having less than 5 km to go.

Glancing left I couldn’t help but notice the prominent spires of Parish of Christ the King, an eye-catching example of Tulsa’s proud Art Deco architectural tradition. And as we turned north onto S Peoria Ave (thus completing a nine-mile loop), I appreciated the view of Downtown Tulsa beckoning us in the distance while feeling beyond grateful not to be an oncoming runner on the other side of the road with 10+ miles still ahead of me. 😓

Thanks to the cold weather, my bottle of Maurten sports drink—which I’d grabbed from Katie in mile 16 and which I’d sip on until mile 23—would be all I’d need to fuel my morning run, and so the only time I’d use an (official) aid station would be to grab a cup of water and rinse off my hands, since my fingers were more or less stuck together after sloshing sugar water on them for seven miles.

Katie next to the Hurt's Donut Emergency Donut Vehicle in downtown Tulsa
A Tulsa innovation perhaps, but every city needs an Emergency Donut Vehicle (and a Katie)

As running mantras go, “Roll with it” might be the best choice for Route 66. The course seemed intent on flexing its muscle, and as one hill led to another and with each descent seemingly followed by a corresponding ascent, I battled to maintain pace and avoid walking. More than anything I wanted to stop and walk, but I also knew that walking 50 yards would quickly lead to walking 100 yards would lead to “Who cares if I break four hours?” would lead to an unhappy finisher. So I forced myself to keep pushing through muscle tightness, mounting fatigue and my general bitterness with Tulsa’s ups and downs.

On a couple of the ups I trailed a woman wearing a singlet that read on the back, “Does this pace make my butt look fast?”. As much as I wanted to encourage her since she looked to be struggling, I didn’t want to invite a misunderstanding by cheekily (no pun intended) responding in the affirmative; besides, chances were good her marathon-fogged brain wouldn’t appreciate the reference anyway. So instead I gasped out my usual “Nicely done” and flashed a thumbs-up as I huffed and puffed my way past her up the hill.

At long last I passed the mile 25 marker and soon after arrived at a Route 66 exclusive—the Center of the Universe detour. Billed as the “World’s Shortest Ultra Marathon” for folks who “wish those 26.2 miles were actually a little longer,” Route 66 offers a 0.3-mile detour to what the city hails as the “Center of the Universe,” an unexplained acoustical anomaly that acts as your own private echo chamber. The detour is entirely optional (though I can’t imagine running the race as a first-timer and not taking it), and for their efforts runners receive a commemorative coin to complement their finisher’s medal.

Mike Sohaskey at turnaround of the Center of the Universe detour at the Route 66 Marathon
Turnaround at the Center of the Universe detour with “Miss Fortune” (in red dress) and Marathon Executive Director Destiny (second from right in black jacket), plus one last unofficial aid station pick-me-up

Of course, this wouldn’t be Tulsa if the road leading to the COTU weren’t uphill—and not just uphill, but among the steepest of the day. Silently I thanked/cursed John for omitting this detail. I fought up the hill, feeling like one of the concrete pillars lining the road as I tapped into my fast-dwindling energy reserves. I knew not where the actual COTU was, nor did I much care—there’d be time to appreciate that later—and in the space of a few feet I passed Katie, the COTU and Destiny Green, the Marathon’s Executive Director, who was apparently there in part to cheer on her mom.

Reaching the turnaround I gratefully accepted my commemorative coin, made the turn past “Miss Fortune” (one of the detour’s famed drag queens… did I mention Route 66 is a shameless party?), and headed back the way I’d come. I was completely oblivious to the “ONE MILE TO GO” banner that apparently hung overhead, my mind laser-focused on the finish line.

I seemed to take forever to get there. At this point I knew sub-four hours was in the bag, and so I wasn’t in any real hurry to finish, but still I refused to walk. Mentally I expected (unrealistically) to see the finish line the moment I left the COTU, and so the final mile felt more like five, with four more turns between me and my destination. Every time I glanced up hoping to see the finish, I’d see runners ahead of me disappear around another turn. Past the BOK Center and up one last hill we trudged as a volunteer with a megaphone announced, “You’ll be disappointed to hear this is the last hill,” to which a woman to my left replied with a squeal, “YOU’RE MY FAVORITE PERSON ON THIS ENTIRE COURSE!!!”

Tulsa mural

Three blocks later we reached that long-overdue beacon of hope: the mile 26 marker. Just beyond that, a sky-blue Tulsa vintage postcard mural on N Boulder Ave welcomed us to the city’s Arts District while reminding us who had hosted this crazy li’l shindig.

If you’ve never experienced the indescribable joy of turning a corner and seeing a marathon finish arch dead ahead, then you are missing out. It’s an emotion I wish I could bottle and share. This is especially true in Boston, where once you make that final left turn onto Boylston you have nearly half a mile of straightaway to bask in your accomplishment along with the crowd’s adulation. In Tulsa, that feeling of euphoria washed over me as I turned onto W Cameron St and applauded the cheering spectators who lined the right side of the home stretch. High-fiving Katie and a few others, I proudly held up my coin and heard my name announced by OKC native Mark Bravo’s familiar voice as I crossed under the red and blue finish arch in a very acceptable time of 3:54:47, having cleared the four-hour barrier with room to spare.

I’d rocked the Route, and it had rocked me right back.

Mike Sohaskey finishing the Route 66 Marathon
Ah, those halcyon days of nonchalantly high-fiving another human being

Oil’s well that ends well
As usual after my last marathon of the year, I was wiped out. And though I didn’t feel as gassed as I had after the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon in 2018 or CIM in 2014, still I was psyched to be done. With five new states plus a World Marathon Major in Japan and an iconic ultramarathon in South Africa, 2019 had been a wildly successful racing year.

I took a moment in the finish chute to gather my wits, wanting to throw my arms around Tulsa and give the city a massive hug. Gratefully I accepted my finisher’s medal along with a bottle of water and Gatorade (munchies such as Mazzio’s Pizza were also available, but I just couldn’t) and then headed for the exit where I took out my elation on Katie, throwing my arms around her as we celebrated 30 states down, 20 to go. She even bought me a “26.5 Finisher” t-shirt at the Fleet Feet Tulsa tent, which I’m now wearing as I write this.

Slowly I diffused over to Guthrie Green, a lovely urban park and ideal post-race venue. Drew and Louann—close friends from our Antarctica trip who hadn’t realized each other would be in Tulsa—had finished the half marathon and were relaxing on the grass soaking up the afternoon sun while an 80s cover band entertained the crowd onstage. Apparently Shilpa, confident and content to rest on her marathon laurels, had failed to respect the half marathon distance and was now resting on her hotel room bed instead after her own 13.1-mile effort.

Mike Sohaskey celebrating with friends at Guthrie Green following the Route 66 Marathon
Reunited, and it feels so good: Celebrating with Louann and Drew at Guthrie Green

I could have fallen asleep right there on the warm grass myself, but the three of them needed to hit the road soon, so we made plans to shower and reconvene for a quick lunch. Before leaving the scene of the crime, though, I checked out the VIP room in the adjacent Zarrow Center, a sweet perk for 50 States Marathon Club members. There a massage therapist prodded my distressed quad and told me my SI joints were misaligned, which could account for recurring glute and hamstring pain on my right side. I made a mental (and now physical) note to look into it.

I couldn’t leave without cheering Mississippi buddy and fellow 50 Stater Evelyn across the finish line. As I waited, a couple of runners approached the finish wearing “TEAM BEEF” shirts, and I applauded their effort as I silently high-fived myself. Always a good day when a vegetarian can beat Team Beef, I thought wryly. I knew that Evelyn, being a vegan herself, would approve.

Mike Sohaskey and Evelyn in the home stretch of the Route 66 Marathon (mile 26.4)
Evelyn sighting in the home stretch, mile 26.4

Drew likewise stopped to cheer on a friend to the finish, though he was rewarded with a bitter “Fuck this race!” And Katie shouted encouragement to another woman who responded with, “Running’s dumb!” Nowhere does the human spirit shine quite so brightly as at a marathon finish line.

We met Drew, Louann and Shilpa for lunch at Fat Guy Hamburgers, located in the Greenwood District. Known in the early 20th century as “Black Wall Street,” Greenwood was the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. On this day, though, Fat Guy was the perfect spot for a celebratory lunch with three fabulous people (& Katie) who I never would have met were it not for my good fortune in being able to see the world 26.2 miles at a time.

Post-race dinner at the Bricktown Brewery
When the unofficial aid station becomes official: Toasting an epic weekend at Bricktown Brewery

The same would be true of our evening meal as we gathered with John, Jen and the three Yoopers—each of whom enjoyed her Route 66 experience, hills and all—for dinner and drinks at Bricktown Brewery. John is a self-made expert in “post-race pain management” (i.e., he’s a brewpub connoisseur), and Bricktown did not disappoint. And that night we said our farewells with the promise we’d all meet again one day soon—and in some cases sooner than others, as we’d bump into Yooper Laurie at The Gathering Place the next day. Luckily Michigan is one of my remaining 20 states once the COVID clouds lift.

Three days later, as we boarded a flight home from Dallas Love Field Airport after a quick Texas stopover to visit family, the TSA agent pulled aside my backpack, rummaged through its captivating contents and extricated my sleek Route 66 Cadillac hood ornament finisher’s medal. “This looked like a knife on the scanner,” he explained. “It does look sharp,” I admitted, my punny humor going unappreciated.

Route 66 was a spot-on choice for my first Oklahoma marathon, and one I’d happily run again. Tulsa won me over with its sights and sounds, its people and places, its angels and demons. And there’s a reason the city recently finished third in our RaceRaves Best Midsize Racing Cities in the U.S. poll. Because while T-Town may be the second largest city in the Sooner State, I’d argue the label “Tulsa, OK” doesn’t do it justice. Tulsa is a vibrant and historic destination, whether you’re running a marathon in every state, chasing nostalgic slices of Americana like the 75-foot-tall Golden Driller or Space Cowboy “Muffler Man” Buck Atom, or romanticizing the “good old days” by driving the Main Street of America from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Because be it on foot or by car, you’ll get your kicks on Route 66.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho finish line selfie at the Route 66 Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: In a city known for its block parties, Route 66 bills itself as “Oklahoma’s Biggest Block Party”—and it may be right. Though “fun” may not be the first word you associate with the Sooner State, there’s a reason Route 66 is an annual favorite with runners across the U.S. including national clubs like the Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics. From its colorful confetti gun start to its popular “unofficial aid stations” to its Center of the Universe detour (earning it the title of “World’s Shortest Ultra Marathon”) to its Arts District finish alongside Guthrie Green, few marathons take care of their runners like Route 66.

Yes, the rolling course boasts its share of hills—or what Marathon Executive Board Chairman Tim Fisher prefers to call “character”—but then again if you run 26.2 miles for fun, chances are you’ll sound a bit silly complaining about a few ups and downs along the way. Besides, there’s no better place to walk off your hard-earned post-race soreness than The Gathering Place, a sprawling urban park along the Arkansas River located in mile 10 that was voted “Best New Attraction of 2018” by USA Today. So then I guess what I’m saying is YES, you really will get your kicks at Route 66.

PRODUCTION: Full disclosure, we spent two days hosting a booth at the Route 66 expo, so I had ample time to pick up my packet and explore the expo. That said, the entire weekend was smooth sailing, and aside from holding the race in Upper Texas (sorry, I grew up in Dallas so the Texas-OU rivalry is still ingrained in me), I can’t recall any memorable glitches or obvious areas for improvement. Great expo, great start line, high-energy (albeit hilly) urban course, a “ONE MILE TO GO” banner that I missed while staring at my shoe tops, plus a comfortable recovery venue after the race in Guthrie Green. Aside from that last dozen or so hills, what’s not to love?

And hills notwithstanding, Route 66 is a great race for first timers—not only for its terrific on-course support but because first-time marathoners and half marathons earn a shout-out on their bibs as well as an exclusive “My First Marathon” or “My First Half Marathon” medal to celebrate their accomplishment.

Route 66 medal in front of the Tulsa Route 66 Rising sculpture
Route 66 Marathon Center of the Universe challenge coin

SWAG: Route 66 features some of the best swag out there, including a nicely fitting jacket (for full and half marathon finishers), finisher’s medal (which in 2019 was modeled after a 1940s Cadillac hood ornament), Williams-branded gloves, and even hand sanitizer which turned out to be downright prophetic and the most useful freebie of all. And with a new five-medal series leading up to the event’s 20th anniversary in 2026 and showcasing popular, larger-than-life symbols from along Route 66 in Tulsa (such as Space Cowboy “Muffler Man” Buck Atom), the bling promises to remain a creative conversation starter.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey 50 States Map on RaceRaves.com

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Nov 24, 2019 (start time 8:00 am, sunrise 7:09 am)
26.78 miles in Tulsa, Oklahoma (state 30 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:54:47 (first time running the Route 66 Marathon), 8:46/mile
Finish place: 197 overall, 16/105 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,429 (804 men, 625 women)
Race weather: clear & cold (38°F) at the start, sunny & warm(er) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 674 ft gain, 698 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 620 ft, 794 ft

In the middle of Huntington, West Virginia there’s a river. Next to this river there is a steel mill. And next to the steel mill there is a school. In the middle of the school, there is a fountain. Each year on the exact same day, at the exact same hour, the water to this fountain is turned off. And in this moment once every year, throughout the town, throughout the school, time stands still.
– “We Are Marshall”

We Are Marshall sign

As I’ve noted before, the 50 States quest is both a beast of opportunity and a three-dimensional game of real-world Tetris. And at no time has this truth been truer than last autumn.

With Katie planning to join several friends in Arizona for a landmark birthday celebration (not hers) in early November, I suddenly found myself with a wide-open chance to color in another state on my 50 States Map, if I could find a viable candidate. So I hopped on RaceRaves and quickly discovered the Marshall University Marathon (MUM) in Huntington, WV, which fell on that same weekend in a state I’d yet to visit.

Except technically that wasn’t true. We had in fact visited West Virginia three years earlier, when we’d first flown into Louisville, Kentucky to attend Muhammad Ali’s funeral procession before crossing the state to run the Hatfield McCoy Marathon. A two-state superstar, the Hatfield McCoy course had started in Kentucky and finished in West Virginia, meaning I could legitimately count it for either state.

To this point I’d considered Hatfield McCoy my entry for the Bluegrass State, since that weekend had been Kentucky-centric and our brief foray across the border hadn’t done its neighbor state justice. But I’d always reserved the right to change my mind and count HMM for West Virginia depending on how my future Tetris pieces fell into place. (Keeping those options open!) Now I had the opportunity to formally check off West Virginia, without Katie feeling like she’d miss out on visiting a new state.

And that, kids, is what we call a win-win.

Flag of West Virginia

Also working in its favor, MUM is the runner-up to Hatfield McCoy among Mountain State marathons, at least according to our RaceRaves Runners Choice: Best of the US Marathons poll in which we’d surveyed runners across the country as to their favorite marathons in all 50 states. Plus, any semi-regular reader of this blog knows I’m a sucker for college campuses.

Quickly I did some online research and discovered that YES, it was in fact possible to get to Huntington without having to fly into Columbus, Ohio and drive 150 miles. So I pulled the trigger and reserved a not-inconvenient flight to Huntington with a brief layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I’d later learn the hard way, I probably should have added a rental car to that reservation…

In search of an intrepid companion to join me in the Mountain State, I reached out to fellow 50 Stater and recent new dad Dan Solera, whose own 50 States journey lacks only Alaska, Hawaii and… West Virginia. Despite the new responsibilities of fatherhood, I hoped this would be a quick and easy opportunity for him to close out the continental US. Unfortunately he already had plans to be in Miami with family that same weekend, which also happened to fall a few days before his birthday. So then for the first time in 29 states, I’d be traveling and running alone. Sólo yo.

And just like that, a girls’ (plural) weekend for Katie turned into a boy’s (singular) weekend for me.

She may put on a brave face, but clearly Katie would rather be watching me run in circles

A Mountain State of mind
Our flight from Charlotte touched down in Huntington on Friday night under cover of darkness. Emerging into the main concourse of Huntington Tri-State Airport at just before 9:30pm local time, I had the distinct impression I’d be tasked with turning off the lights on my way out. As I waited 16 minutes for the closest Lyft driver to arrive (36 minutes for the nearest Uber driver), the last of my fellow passengers departed the airport, and briefly I stepped outside into the bone-chilling cold before retreating back into the warmth of my own private terminal.

Toto, we’re not in Los Angeles anymore.

Mike Sohaskey at empty terminal in Huntington Tri-State Airport
Just a boy and his airline terminal

On that note, my Lyft driver from the airport dispelled any lingering doubt, assuring me when questioned that there was “not much to do here.” To a man (or woman), each driver throughout the weekend was surprised to hear I’d come all the way from California, and my go-to response to the frequent question of “What are you doing out here?” quickly became “Trying to escape the wildfires.” (My first two drivers clearly were not runners and had no idea Huntington hosted a marathon, so that wasn‘t much of a conversation starter.)

On Saturday I caught up on my sleep before rolling down into Huntington for the quiet, uneventful expo at the New Baptist Church, where a fleet of cars displaying “FUNERAL” placards sat parked in front of the main entrance. To one side an inflatable Marshall University Marathon arch signaled the door to the expo, which was sparsely decorated with a MUM backdrop and wooden bison in tribute to the school’s mascot, the Thundering Herd. Given the event’s name and affiliation I had to wonder, why couldn’t this expo have been held somewhere more inviting, say on the Marshall campus closer to the center of town?

With race packet in hand I grabbed a quick Thai lunch in Pullman Square before setting out to explore Huntington on foot. From Harris Riverfront Park on the banks of the Ohio River, to the statue of railroad magnate Collis Huntington for whom the city was named, to the Marshall University campus, I soon realized West Virginia’s second-largest city was a bit more spread out than I’d anticipated. And though very few coaches — or at least very few good coaches — would recommend walking several miles the day before a marathon, I wasn’t here to set a personal best or qualify for Boston. Besides, the chance to discover (and document) new places like Huntington is the real driver of this 50 States quest.

Mike Sohaskey at Marshall University Marathon expo

Admittedly, what I saw on my whirlwind tour of Huntington reinforced many preconceived notions of urban Appalachia, minus the banjos and overalls. Cracked roads and vacant lots were in no short supply along with billboards advertising addiction treatment and recovery services; after all, based on the most recent data from the CDC, West Virginia is the epicenter of the nation’s opioid epidemic with the highest rate of death due to drug overdose. One older Lyft driver, who claimed Huntington as both his birthplace and post-retirement home, noted of the St. Mary’s Medical Center as we passed, “They keep busy treating the usual illnesses: addiction, obesity, toothlessness.” He chuckled as he said the latter, as though tickled by this unflattering stereotype of his fellow Huntingtonians.

(Notably, I did pass quite a few family dentistry practices during my afternoon stroll, second only to churches and auto repair shops.)

That evening I dined on Mexican fare before Lyfting back to my room at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Huntington. Located atop a hill nearly four miles from the marathon start line, the Fairfield Inn & Suites had been the most convenient option available by the time I’d booked my lodging a month before race day. Normally four miles would be an easy car ride, but given Huntington’s sporadic rideshare services, I was genuinely concerned about getting to the start line Sunday morning on time. Luckily the racing gods would smile down on me not once but twice: first, an extra hour of sleep awaited me thanks to the end of daylight saving time, which would allow me to rise and shine in plenty of time to find my way to the start line. So even if my iPhone failed to adjust appropriately to the early morning time change, I’d still wake up an hour early. And second… well, I’ll get to second in a moment.

With so many marathons and ultramarathons under my belt, nowadays I rarely have trouble sleeping on the night before a race. That night in Huntington, though, I awoke in a moment of anxiety thinking, “Wait, West Virginia does recognize daylight saving time, doesn’t it?” Squinting at my phone I saw that the display read 1:58am… so I watched until the clock turned to 2:00am EDT and then immediately back to 1:00am EST, before falling easily into a deep and worry-free sleep.

Chris Cline Athletic Complex bronzed bison statues

MUM’s the word
On Sunday I awoke to chilly temperatures and my second high five from the racing gods. The previous evening, I’d asked Dan my Lyft driver if he knew how to schedule a ride ahead of time, since for some reason the app wouldn’t cooperate here in Huntington. And though he was unable to answer my question, Dan’s solution — and I still can’t believe this — was to wake up Sunday morning and turn on his own app, just in case I needed a ride. Now here he was, and as if that weren’t enough, he’d driven in from the next county to be here. Who does that? An incredibly kindhearted fellow with the license plate “LYFT1,” that’s who. Needless to say I tipped him generously, but it’s tough to put a price on such an exquisite and unsolicited act of kindness.

Minutes later, I thanked Dan once again and hopped out on 5th Avenue a short walk from the start line. Directly across the street, several volunteers assembled one of the day’s aid stations in the waning darkness. There I dropped off my bottle of Maurten sports drink for retrieval on the second loop of MUM’s two-loop course, somewhere between mile 14 and 16 (the course map hadn’t been precise). Katie would be proud, I thought of this uncharacteristic planning on my part — planning which, ironically enough, was only necessary because meeting me between miles 14–16 with my bottle was exactly what Katie would normally do.

Then I headed toward the start line, stopping briefly to experience the rare, ineffable joy of christening the first in a line of pristine porta-potties which stood far from the madding crowd in the shadow of Joan C. Edwards Stadium. (If you’re not a runner, trust me on this.)

2019 Marshall University Marathon start line
Ah, the glory days before social distancing

Temperatures still hovered around freezing as I joined the gathering crowd under the start arch on the north side of the stadium. The occasional thin, wispy cloud dotted the periphery of an otherwise clear and brightening sky. With temperatures rising above 30°F I’d decided not to wear tights, and a smart decision it turned out to be — I’d psyched myself up for such intense cold that by the time I stepped outside, it actually wasn’t so bad. My arm warmers, calf sleeves and gloves would provide plenty of warmth.

Unlike other similarly sized events, due to liability concerns (?) the MUM organizers offered no pre-race bag check for runners to drop off pants, jackets or other items at the start and retrieve them at the finish. And so rather than discard/donate my 2014 Mississippi Blues Marathon fleece pullover (because man, it’s useful on cold mornings like this), I folded and stashed it in the bushes behind a large rock emblazoned with the Marshall Thundering Herd logo in front of the Shewey Athletic Building. Given the limited police presence in the area, I was confident my trusty pullover would wait for me until my return. Ah, how I do love smaller marathons.

Thundering Herd boulder at Marshall University
My convenient hiding place/bag check near the start line

Ironically, though MUM is on the smaller size as urban marathons go, it’s actually the largest marathon in West Virginia with 372 finishers for the 2019 race. And it just so happens to fall on the same weekend as the world’s largest marathon, which takes place 600 miles away in New York City. In fact, seemingly all of my fellow runners I’d seen boarding flights in Los Angeles and Charlotte on Friday had in fact been heading to the Big Apple. You can imagine their bemusement on hearing I was also flying to a marathon… in West Virginia.

As a female singer performed the National Anthem, I sipped half of my 5-hour Energy and positioned myself in the start corral next to an anxious first-timer. I tried to help calm her jitters, assuring her the hardest part was behind her and that this was the fun part — once the gun went off, she’d be fine. We wished each other luck as Katy Perry belted out “Firework” over the PA system. I glanced at the official clock, seeing the red numbers hit “7:00:00” just as the start cannon boomed to signal the start of the 16th Marshall University Marathon.

The MUM course is a two-loop tour of Huntington, with the opening two miles tracing their own rectangular loop east of campus: out on 3rd Avenue and back on 5th with the two streets connected by a two-block stretch of (not yellow) brick road. Here I heard a RaceRaves shout-out alongside me and turned to greet Alexis Batausa, the super-cool race director for the nearby Hatfield McCoy Marathon which I’d run back in 2016. He informed me that he was training for his first 100-miler and told me how much he appreciated RaceRaves, before wishing me luck and pulling away en route to a 1:47:36 half marathon.

Marshall University Marathon course map
(Click on image for a higher-resolution version)

The morning air was cool, crisp and ideal for running as we (re-)passed the stadium, this time on 20th St with the main campus on our left. Turning west on 3rd Avenue, we soon reached Harris Riverfront Park where the neighboring state of Ohio beckoned from across its namesake river. (As the name of the Huntington Tri-State Airport suggests, Huntington sits at the junction of three states, across the river from Ohio and roughly ten miles from the Kentucky border.) Here the fog hung low on the water below the Robert C. Byrd Bridge, as if forming an ethereal crossing for otherworldly commuters to pass between Ohio and West Virginia.

The scene was peaceful and complemented my own relaxed gait. Given Marshall’s flat terrain and ideal weather, I’d chosen to break out my Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit shoes for the first time since Tokyo eight months earlier. The shoe’s springiness and reported ability to reduce recovery time would also be a boon with my next marathon coming up in state #30 in just three weeks.

I fell in comfortably with the 3:45 (3 hours, 45 minutes) pace group and adopted their time goal as my own, pausing twice for quick porta-potty pit stops. The group consisted of about ten runners with one fellow blasting “Somebody Told Me” by The Killers as a welcome distraction.

View of Harris Riverfront Park and the Ohio River during Marshall University Marathon
Harris Riverfront Park and the Ohio River

Soon we passed a shadowy domicile that resembled an actual haunted house lifted from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo, but the place was straight up spooky without the benefit of a single Halloween decoration.

The 2½-mile stretch out to Kiwanis Park was dominated by auto dealerships, blue-collar industries and the ghosts of businesses past, including several antique shops and a seemingly deserted box & lumber company. Timeworn mechanical equipment sat abandoned on unkempt lots overtaken by weeds and guarded by weathered chain-link fences. Towering silos dotted the landscape along with houses in various states of disrepair. And though I presumed coal to be the leading industry here, I saw no obvious signs, not that a city boy from the West Coast would necessarily know what to look for. One of my Lyft drivers had mentioned that a steel mill had employed many of the townspeople until its recent closing.

Huntington felt — gritty may not be the right word, but definitely like a throwback to an earlier, less hurried time. Yellowing store signs sported old-fashioned lettering while marquees stood neglected, their manually replaceable letters succumbing to time and exposure as though not changed since the Reagan administration. And I recalled the Urban Dictionary’s non-sugarcoated description of Huntington as “the Detroit of West Virginia” and “a city that was once a decent place to live… about 30 years ago.”

In mile 7 we reached Kiwanis Park and transitioned to a comfortable crushed limestone trail that ran beside a slow-moving creek. Here the grass looked oddly frosted as if decorated for Christmas; whether this was intentional or a sleight of hand by Mother Nature (powdery mildew, maybe?), I couldn’t say.

Memorial Arch in Kiwanis Park, Huntington WV
Memorial Arch in Kiwanis Park

Leaving tiny Kiwanis Park we passed the imposing Cabell County Memorial Arch, a 42-foot-tall limestone and granite memorial to those who fought in World War One. We then continued along the trail for another 1¼ miles before reaching Ritter Park, which struck me as larger and more impressive than Kiwanis with benches, picnic tables and even tennis courts. Both parks dazzled with an autumn display of greens, oranges, yellows and reds, providing a welcome change of scenery from the city’s commercial and industrial sectors. And across the street from Ritter Park, multi-level homes like nothing I’d seen in Huntington boasted clean red-brick facades with white trim, white pillars and spacious, nicely manicured lawns.

The sun climbed ever higher in a brilliant, cloudless blue sky, providing a hint of warmth as we left Ritter Park behind and navigated through attractive residential neighborhoods sprinkled with businesses and churches. The transition from residential to commercial in mile 11 signaled our approach of downtown Huntington. After retracing our steps through Harris Riverfront Park, we crossed the Marshall campus on tree-lined walkways, circling Memorial Fountain and passing the recreation center en route to completing our first loop. 13.1 down, 13.1 to go.

First, though, a word on Marshall and Memorial Fountain…

Marshall Univeristy sign and John Marshall statue

We Are Marshall
Established in 1837 and named for John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, Marshall University’s history is a storied one. Unfortunately, its most widely publicized chapter is one it would just as soon erase from the history books.

In 1970, six days before I was born, a chartered commercial jet carrying most of the Marshall University football team as well as coaches, fans and supporters crashed into a nearby hillside, killing all 75 passengers in what has been labeled “the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S. history.” Memorial Fountain was dedicated in 1972 to the memory of the victims, and each year on the anniversary of the crash, the Marshall Student Government Association conducts a service on campus to memorialize and honor the 75 lives lost, with the water in Memorial Fountain being turned off during the service and not started again until spring. The tragic accident and its aftermath were chronicled in the 2006 film We Are Marshall starring Matthew McConaughey.

Soon we would have our own chance to honor the victims of the 1970 crash. But before that could happen, there was work to be done.

Marshall University sign

The second loop started in the opposite direction as the first as we headed out on 5th Ave and back on 3rd Ave, so that we were now forced to tackle the brick road connecting the two streets in the uphill direction. Luckily I was able to snag my bottle of Maurten from the friendly volunteers at the mile 14 aid station where I’d left it earlier that morning. And with that, loop two was off to a good start.

As if the organizers weren’t wicked enough making us pass close enough to the stadium at the midway point to hear the PA announcer inside welcome half marathoners across the finish, our reverse mini-loop to start the second half meant we’d run right past the stadium entrance where half marathoners coming from the opposite direction turned in for their triumphant finish. In my bitterness, I almost expected to look up and see volunteers tempting us with marathon finisher medals the way a matador would a bull with his red cape.

I pulled ahead of the 3:45 pace group to start the second half, hopefully for good though I knew they’d never be far behind. I was feeling strong and confident, even entertaining the possibility of a negative split (that is, a second half faster than the first), a feat I’d only accomplished twice in 41 marathons and each time at my hometown Los Angeles Marathon.

Per my usual marathon MO, I bypassed all the aid stations at MUM and ate nothing, relying instead on my strategically placed bottle of Maurten to fuel me happily and consistently. From miles 14–23 I took a swig every mile except 18, when I chose to down the rest of the 5-hour Energy shot I’d opened at the start line. Thing is, I’ve yet to master drinking on the run, and so I ended up clumsily splashing much of it on my face like caffeinated aftershave.

Ritter Park, mile 22 of Marshall University Marathon
Ritter Park, mile 22

Aside from volunteers the course featured few spectators, nor much in the way of musical entertainment aside from a drummer dressed as a cannibal (?) near Riverfront Park and a quartet of whimsical woodwinds playing the Rocky theme at an almost apologetic volume in Ritter Park. And the only upside (if you could call it that) to Katie’s absence was that I could focus solely on running without the distraction of keeping an eye out for her along the course.

I’m not a fan of multi-loop courses and so tend to avoid them when possible; however, the scenery in Huntington was diverse enough to keep things interesting. And though the earth may not be flat (RIP “Mad” Mike Hughes), you could be forgiven for thinking so based on the MUM course, which is largely flat with only two or three short hills per loop, none of which will knock the wind out of you. After one such hill, we were rewarded with the delightful aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from a bakery directly ahead of us. Too bad there was no one handing out free samples, not that I needed a ball of dough expanding in my stomach at mile 19 of a marathon.

Our second tour of Kiwanis Park and Ritter Park was a been there, seen that, head down, stay the course effort as I focused on staying strong while ignoring everything but the back of the fellow ahead of me, whom I was now using as an impromptu pacer. Mile 20 passed, then 21, then 22 (with a brief stop for an inflatable Minion) as we circled Ritter Park and exited for the final time on our way back to Marshall.

Mike Sohaskey and inflatable Minion during Marshall University Marathon

Still I felt good, felt relaxed, with strong stretches where I passed several runners, some of whom were clearly starting to fade. And I kept reminding myself that I just needed to reach the mile 25 marker, recalling from the first loop that mile 26 would start on a downhill. Hopefully from there I’d still have enough steam to push the pace to the finish.

I could feel myself starting to sweat for the first time in mile 25 as the sun approached its zenith. As we ran alongside the flood wall that separated us from Harris Riverfront Park and which was constructed after the historic Ohio River flood of 1937, I heard my name shouted by a pacer headed in the opposite direction. I even thought that pacer sounded like my buddy Dale B, a RaceRaves member and fellow 50 Stater whom I’d first met in Fargo six months earlier. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized Dale (who lives in nearby Kentucky) would be in Huntington, and by the time his voice registered in my sluggish, marathon-soaked brain, the moment to acknowledge his shout-out had passed. Dammit. So instead I soldiered on, determined above all else to keep the 3:45 pacer behind me, wherever he was.

At last we reached the long-awaited mile 25 marker. Here I passed a few happy-go-lucky half marathoners on the gentle downhill before turning into Marshall for the home stretch. As we stepped onto campus, we were handed two white flowers which we then placed on Memorial Fountain as we passed, in honor of the 75 lives lost in the 1970 airline crash. (NOTE: If you do run MUM, be sure to hold each flower at the top of the stem near the base of the flower — at a running pace the long stems can easily fail under the weight of the flower, as confirmed by the trail of fallen white flowers leading up to the fountain. And trust me, in mile 26 the last thing you want to be doing is backtracking to pick up something you dropped, even something as meaningful as those flowers.)

Joan C. Edwards Stadium, finish of Marshall University Marathon
Next stop, Joan C. Edwards Stadium

As mile 26s go this one was truly enjoyable, starting on the downhill before crossing Marshall’s historic red-brick campus and emerging with our final destination directly ahead of us in Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Glancing to my right as we turned onto 20th Street, I glimpsed the 3:45 pacer in my peripheral vision — he was now running alone and closing the gap on me. No no no, not now. Like a cowboy’s spurs in my flank, that was my cue to dig deep and finish strong. I had to stay ahead of him, had to leave no room for doubt since I didn’t know how close he was to his (and my) goal time. (Call it superstition, but I prefer not to consult my Garmin late in marathons because why bother? It’s not like I was holding back and waiting for the right moment to kick it up a notch.)

Circling the stadium, we passed the mile 26 marker before turning into the service entrance that led onto the field. As if seeing the finish line ahead weren’t enough of a highlight, volunteers handed each runner a football to carry the last 140 yards to the finish in a U-shaped path — end zone to the opposite 30-yard line, then back to the end zone — flanked by 75 American flags representing the lives lost in the 1970 crash. Here I imagined myself kicking in the afterburners as I accelerated ever so slightly, just in case there were any pro scouts among the dozen or so spectators watching from the stadium’s 30,000+ seats.

Hearing my name announced over the PA, I channeled my inner Randy Moss (the Thundering Herd’s most famous football alum), stiff-arming imaginary defenders and finding the end zone in an official time of 3:44:47. Despite missing a negative split by one minute, I’d beaten both my goal and the 3:45 pacer, who finished seconds behind me in an impressive show of spot-on pacing. Props to the MUM team on saving the best for last with their memorable finish on the field.

Mike Sohaskey about to cross finish line of Marshall University Marathon
(photo: Gameface Media)

Say goodbye to Huntington
For you trivia buffs scoring at home, my MUM finish meant that within six months I’d conquered my own “Bison Double,” completing both US marathons that finish inside the home stadium of a team with a bison mascot (eat your heart out, Ken Jennings!). If only I’d planned better, I might also have run the Memorial Day BOLDERBoulder 10K which finishes on Folsom Field, home of the University of Colorado Buffaloes.

(And still more college sports trivia: With 114 wins and only 25 losses, Marshall boasted the winningest football program in America during the decade of the 1990’s. No bull!)

Mike Sohaskey with Marco the Bison, Marshall University's mascot
Don’t tell Marco the Bison I’m a Rice Owl (my iPhone lens fogged up in the cold)

I returned the football, deferring my NFL dreams to another day, and gratefully accepted my finisher medal, an unassuming bronze football with a green and black ribbon that’s much more attractive than the medal itself. Then I collapsed on the field, where I found myself singing along to “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe (when had I last heard that song?) as I cheered other runners across the finish, some of whom chose to leave the football moves to us swole beefcakes.

There I lay savoring the soft, synthetic grass beneath my limp body. Eventually with a mighty effort, I willed myself to my feet (in part because I was getting cold) and reluctantly exited the stadium. My first stop was the Thundering Herd rock behind which my hidden fleece waited right where I’d left it. Have I mentioned I love smaller marathons? Then I grabbed some chocolate milk and a Krispy Kreme donut with Kelly green icing, which after two enthusiastic bites left me feeling like I’d need an insulin shot. (Curiously, Huntington has no Krispy Kreme but does have a Dunkin’ across the street from campus.) I also congratulated a fellow finisher who had run his first Comrades Marathon five months earlier and was predictably planning to go back in 2020 to earn his back-to-back medal. It’s a small world after all, and especially among runners.

Mike Sohaskey with Krispy Kreme donut in front of Marco the Bison statue
Hey Mr. Bison, wooden you rather be grazing on a donut?

Then it was time to skedaddle, since I didn’t want to miss my afternoon flight home to Los Angeles via Charlotte. And it was only fitting that my request for a Lyft ride back to my hotel would be answered by — who else? Dan the Lyft Man! He even waited while I ran inside the Fairfield Inn & Suites, sponged off quickly, threw everything in my suitcase and checked out. In case you couldn’t tell, Dan will always be one of my fondest memories of Huntington.

Despite my lack of Katie, state 29 had been an unmitigated success. And as our plane gained altitude over Huntington, I gained perspective I’d missed by arriving under cover of darkness. From this aerial view I could better appreciate an industrial city and college town nestled between the sinuous Ohio River to the north and the vast Appalachian wilderness infiltrated by quiet country roads (and a red Chevy Sonic sporting the license plate “LYFT1”) to the south. And somewhere John Denver sang:

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads.

Mike Sohaskey at Marshall University Marathon finish line

BOTTOM LINE: For a solid, few-frills race through the heart of urban Appalachia, MUM’s the word. Held annually on the same Sunday as the nation’s largest marathon in New York City, MUM is itself the largest marathon in West Virginia and a worthy late-season addition if you’re looking to conquer the Mountain State on your 50 States quest. As the name suggests, the centerpiece of race weekend is Marshall University, with the hands-down highlights of race day being 1) the opportunity in mile 26 to leave a white flower on Memorial Fountain to honor the 75 lives lost in the 1970 plane crash tragedy, and 2) the finish on the football field at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.

Aside from those two moments, MUM struggles to convey a distinctive personality or rise above the level of “good enough.” Located at the nexus of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, Huntington isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, and what there is to see (aside from the Marshall campus) tends to be spread out across the city: a park here, a statue there, a small town square with shops and restaurants a stone’s throw from the Ohio River. And nary a grocery store to be found, though luckily I was able to score a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (my pre-race breakfast) at the local Speedway convenience store. All this civic distancing was particularly inconvenient for me since I’d registered too late to score a room at one of the two conveniently located hotels near campus (my bad), and so I ended up staying atop a hill nearly four miles away at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott.

Mike Sohaskey with Marshall University sign

With that in mind, if you do decide to run MUM I’d suggest you a) book accommodations early (though even the closest hotels are more than a mile from the race start/finish) and b) rent a car, because Lyft/Uber rides can be sporadic and tough to come by. (This is especially pronounced if you’re coming from a larger city like Los Angeles, where you’ve been spoiled by a surfeit of rides and short wait times.) In fact, in Huntington the same Lyft driver picked me up four times in a row and drove in from the next county to do so. So I spent a goodly amount of my 40+ hours in Huntington waiting for Lyft rides, though I knew when I saw my dedicated driver’s license plate (LYFT1) for the first time that I was in good hands. Thanks, Dan!

The TL;DR is that I did enjoy my MUM weekend — the course is largely flat (ironic since this is the Mountain State) and diverse enough to justify two loops. What’s more, the sunny weather but cooler temperatures were exactly what you wish for in a November marathon. The race organizers do rely heavily on the appeal of Marshall University to attract runners (it worked on me!), though there’s also enough to see around Huntington for curious minds (on active legs) to fill a Saturday. All that said, unless you’re averse to running in the heat, I’d recommend the excellent Hatfield McCoy Marathon in June (which starts in Kentucky and finishes in West Virginia) as a more memorable choice for the Mountain State. And I’m not alone in that opinion, since MUM finished as runner-up to Hatfield McCoy for both the best marathon and best half marathon in the state in our RaceRaves Runners Choice polls.

Collage of scenes from Huntington, West Virginia
Scenes from Huntington (clockwise from upper left): Huntington historical marker and Collis Huntington statue (created by Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum); fall foliage along the Huntington Flood Wall; bison sculpture in Pullman Square; St. Joseph Parish; “Daughters of Marshall” banner; One Room School Museum on Marshall campus

PRODUCTION: Race production on the whole went smoothly enough, though at the same time the weekend lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, that genuine sense of spirit and enthusiasm that distinguishes similarly sized races like Missoula, Jackson Hole and Clarence DeMar. As mentioned above, the organizers clearly count on the overarching presence of Marshall University to carry the day, from the Marshall-themed decorations at the pre-race expo to the finish on the field at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. (Disclaimer: While I’m a notorious sucker for college campuses and will always err on the side of the color green, the Marshall football team happened to be playing my alma mater Rice University in Houston on the Saturday of race weekend. That said, Rice so rarely wins that another predictable defeat didn’t color my feelings toward MUM.)

With the exception of Kiwanis Park, friendly volunteers were stationed at strategic points along the course, presumably to keep an eye on and direct the runners. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the volunteers at the mile 2/14 aid station, who kindly allowed me to stash my bottle of Maurten at their table before the race, which I then claimed on the second loop. Oh, and kudos to the PA announcer whose welcoming voice on the field at Joan C. Edwards Stadium greeted runners as they crossed the end zone/finish line, many of them with football in hand. Near-freezing temperatures aside, I also appreciated the opportunity to lounge on the field for as long as I wanted afterward, an unexpected bonus and particularly when compared with another unnamed marathon happening that day in ew-Nay ork-Yay ity-Cay, where no sooner do you cross the finish line in Central Park than they kick you out the nearest exit.

Mike Sohaskey, relaxing post-race on Marshall University's football field

Outside the stadium, the reasonable post-race spread featured hot dogs, burgers, Krispy Kreme donuts with Kelly green icing, potato chips, bananas, Coke, chocolate milk and water, plus Bud Light and always unappealing Michelob Ultra. (On that note, I’d urge the social media “influencers” who now awkwardly endorse Michelob Ultra in my Instagram feed to reconsider; I’ve yet to meet a runner whose face lights up at the mention of Michelob Ultra.) Nearby, a vendor offered runners the chance to put their feet up (literally) and treat their weary legs to the latest in pneumatic compression recovery technology.

Small, quiet and lacking in energy, the pre-race expo was held more than a mile from campus at the New Baptist Church, a converted ice-skating rink where a fleet of cars sporting “FUNERAL” placards greeted us at the entrance. The expo itself consisted of packet pickup, a registration table, a couple of booths selling running supplies and local apparel, a drop-off point for non-perishable donations to the food pantry, and an oversized United States map with pushpins to indicate your state. Given its utilitarian format I got in and out relatively quickly, all the while wondering why this wasn’t being held for convenience sake on the Marshall campus.

2019 Marshall University Marathon medal

SWAG: The race shirt is a Kelly green Brooks tech tee, comfy though not as desirable as the stylish pullover that had been offered to registrants several months earlier. (With MUM now in its 17th year, I’d urge the organizers to follow the lead of other events and better anticipate participant numbers so that the pullover option remains available after the current July 1 registration cutoff.) The finisher medal is an understated bronze football with an attractive green and black ribbon, while Goodr sunglasses emblazoned with footballs and the Marshall University logo (never again to be worn by this Rice alum, go Owls!) rounded out the swag.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map after Marshall University Marathon

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Nov 3, 2019 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 6:56 am)
26.24 miles in Huntington, WV (state 29 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:44:47 (first time running MUM), 8:35/mile
Finish place: 86 overall, 9/31 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 372 (229 men, 143 women)
Race weather: clear & cold (31°F) at the start, partly cloudy & cold at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 240 ft gain, 237 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 513 ft, 565 ft

Not only in running but in much of life is a sense of balance and proportion necessary.
– Clarence DeMar

Mike Sohaskey with Clarence DeMar Marathon sign

Across the country and around the world, there are thousands of marathons — but there’s only one original. And no other marathon can boast the sheer number of memorable and historic performances as Boston. Among these the 1982 “Duel in the Sun” comes to mind, when Alberto Salazar triumphed over Dick Beardsley by two seconds. So does Geoffrey Mutai’s wind-aided course record of 2:03:02 in 2011. And no discussion of Marathon Monday is complete without a tip of the cap to two-time champ Johnny Kelley, who completed the world’s oldest annual marathon a record 61 times.

And yet, in the storied 123-year history of the Boston Marathon, one name stands above all others, belonging as it does to the only runner ever to win the race an astonishing seven times. (No other man or woman can claim more than four titles). That name is Clarence DeMar.

Bolyston St & Hereford St. intersection
Speaking of Boston, this may be the most famous intersection in the city

So it’s only fitting that Boston’s all-time win king would be honored with his own New England marathon. And what better place for it than his one-time hometown of Keene, New Hampshire, where he’d taught industrial arts and worked as the school printer at Keene Normal School (now Keene State College)?

Katie and I hadn’t visited the East Coast for a year, since I’d completed the I-35 Challenge — a back-to-back marathon weekend in Kansas City and Des Moines — before flying to Boston for Game One of the 2018 World Series. As a lifelong Red Sox and Celtics fan (Patriots? Who are the Patriots?), Boston is one of my favorite cities to visit. Luckily it’s also a quick two-hour drive from our final destination of Keene, NH.

Even better, this time out we’d be joined by fellow Rice Owl Ken, our partner-in-crime for several memorable road trips, most recently the outstanding Jackson Hole Marathon a year earlier. Unfortunately Ken’s wife Jenny, the all-important fourth wheel on our 50 Statesmobile, would be unable to join us this year — something about hosting the annual moose wrestling/monster truck show* back in their hometown of Steamboat Springs. But as much as we’d miss her, the 50 States show must go on!

(*Note to PETA: This is a joke, and no wild animals or smaller vehicles were harmed by Jenny missing our East Coast weekend.)

Mike S, Ken S & Katie H in Keene, NH
Clarence DeMar’s hometown of Keene has our official seal of approval

Even a married man needs some recreation and I can see no reason why I shouldn’t take my fun in any way that pleases me most.”

On Friday following our arrival in Boston, the three of us seized the opportunity to take in one of the final games of the season at Fenway Park, still the best baseball stadium in America. Unfortunately, the Red Sox were no longer the best team in America — and let’s just say a three-toed sloth would have cringed at the lethargic showing by the defending World Series champs, who clearly were going through the motions against the second-worst team in all of Major League Baseball. What a difference a year makes.

Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park
Historic Fenway Pahk

Hitting the road late Saturday morning, we arrived in Keene (population 23,056) in plenty of time to drop by the quick and easy packet pickup at Spaulding Gym on the Keene State College campus. There we bumped into Maryland friends Lou and Harriet, whom we’d met at the Road Runners Clubs of America (RRCA) National Convention in New Orleans six months earlier.

We spent some time strolling the small but charming campus of Keene State College before setting out into the town for a visit to the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument (which stands guard over tiny Central Square) and the local running shop Ted’s Shoe & Sport, outside of which lives a larger-than-life outdoor mural of “Mr. DeMarathon” himself. Then we set our sights on that evening’s pre-race pasta dinner at the host hotel where we’d be staying, the Courtyard by Marriott Keene Downtown.

Clarence DeMar mural in Keene, NH

As runners found seats and served themselves from the buffet, Race Director (RD) Alan Stroshine welcomed everyone to Keene and told us that 41 US states would be represented this weekend, including Alaska and Hawaii. Then he introduced the evening’s guest speaker in Dick Beardsley, whose claim to fame includes co-winning the inaugural 1981 London Marathon and finishing as runner-up (by two seconds) to Alberto Salazar in the “Duel in the Sun” at the 1982 Boston Marathon.

As dramatic as Boston ’82 was in the retelling, however, it was just the tip of the iceberg for a man who has fallen off a cliff, been mauled by a piece of farm equipment, been hit by a truck, battled and overcome an addiction to opioids, and lost his son Andrew (an Iraqi War veteran) to suicide at age 31. And yet somehow Beardsley retains a joyous and infectious enthusiasm for life while clearly finding his calling as a motivational speaker. It was an inspirational evening, and I left with a copy of his memoir Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race, a signed poster from the Duel in the Sun, and plenty of motivation for the 26.2 miles ahead.

In recent years RD Alan has scored some terrific guest speakers for CDM weekend including Boston Marathon RD Dave McGillivray and former Runner’s World editor-at-large/1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot. But even as engaging as those guys are, Dick is in a class by himself. (On a related note, if you’d like to ensure yourself the chance to meet Dick, he and his wife Jill own the Lake Bemidji Bed & Breakfast in Bemidji, MN, hometown to the Bemidji Blue Ox Marathon.)

Dick Beardsley and Alan Stroshine at Clarence DeMar Marathon pre-race dinner
Dick Beardsley (left) and Race Director Alan Stroshine

“The power to achieve, to regulate one’s life with regard to self-indulgence, or abstinence, comes from within.”

Ah, late September in New England. On Sunday we awoke to a picture-perfect fall morning with temperatures in the mid 50s. For 20 minutes we drove along quiet, tree-lined country roads in the muted predawn light before arriving at equally quiet Gilsum Elementary School, the staging area for the Clarence DeMar Marathon. While Katie parked, Ken and I joined the long but fast-moving queue for the porta-potties. What an apropos place to enjoy a marathon morning sunrise.

As we waited in line, we were joined by John P (aka @slowjuan on RaceRaves), another fellow Rice Owl and 50 Stater whom I’d first met in Fargo four months earlier. John was wearing the same stylish blue-and-orange RaceRaves cap as Katie and me, and for him New Hampshire would be state 41, meaning that light he’s seeing at the end of his 50 States tunnel is no longer another train.

Ken S, Mike S and John P at Clarence DeMar Marathon start line
Ken, John and I get our Gilsum on

With perfect timing, we exited the porta-potties and joined the procession of runners for the short walk across the field behind the school, through a bank of trees and out onto Main Street, where the marathon start line awaited us. (Half marathoners would be starting an hour later in a different location). It was a crisp and stunning autumn morning, and the brief stroll coupled with the quaint New England homes made me flash back to a balmy Marathon Monday three years earlier in Hopkinton, MA and the walk to the iconic Boston Marathon start line.

Ken and I wished John good luck and lined up in the middle of the pack as a pastor led the group in pre-race prayer, reminiscent of Fargo. Then we stood chatting and stretching for a couple of minutes until RD Alan fired his starter’s pistol with a {CRACK}, jolting us out of our languor and signaling the start of the 42nd Clarence DeMar Marathon.

Right out of the gate we headed downhill (another reminder of Boston) as I immediately focused on slowing down — much easier said than done when you’re feeling energized and riding an adrenaline high to start the race. As we veered onto Gilsum Rd, a single leaf fell from a tree to my left, gently striking the asphalt in what I interpreted as Mother Nature’s way of saying, “Welcome to fall in New Hampshire.”

Clarence DeMar Marathon 2020 start
RD Alan’s starter’s pistol sends ’em off and running

“The main thing in distance running is endurance and the ability to get there as quickly as possible.”

Within the opening mile, I was surprised to glance up and see what may be the route’s most distinctive landmark — the Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge which crosses the Ashuelot River. I hadn’t realized we’d reach it so early in the race and that only the marathon course would cross it, a nice trade-off for the extra 13.1 miles we’d be running.

For the first 5+ miles we ran alongside the Ashuelot River in a scene straight out of Huckleberry Finn. The river meandered and babbled over large rocks, first to our right, then to our left, with elm trees in characteristic autumn hues soaring above us on either side of the two-lane road. It quickly became apparent that rolling hills would be the name of the game today, which was fine by me since I wasn’t here to qualify for Boston, and in any case I typically prefer “hilly and scenic” to “flat and fast.”

Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge in mile 1 of Clarence DeMar Marathon
Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge, mile 1

I ran smoothly, trying to maintain a comfortable sub-four-hour marathon pace while basking in the beauty of my surroundings. Mile after mile of tranquil countryside rolled by, my fellow runners moving quietly and deliberately around me as the morning sun tracked our movements, peeking through the tree canopy to surveil us wherever possible. Handwritten signs printed on neon pink poster board and attached to trees sported motivational messages like “Just another FUN long run!” and something about 26.2 miles and a party.

As RD Alan had knowingly predicted, the dew point would drop during the race leading to very little humidity, with clear skies and ideal (for me) temperatures in the 60s. If there’s such a thing as the perfect morning to run a marathon, this was it.

Running alongside the Ashuelot River in mile 4 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon
Alongside the Ashuelot River, mile 4

At times, the only sound aside from the scuffing of my shoes and the rhythm of my breathing was the {pock, pock} of falling acorns as they struck the ground. One bounced off my back, though to my knowledge and unlike many folks, I never took one off the noggin. In any case, they were small enough to be harmless. Which reminds me — have you ever envisioned scenarios for how your life might end? Whenever I’m in Hawaii, I imagine a coconut falling from a ridiculously tall tree and landing on my head with a loud {DOINK}, like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. What a way to go. But hey, at least I’m not allergic to coconuts.

Shade dominated the first ten miles, and the rural backdrop (as would the Bretwood Golf Course in mile 13) reminded me of another memorable marathon, the Hatfield McCoy Marathon in Kentucky/West Virginia. Lou from Maryland pulled alongside me in mile 7, and we chatted for a few minutes before he slowed at an aid station and I pushed onward, pausing a short time later for my first Katie sighting and a couple of swigs from my bottle of Maurten sports drink before continuing on my way.

The full and half marathon courses merged in mile 9 before diverging again in mile 11, as the marathon course emerged from the shaded woods to make the short climb up to Surry Mountain Dam. Now under warm sunlight and gorgeous blue skies, we crossed the dam on a quick out-and-back that featured sweeping views of Surry Mountain Lake. On the way back I paused to snap a photo of Ken as he approached from the opposite direction, the vibrant blues of lake and sky brightly complementing the vivid red of his shirt.

Ken S running across the Surry Mountain Dam during mile 11 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon
Ken cruises across the Surry Mountain Dam, mile 11

Retracing our steps, we rejoined the half marathon course heading south along E Surry Rd, past a small gathering of parked cars and cheering spectators. Suddenly I found myself running alone beneath the tree canopy, with no other runners in sight except for a few back-of-the-pack half marathoners whom I’d passed once already ahead of our dam detour.

I tend to bypass aid stations whenever possible, and especially when Katie’s on course as my personal aid station. (At CDM my aid station support would be limited to two sips of water in the closing miles.) That said, I appreciated the “Water and Gatorade ahead” signs that warned us in advance of each station, though ironically no Gatorade was served on the course. Rather, the electrolyte drink of choice was watermelon-flavored UCAN, which didn’t stop the volunteers from calling out “Water! Gatorade!” at every aid station. I felt a pang of sympathy for UCAN, though not enough to sample it for the first time on race day. You’re welcome, stomach.

We’d been warned of the hill that awaited us in Woodland Cemetery in mile 23; the one that stuck in my brain, though, was a climb I dubbed Halfway Hill at — you guessed it – the midway point of the race. Not as long or as punishing as the Halfway Hill I’d encountered in Missoula two years earlier (where it had been hotter), this was nonetheless a well-placed challenge to close out the first 13 miles. Challenge accepted. Cruising uphill, I was gratified to discover that with half a marathon to go, all systems felt good with no significant complaints.

Leaving the Surry Mountain Dam in mile 11 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon
Leaving the Surry Mountain Dam

“I can truthfully say that I got not only my second wind but also tenth and twelfth wind in most marathons.”

Turning onto Court Street, the course opened up a bit as we passed tiny North Cemetery and reached the first commercial sector of the day. This was a nice change-up from the steady diet of rustic roads we’d seen so far, despite the bumper-to-bumper traffic (presumably due to road closures) that crawled along beside us as we ran into a headwind on the road’s shoulder.

After another half-mile stretch flanked by towering elms, more traffic greeted us as we approached Keene Middle School, and my first thought was that I hoped Katie wasn’t stuck in it. For the next few miles we’d share the road intermittently with traffic; fortunately it was always slow-moving and so I never felt at risk, though I know a few runners were discomforted by the proximity of man and machine. Kudos here to Team DeMar, who did a spot-on job of directing traffic wherever the marathon course crossed the road (which begs the question, why did the marathon cross the road…?).

Fall foliage in Keene, NH along the Clarence DeMar Marathon course
Fall was just starting to take hold in Keene

And while I’m at it, kudos too for the green and orange arrows which were taped to the ground at strategic spots along the course to point full and half marathoners, respectively, in the right direction. These arrows proved very helpful at road crossings where the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, and where it would have been all too easy for someone with, say, a notoriously poor sense of direction and diminishing brain glucose to lose focus momentarily and end up following the wrong course.

Luckily Katie wasn’t stuck in traffic, and a short time later I reached her where she stood waiting on a residential sidewalk along Maple Ave. I paused just long enough to sip from my bottle of Maurten and to down the rest of my 5-hour Energy shot — this was the first time I’d tried hitting the 5-hE during a race rather than my usual M.O. of chugging the whole thing at the start. And though it’s tough to know for sure, I did feel like it helped keep my energy levels stable throughout the last ten miles. So I’d definitely be trying that again.

Mile 16 of the Clarence DeMar Marathon

And while we’re here, a quick note: in recommending it to others, I’ve found that 5-hr Energy gets an unfair rap. Many people think of it in the same vein as grotesque beverages like Red Bull and Monster Energy that are loaded with sugar and which, according to The Atlantic, “have sent thousands of adolescents to the emergency room.” In fact, one of my oldest childhood friends recently found himself taking personal medical leave from his job as an airline pilot after too many energy drinks led to “heart problem symptoms.” So forgive me for sounding like a commercial, but the truth is 5-hr Energy contains vitamins B6 and B12 — both of which help convert the food you eat into useful energy — and as much caffeine as a cup of coffee (which, ironically enough, many of my fellow runners swear by on marathon mornings, if not every day). Notably, it contains no sugar (hence, no sugar crash) and zero calories. Basically, it’s just enough on-the-go caffeine to lift you up when you’re dragging, along with some B vitamins to help mobilize that morning’s breakfast into useful energy. As someone who uses it in moderation and who has never had a cup of coffee, 5-hour Energy always works well for me as both a runner and a busy entrepreneur with sometimes crazy hours. End of unsolicited commercial…

… and back to our regularly scheduled marathon, already in progress. I continued to feel strong as the remaining distance dropped to single digits, one of the small (apologies for the pun) milestones I like to celebrate during a marathon. Meanwhile, the course weaved into and back out of the half marathon course, diverging briefly on several occasions to tack on mileage before rejoining. My foggy marathon brain struggled to gauge, on the fly, the changing difference in mileage between the two courses, not that I approved of its wasting valuable glucose on such a fruitless endeavor.

Visions of yesteryear came rushing back in mile 19 as we passed the old-fashioned sign announcing the Keene High School baseball stadium, where another small but vocal group of spectators/volunteers cheered us on. From there we hopped on a narrow paved trail that led us through verdant Wheelock Park, over the Ashuelot River and along several underpasses beneath Franklin Pierce Hwy. At the bottom of one underpass we were greeted by more cheering spectators and The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” blasting on a boombox; this may have been the only music I heard on the course aside from an earlier spectator who’d sat casually strumming her acoustic guitar.

Clarence DeMar Marathon street banner in downtown Keene, NH

“I do not know whether it is possible to run a marathon in competition and not get tired, but at any rate I’ve never done it.”

The remainder of the route would consist largely of quiet, attractive residential neighborhoods where gables were in no short supply. Reaching mile 20 the trail merged onto Court St, and recalling what Dick Beardsley had shared as his own race strategy the evening before I told myself, “You can do this — only one more mile to go!” Then I did the same at mile 21, and 22, and 23… did I mention my brain’s not so good at the maths late in a race?

Mike Sohaskey at mile 20 of Clarence DeMar Marathon
The amazing residents of Keene show up to support their runners

Turns out I wouldn’t need to play mind games today, though, because I was feeling good. In fact, this was the best I’d felt at mile 23 since last year’s Kansas City Marathon. I was running well, my stride still intact and my legs fairly responsive. I wasn’t ready to rewind to Gilsum and start over, but for the first time since — I couldn’t remember when — I felt like maybe, just maybe, I’d have one final surge left in me these last few miles. And it was a good sign that I was continuing to pass other runners while being passed by few myself. A skeptic might say I’d sandbagged the first 23 miles, and maybe that’s true. But it’s rare that I feel a true sense of appreciation in the closing miles of a marathon, and for once I was enjoying the process.

“Look Alive!” read the tongue-in-cheek sign at the entrance to Greenlawn Cemetery, and I glanced up to see Katie doing just that, her still-smiling face welcoming me to my last personalized aid station of the day. With a few final sips from my bottle I thanked her, promised to see her soon, and set my sights on this menacing hill we’d heard so much about.

Greenlawn Cemetery "look alive!" sign at Clarence DeMar Marathon

What we got, though, was less mountain and more molehill. In fact, the cemetery — which was actually two cemeteries, Greenlawn followed by Woodland — was a peaceful and picturesque detour where the hills offered more bark than bite. And whereas a couple of runners ahead of me opted to walk them (presumably based on their mile 23 placement more than their slope), I focused on reaching the top without slowing significantly.

“Zombie apocalypse training ground. Keep running,” warned a second sign. Moments later I’d put the last notable climb of the day, and soon after that the cemetery itself, in my rearview mirror. And was I happy to do so? Of corpse I was!

Exiting the cemetery we reunited with the half marathoners, only to diverge 1½ miles later as we headed in opposite directions on Marlboro St. With one mile to go, the two courses merged again for the last time, and in a moment right out of Groundhog’s Day I passed two all-too-familiar half marathoners for the third (and final) time. I felt like I was running in circles.

Mike Sohaskey running through Greenlawn Cemetery during Clarence DeMar Marathon
Awfully happy to be running through a cemetery

Happily I cruised toward home, red brick and vinyl siding dominating the landscape on each side. Maybe it was the endorphins talking or my affinity for dad jokes or both, but on one of the final turns I got a big kick out of an enthusiastic volunteer brandishing a sign that read “YOU ARE DEMAR-VELOUS.” And really, who was I to argue?

For possibly the first time ever in my marathon career (Boston included), I wasn’t overcome by the desire to see this end, though I did feel a rush of adrenaline as I passed the “Sense of accomplishment ahead” sign at the half marathon mile 13 marker. With a final left turn onto Appian Way, I passed under the wrought iron arch that signaled the entrance to Keene Normal School State College and, 100 yards later, stopped the clock beneath the blue and gold inflatable finish arch in a very respectable time of 3:49:54.

I’ll take a comfortable sub-3:50 any day, and especially coming as this one had four days after a speedwork session. I’d run mile 26 two seconds slower than I had mile 1. And the past four hours had been a nice confidence boost after struggling mightily — along with everyone else, to be fair — at the punishing Kodiak 50K in Big Bear six weeks earlier.

I was euphoric, having loved every second of the Clarence DeMar Marathon.

Mike Sohaskey on Appian Way during homestretch of Clarence DeMar Marathon
The home stretch on Appian Way

“Do most of us want our life on the same calm level as a geometrical problem? Certainly we want our pleasures more varied with both mountains and valleys of emotional joy, and marathoning furnishes just that.”

Gratefully I accepted my finisher’s medal and CDM-branded water bottle (pre-filled with water, a nice touch). As I shuffled through the tiny finish chute, I heard RD Alan’s voice on the PA mention that RaceRaves had rated DeMar the best marathon in New Hampshire and how we’d come to check it out for ourselves. Which was absolutely true. It was a cool moment which segued nicely into a bear hug from Katie.

Then we headed back to the home stretch to await Ken’s finish. We didn’t have to wait long; despite the 60-minute session of lunges he’d put himself through a few days earlier (three words: Ski season coming), he crossed the finish line still looking strong in 3:58:19.

After allowing ourselves a few minutes to recover and compare notes, the three of us watched our new friend Wendy, whom we’d met 18 hours earlier at the pre-race dinner, triumphantly finish her first marathon and immediately burst into tears, having achieved her goal of running 26.2 miles before her 50th birthday with only four days to spare. She’d also conquered her goal of a sub-4:20 finish time. Surrounded by family she took several minutes to regain her composure, well-deserved tears continuing to fall as though her eyes had liquefied. Meanwhile, RD Alan’s wife Melissa crossed her own first marathon finish line in less than five hours (her personal goal). At first she seemed surprisingly unfazed, until she saw her son Alex who had returned home from college to share in her accomplishment. At that point her emotional floodgates opened and tears rolled freely down her cheeks. Such is the power of the marathon.

I always enjoy seeing how different people react to finishing their first marathon; it’s an indescribable feeling of euphoria unlike any other and one I still remember vividly almost ten years later.

Wendy's first marathon finish at the Clarence DeMar Marathon
CONGRATS to Wendy, overcome with emotion after her first marathon finish

The finish line was set up alongside Fiske Quad, an open grassy space where we basked in the near-perfect weather while enjoying the small but friendly post-race party. Food options included vegetarian chili, yogurt, cookies and chocolate milk, after which Ken and I took advantage of the (free) massage tent to assuage our tired muscles. Nearby, a BQ bell welcomed anyone who’d earned a Boston Qualifying time, though on a course that rolls as much as CDM I didn’t hear that bell toll very often.

As we stood along Appian Way waiting to cheer John across the finish, the PA announcer regularly updated the crowd as to the location of the last runner on the course. But whereas this position is commonly referred to within the running community as “DFL” (for “Dead F*king Last”), CDM smartly embraces this individual as their “cardiovascular runner,” i.e. the runner with the most heart. Another nice touch.

Several minutes later John rounded the corner, clapping his hands with a smile as he approached the finish line, which he crossed in just under 6½ hours (CDM’s time limit is a generous 7½ hours). We congratulated him on state 41, he thanked us for sticking around, and we kept him company while he recovered his wits and enjoyed a bowl of veggie chili, having burned through the jelly donut he’d apparently bummed from a local kid in the closing miles. Then we said our goodbyes to Keene State College, to which we owe everyone a huge THANK YOU for being awesome hosts.

John Points finishing the Clarence DeMar Marathon 2020
Give him a hand! John celebrates the finish line in state 41

The rest of the day would be a recipe for recovery, as the four of us celebrated Oktoberfest on the outdoor patio at Keene’s own Elm City Brewery. Toasting a jog well run with Ken from Colorado and John from Oklahoma reminded me that, more than anything, this 50 States journey is all about the people. And I’m particularly fond of our new tradition (begun in Fargo and continued in New Hampshire) of sharing in John’s post-race “pain management” sessions, as he calls them.

That evening Ken, Katie and I would wrap up our visit to the Granite State with a bittersweet dinner at Brickhouse Pizza & Wings before driving back to Boston the next morning.

Mike Sohaskey by Welcome to New Hampshire sign

“I just ran because I like to run.”

As we’d awaited John’s arrival back on Fiske Quad, we’d said hello to Race Director Alan Stroshine, whom we’d first met and begun to correspond with after CDM was voted the best marathon in New Hampshire by our RaceRaves audience. We thanked him for hosting us, he thanked us for coming, and we promised to keep in touch. Though I’m currently focused on the 50 States, CDM is a race I’d be Keen(e) to run again. And if its 42nd edition was any indication, the Clarence DeMar Marathon continues to have a very bright future.

In his opening remarks at the pre-race dinner, Alan had mentioned that “when I grow up” he wants to be like fellow New Englander and Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray. As we’d later tell his wife Melissa, he’s well on his way. Which is saying a lot, because at 65 years young Dave remains an Energizer bunny and a wildly tough act to follow. But while this small-town production that attracts mainly locals and 50 Staters (for now) may seem a far cry from overseeing the most prestigious marathon in the world, the passion, competence and attention to detail that Alan brings to CDM is second to none.

I can’t remark on what CDM was like before he took the reins nearly a decade ago, but Alan has succeeded in growing it into a first-class event that the DeMar family and the entire Keene community now proudly rally behind. To celebrate as its unifying theme a local icon and the only 7-time Boston Marathon champ makes this a truly special event, and I can’t help but think Mr. DeMarathon himself would have been proud to have his name on it. Not many small towns in America — Missoula, Jackson Hole, and South Williamson (home of the Hatfield McCoy Marathon) come to mind — boast a marathon in the same class as CDM, and I hope this race continues to grow and to earn the nationwide accolades it deserves. With its charming host town, gorgeous course, strong community support, pitch-perfect production and ideal weather, CDM is my kind of marathon. And the bucolic beauty of a state like New Hampshire is something I hope never to take for granite.

So it seems only fitting that I leave the final word to fellow runner Clarence DeMar, who concluded his 1937 memoir Marathon with a passage I can relate to on several levels:

At the age of forty-nine I can truly say that… the game has been worth it. Some people are born writers, that is, they may be good or bad writers, but they were born with something that makes them want to write. Just so some people are born competitors, and need the stimulus of athletic competition. These people may have started out as baseball players, and in later years transferred their efforts to golf. In my case I happened to stick to one sport. I still enjoy the long grind of the marathon.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at finish line of Clarence DeMar Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Whether you’re a focused 50 Stater or a restless runner looking for a top-notch race in a beautiful setting, CDM is one DeMar-velous marathon. With a population of ~23,000, Keene is a cute, quaint, welcoming community that feels like you’ve stepped out of a wayback machine somewhere in turn-of-the-20th-century New England (and especially if you’ve just driven in from nearby Boston). For out-of-towners there’s not a lot to do in Keene, but then again there’s just enough: take a self-guided tour of the charming Keene College campus, visit the collection of vintage-style murals and advertisements around town (which add to the anachronistic sense of time travel), and make a date with one of the town’s several brewpubs to celebrate your 26.2- or 13.1-mile accomplishment. Keene is a place where, 90 years later, the town’s favorite son would still feel right at home.

CDM is an impeccably produced event that clearly cares about its runners and the community it supports. And this attitude spills over into every detail, from the always friendly and eager-to-help volunteers, to the pre-race pasta dinner with its high-profile guest speaker (Dick Beardsley for us), to the way they treat their last finisher with just as much joy and excitement as their first, referring to this resolute soul as their “cardiovascular runner,” i.e. the runner with the most heart. Brilliant. After running it for myself, it’s easy to understand why CDM won our RaceRaves “Best of the US” Marathons poll for New Hampshire. In fact, if you find yourself registering for CDM after reading this, tell Race Director Alan Stroshine that Mike from RaceRaves sent you — the man’s smile and enthusiasm are infectious, and I guarantee he’ll be one of the best conversations you’ll have all weekend.

Keene State Owls sign
As a Rice grad, “Owl” always remember the Keene State College mascot

If a high-energy outing à la Vegas or New York City is your ideal race weekend, Keene may not be your cup o’ tea; then again, if you’re reading this and considering a marathon in rural New Hampshire, you probably already knew that. But if you’re looking to escape urban insanity for a few days in favor of a more peaceful and picturesque venue — and especially in early autumn when the local foliage offers a sneak peek of its fiery fall wardrobe — then CDM is just what this doctor ordered.

If you do decide to run, I’d recommend you first read Marathon, the 1937 memoir of 7-time Boston Marathon champion and former Keene resident Clarence DeMar. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it’s a terrific narrative that will give you a much deeper appreciation for the man, the town and the rich background of this event. And don’t forget to pay your respects to the larger-than-life mural of Mr. DeMarathon himself located next door to local sporting goods retailer Ted’s Shoe & Sport.

Collage of scenes from Keene, NH
Scenes from Keene (clockwise from upper left): Walldogs vintage-style murals commemorating the semi-pro Keene White Sox (est. 1915) and Keene Evening Sentinel (est. 1799); Civil War Soldiers’ Monument in Central Square; Appian Way Arch, gateway to Keene State College; United Church of Christ steeple

PRODUCTION: CDM production was on par with the best races I’ve run, a particularly impressive feat for a small-town race with only 768 total (marathon + half) finishers. Numbers aside, don’t sleep on DeMar — its 361 marathon finishers in 2019 represented a 143% increase over 2018. And I’m confident that once we’re able to overcome the challenge of COVID-19 as a nation, CDM will continue to grow in size and stature. Its increasing popularity is a tribute to Race Director Alan Stroshine and the Keene Elm City Rotary Club as well as to the Keene community, which puts its heart and soul into supporting this event. A well-produced race is one thing, but a well-produced race suffused with this level of dedication and pride is a special find.

RD Alan’s regular email updates in the weeks leading up to race day helped to set expectations for runners and spectators alike, with extremely detailed directions to ensure no key detail was overlooked. And whereas the pre-race pasta dinner is typically one of the more hit-or-miss aspects of race weekend (a lesson I learned the hard way), the CDM pasta dinner at the Courtyard Marriott — the host hotel where we stayed — was an unexpected delight thanks to a remarkable guest speaker in Dick Beardsley, who lost the “Duel in the Sun” at the 1982 Boston Marathon by two seconds to crazy man Alberto Salazar. (If you don’t know Dick’s life story, pick up a copy of his autobiography Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race. Wow.) Previous CDM speakers included Boston Marathon RD Dave McGillivray and former Runner’s World editor-at-large/1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot, so Alan doesn’t mess around when it comes to securing guest speakers that his runners actually care about. And as long as we’re talking attention to detail, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who noticed the napkins at the pasta dinner were green and orange, the official colors of the Clarence DeMar Marathon. Then again, maybe I’m the only one who notices stuff like that?

Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar during the 1982 Boston Marathon "Duel in the Sun"

As for race day, the route featured clear signage in advance of aid stations, plus frequent green (for the marathon) and orange (for the half) directional arrows on the ground; these were especially helpful at road crossings and where the full and half courses diverged. Though a minor detail, my psyche also appreciated the Mile 13.1 sign at the halfway point. And I was surprised to learn after the race that CDM recruits 500 volunteers; with everything they did to ensure race weekend went off without a hitch, I would have sworn the number was closer to 5,000. A huge THANK YOU to some of the most capable and caring volunteers in the country.

One curious choice by Alan and his team was the decision not to offer solid nutrition (CLIF, GU etc.) along the course, though this too was clearly noted in his pre-race emails, enabling all runners to plan accordingly — like resourceful 50 Stater John P from Tulsa, who apparently scored a much-needed jelly donut off one of the local kids late in the race. So there’s that. And speaking of munchies, the post-race party on the Keene State campus featured an assortment of food options served on the large grassy quad alongside the finish line, where runners and their families capitalized on the beautiful fall weather. Nearby, a Millennium Running timing tent welcomed finishers to print out their results.

One last detail worth noting: In addition to the marathon and half marathon, race day featured a DeMar Kids Marathon as well as a Super Seniors (70+) Marathon, a simple yet amazing idea. While kids runs are a staple of many marathon weekends to empower the next generation of runners, very few events focus on the opposite end of the age spectrum. DeMar’s Super Seniors Marathon is a novel concept I’d recommend to races across the country as a more inclusive way to support their local communities.

Clarence DeMar Marathon medal outside Keene State College arch

SWAG: The CDM finisher medal is a nice, multi-colored keepsake with the race logo depicted on front and a quote from the man himself engraved on the back: “Not only in running but in much of life is a sense of balance and proportion necessary.” The loosely fitting long-sleeve race tee is comfortable enough, though unfortunately I’ll never be able to pull off neon green — my name is close enough to Mike Wazowski’s already without me actually dressing like him. (I did end up purchasing an electric blue pullover that’s quickly become a go-to favorite, with the CDM logo in gray on front and “DEMAR” in gray vertical letters down the back). Every finisher also received a water bottle at the finish line which was, conveniently enough, pre-filled with water. Last but not least, I scored a free New Balance poster of the Duel in the Sun, signed by Dick Beardsley at the pre-race pasta dinner, to complement my purchased copy of his autobiography. All in all, a swag-errific race weekend in the Granite State.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States Map

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Sept 29, 2019 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 6:44 am)
26.31 miles from Gilsum to Keene, NH (state 28 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:49:55 (first time running the Clarence DeMar Marathon), 8:47/mile
Finish place: 94 overall, 19/45 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 361 (171 men, 190 women)
Race weather: clear (61°F) at the start, partly cloudy & warm at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 559 ft gain, 1,008 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 467 ft, 922 ft

The nicest thing about the rain is that it always stops. Eventually.
– Eeyore

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho in front of North Dakota welcome sign

Before “coronavirus” became an all-too-household word, the phrase “month of May” conjured up images of warm spring weather, freshly cut grass, an umpire’s cry of “Play ball!” and the sweetly fragrant flowers we’re promised as the payoff for April showers. In some places, the calendar turning to May might even signal a head start on summer.

Unless that place is Fargo.

I’d been hoping Mother Nature, mercurial as she is, would change her mind leading up to race day of the 2019 Fargo Marathon. That we wouldn’t awaken on this Saturday morning to heavy rain, gusting winds and — rounding out this unholy trinity of supposed spring weather — temperatures in the mid 40s. I’d been hoping the forecast would prove unreliable and that we wouldn’t face conditions similar to those in Tokyo 2½ months earlier, only with wind as an unwelcome bonus.

And not unlike so many other hopers and dreamers before me, I’d been disappointed.

15th annual Sanford Fargo Marathon signage

Unlike Tokyo, though, where 35,000 runners had been forced to endure the prerace ceremonies in a cold drizzle, the storm clouds here in Fargo had a definite silver lining, one that currently surrounded me on all sides and which accounted for my warm, dry status — the vast yet hospitable Fargodome.

I’d finished races inside stadiums before — the 2011 San Francisco Giant Race and 2016 Omaha Marathon come to mind — but to my knowledge I’ve never started one in a stadium. And certainly I’ve never done both in the same race. So this seemed like the perfect time and place to add that distinction to my racing résumé since the Fargodome, normally the home of the North Dakota State University Bisons (pronounced Bī•zəns) football team, is the centerpiece and — especially on this day — the hands-down highlight of marathon weekend.

I felt good, felt relaxed as I sat next to Katie in our blue plastic stadium seats. Pulling on my gloves, I mentally scrolled through my prerace checklist as I waited to descend to the Fargodome floor along with 1,400 other runners for the 7:00am marathon start. In keeping with the city’s “North of Normal” tagline, this morning had begun with a prerace wedding captured on the jumbotron between two Marathon Maniacs, followed by an Elvis impersonator singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” It felt like a poor man’s version of Crazy Rich Asians.

Pre-race preparations for the Fargo Marathon in the Fargodome

Prerace preparations underway in the Fargodome

I smiled as U2’s “Beautiful Day” played over the PA system; clearly the stadium DJ had either a rosy outlook or an ironic sense of humor (or maybe both). Then I gave Katie a peck on the cheek, suggested she wait out the next four hours here in the climate-controlled Fargodome, and made my way down to the start corral where I proceeded to Scooz Me and Pardon Me my way to a spot between the 3:45 and 3:55 pacers.

The morning’s anthem singer acquitted herself well, performing soaring renditions of both “O Canada” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” as each nation’s flag fluttered on the overhead jumbotron. An invocation followed, along with a few recorded words on the big screen from Dude Dad, the hotdish hero and self-deprecating spokesman for the Fargo Marathon.

Then we awaited the go-ahead from US Senator John Hoeven, who had graciously taken time out of his busy schedule enabling the demise of democracy to act as official starter for the 15th annual Fargo Marathon. On his call of “On your mark, get set, GO!” the thundering herd of runners stampeded toward the tunnel in search of daylight, leaving the home of the Bī•zəns in our wake. A mere 26.2 cold and soggy miles lay between us and the welcoming warmth of the Fargodome. Uff da.

Fargo Marathon start

Beyond Fargodome: Start to mile 10
“Eye of the Tiger” exploded over the PA as we reached the Fargodome tunnel, building up a head of steam as though a running start would somehow shield us from the elements and cause the rain to roll off us like fast-moving ducks. If only. Emerging into the harsh reality of the North Dakota spring,­­ we immediately splashed through a few puddles on our way out of the parking lot and into the surrounding campus. Hasta la vista, Fargodome. Until we meet again.

My plan would be to start at around 8:55 per mile for the first eight miles, drop to 8:45/mile for the next eight, and then dial down to 8:35/mile for as long as possible. Given I hadn’t trained much since Hawaii and that we’d recently spent a week in South Africa, I didn’t have much faith in my ability to follow the plan. But I’d rather start slow and run stronger for longer than start fast and end up bonking badly.

Marathons aren’t typically a laughing matter, but I got my first chuckle in mile 2 when the familiar guitar riff of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” reached our ears, beckoning from someone’s front yard ahead of us. As we reached the house in question the drums kicked in (THUN-DER!), and I glanced over to see an older couple smiling and sitting on the porch, watching intently as we passed. And I had to wonder, who was in charge of the music here?

Mike Sohaskey at Fargo Marathon expo photo op

For most of the course we were treated to pleasant, tree-lined residential neighborhoods with well-maintained homes and nicely manicured (if not quite green) lawns. One neighborhood featured a peaceful pond/fountain like a scene from the typical upscale American suburb. The homes here bore little resemblance to the dilapidated, weatherbeaten houses we’d seen the day before on our self-guided tour of the neighborhoods surrounding the university. Wherever we went, though, the prevalence of vinyl siding spoke volumes by testifying silently to the severity of winter in North Dakota.

Likewise, the streets were well maintained despite sporadic cracks and potholes, some of which appeared to be newly filled. All in all, footing wasn’t an issue and the roads weren’t nearly as bad as you might expect given that they’re likely frozen for six months a year.

I was running comfortably, with the downside that I was having a hard time maintaining my 8:55/mile target pace. A couple of times I relaxed my guard, built up some momentum and glanced down at my Garmin to see an average mile pace 8:12 or 8:15 staring up at me innocently, as though daring me to keep up. No thanks, challenge not accepted.

North Dakota State University ebony gates

The ebony gates of North Dakota State University

Aside from the occasional headwind I hardly noticed the cold or rain, and certainly not the way I had in Tokyo where the rain had been more persistent. Katie — who was as likely to wait in the Fargodome as I was to start running backward — would have a rougher time out here than I would, because at least I’d be able to keep moving and generate constant body heat throughout the race. Fortunately, after its initial onslaught the rain had largely subsided, and it occurred to me this was actually shaping up to be… if not Bono’s beautiful day, then at least a reasonable morning for a long run.

Passing a group of younger musicians, I winced instinctively as the singer tried painfully to channel his inner John Lennon, managing to hit one or two of the correct notes in the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” before his bandmate stepped in and put us all out of his misery, taking over on vocals with a markedly better performance. Uff da.

In mile 9 just before my first Katie sighting of the day, I found myself chatting with a fellow who had seen the back of my shirt and asked, “What’s RaceWaves?” Turns out he was a Seven Continents finisher and fellow 50 Stater for whom Fargo was state #50, i.e. The End. I explained to him that RaceRaves is a great online resource to find races across the US and around the world, to which he responded, “This is my last marathon, no more for me, I’m DONE.”

It’s always interesting to hear the reaction of people finishing their 50th state, which rarely seems to be one of excitement but more often one of unspeakable relief. “I think they [friends and family] are more excited about it than I am,” he admitted. And I imagined his wife and kids at home waiting for their single-minded, race-addicted husband and dad to finish his 50 States flight o’ fancy before restarting their lives together.

Fargo Marathon runners at mile 8

Soggy scene from mile 8

Feeling Minnesota: Miles 11–16
Briefly we ran alongside the Red River (the border between North Dakota and Minnesota) where the flat course rolled gently for ¼ mile before crossing the 1st Avenue North Red River Bridge into Fargo’s sister city of Moorhead, MN. Below us the mud-filled river roiled restlessly, as though impatient for the arrival of legitimate spring weather to assuage its angry waters.

Turning south along Woodlawn Park in mile 12, we soon saw the women’s leaders — including eventual winner Val Curtis in her distinctive pink arm warmers — pass in the opposite direction on their way back to Fargo. And it struck me how lovely this stretch of road bordering the park must be during the summer.

After a fairly uneventful 2+ mile out-and-back parallel to the river (turns out Minnesota looks an awful lot like North Dakota), we turned east toward Concordia College and MSU Moorhead. Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” powered us along one stretch and I thought, NOW this is officially an American marathon.

Sanford building in Fargo at night

Shout-out to the title sponsor of the Fargo Marathon… thanks, Sanford!

With residential neighborhoods aplenty, the marathon course is smartly designed to maximize spectator participation. And to be sure, Fargo boasted much more spectator support than I would have expected in a town of 125,000, and especially given the weather. On the other hand, a drizzly day in the mid-40s must have felt like the South Pacific after winter temperatures had plummeted to -31ºF (well below the freezing point of vodka) during the recent polar vortex.

Likewise neither the quality nor quantity of the spectator signage would disappoint, including the hometown favorite “The end is far… go!” as well as the curious “The Obamas would be proud of you!” and the honest

13 half marathons
10 states
We’ve run out of signs!

And no matter how often I see it, “I trained for months to hold this sign” always elicits a grin.

Roger Maris jersey in museum at West Acres Mall

Hidden gem: West Acres Mall honors a humble hometown hero with the Roger Maris Museum

With no real time goals today other than sub-4 hours, I’d decided to try and stick with a true nutrition schedule, unlike most of my previous marathons. This meant taking GUs (energy gels) at miles 12, 16 and 20, a plan that would work like a charm for exactly one GU.

Finally we reached Concordia College, home of the “Cobbers” according to the sign on the football stadium. (Apparently this unusual nickname is a shortened version of the derisive “Corncobs” once used by now-defunct 19th century crosstown rival Hope College. The lesson being that Hope doesn’t always reign supreme.)

Concordia offered a brief but gratifying reprieve from the roads — and was it a coincidence that the route passed by the Knutson Campus Center, which shares its name with MSU-Moorhead alum and Fargo Marathon Executive Director Mark Knutson? If so, maybe the surname “Knutson” was as common here in the Fargo-Moorhead area as “Smith” or “Jones” are in other parts of the country.

Have I mentioned how important distractions are during a marathon?

Katie was waiting on campus at a sharp right turn near the Bell Tower. As my lower body leaned into the turn, my upper body leaned back to the left to toss her my gloves — and that’s when I felt the outside of my left foot seize up, as though I’d just pulled a muscle in the bottom of my foot. Oh, fuuuuuuuuudge.

Mike Sohaskey running Fargo Marathon on Concordia College campus at mile 15

Concordia College, mile 15

Immediately and instinctively, I tried to normalize my stride so a) Katie wouldn’t notice and b) I wouldn’t hurt anything else by compensating for this sudden pain in a not-insignificant part of my body. Gritting my teeth, I held it together for another ¼ mile as I circled back and passed Katie again, smiling as I tried to gauge how bad my foot was and whether it would soon slow me to a walk. Luckily I seemed able to run without exacerbating it, and so I kept moving forward, putting Concordia College in my rearview mirror as my attention shifted from maintaining pace to weighing the severity of this new injury.

Our loop of MSU Moorhead was just as short and scenic as Concordia had been. Then we were headed back the way we’d come, my foot appreciating the straightaway for its lack of turns. Gradually the foot transitioned from front-and-center painful to more of a steady background discomfort, which realistically was all I wanted from it. The good news was, this definitely felt like a soft tissue (e.g. muscle) rather than hard tissue (i.e. bone) injury, and so with that on-the-fly diagnosis I resolved to deal with it later. Sure, it would likely be swollen and unforgiving by the time I reached the finish, but until then I’d neither acknowledge its complaints nor accede to its demands.

Woodchipper from Fargo movie at visitors center

The woodchipper from the 1996 movie “Fargo” is on display at the Fargo–Moorhead Visitors Center

The marathon course had so many turns that, coupled with my imperfect sense of direction, I felt as though I were running in a Möbius strip that kept circling back on itself. All I knew for sure was that we had entered Minnesota in mile 11 and that we’d be leaving again (via a different bridge?) in mile 17; aside from that, though, I was completely turned around and grateful for the orange pylons that would lead us back to the Fargodome like a stream of ants following a trail of pheromones.

As we headed back toward North Dakota I recognized RaceRaves member, fellow 50 Stater and frequent pacer Dale B. focused on leading the 5:25 pace group, and as we passed I gave him a shout-out of “Looking good, Dale!” Then I tackled my second GU of the day — in four bites, thanks to the cold — and immediately felt my stomach start to churn. When it comes to nutrition I listen to my gut, and on this day my gut would just say no to GU. So much for nutrition these last 10 miles…

Flags in North Dakota

Not much Far(ther to)go: Mile 17 to finish
Crossing back into North Dakota on the Veterans Memorial Bridge was a highlight — here the official seal for each branch of the nation’s Armed Forces was displayed at the base of individual obelisks that stretched toward the sky. The bridge had served as the start line for the inaugural marathon in 2005 before the event moved to the Fargodome in its second year; the start then moved back to the VMB on a one-time basis in 2014 for the marathon’s 10th anniversary celebration.

Once back in Fargo, we merged with the sparse half marathoners and navigated several more pancake-flat miles of wide-open parks and attractive residential neighborhoods. Sometime after mile 20 we passed through a tree tunnel which, like so much of the scenery here, would no doubt prove stunning a month from now with the trees modeling their verdant spring wardrobes.

Reaching mile 20, I was still feeling pretty good as I passed a runner in a police officer’s uniform (course patrol, I assumed?). Suddenly the GU from mile 16 kicked in, and I could tell my stomach wasn’t going to last until the Fargodome as I’d hoped — in fact, it was getting impatient in a hurry. Trust me, the worst thing about running a marathon isn’t the distance, or the months of training, or hitting the wall around mile 20 — it’s having your stomach rebel at the worst possible time. Because nothing is more uncomfortable.

Mike Sohaskey running Fargo Marathon at mile 22

Who needs a race photographer when you have Katie? (mile 22)

Just as I was starting to worry I might have to slow down and speed walk to the next available bathroom, we passed one of several medical dropout points along the course, where I made a beeline to one of the open porta-potties as though zombies were in hot pursuit. Roughly a minute later I emerged with a much rosier outlook and feeling ready for one last push to the finish line, sore foot and all. Fortunately I need little to no nutrition during a typical marathon, and so I’d gladly go without for these last five miles.

As usual Katie was everywhere, and I’d be treated to two final sightings (along with many vinyl sidings) in miles 20 and 22, the latter just after my pitstop when I was in a particularly good mood despite the 22 miles in my legs.

Mile 22 and still I felt strong — though flawed in its execution, my intentionally slower start and progressive pacing strategy seemed to be working. By the time we re-entered Downtown Fargo and passed the historic Fargo Theatre with its iconic marquee in mile 23, I was more or less running by myself. Even my injured foot now seemed to be at ease. Just past the theatre, the course turned onto 4th Ave N where someone yelled “Keep pushing!” as I passed. Ah, so much easier said than done I thought, though I appreciated the sentiment. I have nothing but positive things to say aboot Fargo’s enthusiastic, supportive spectators and volunteers.

Historic Fargo Theatre in downtown

The historic Fargo Theatre, est. 1926

Heading north past Mickelson Park & Softball Fields, I forced myself to keep pushing in the face of an increasingly nasty headwind. Meanwhile I distracted myself with thoughts of how amazing the Fargodome was going to feel, and was running 26.2 miles at a time an enjoyable process or simply a means to an end? What a dumb hobby I thought, as I had so many times before in the final 10K of a marathon. And who am I to disagree with myself?

It now felt as though we were fighting the wind at every turn, as though this were a video game and our final destination was protected by unseen forces we must breach in order to complete our quest. But while a stiff headwind wasn’t really what I needed at the moment, I was definitely doing better than many of the runners I was passing. Glancing around, I found myself recognizing folks who had either started alongside me or who had passed me earlier in the day. I knew I was slowing, but at the same time I knew the end was near.

Fargo is undoubtedly one of the flattest courses I’ve run, though a few short-but-steep underpasses will test your resolve. One in particular comes to mind due to its wicked location in mile 23, where the course passes under Main Ave on 10th St; it’s a heads-down, admire-the-tops-of-your-shoes climb overseen (literally) by a massive set of Golden Arches on Main Ave above.

Appropriately, having gotten the party started at that morning’s wedding, the King himself would also be the one to take us home. Danny Elvis stood cheering us on as we approached mile 26, and admittedly I felt all shook up as one final right turn brought the Fargodome into view.

Outside view of Fargodome

As euphoric as crossing a marathon finish line can be, I may actually appreciate more the home stretch, that brief window of time right before I reach the finish, the triumphant awareness that No matter what, I have less than ¼ mile to go.

Reaching the parking lot, I slalomed around the orange cones before entering the shadowy tunnel we’d exited nearly four hours earlier, being careful not to earn myself a spot on the evening news by slipping on a patch of slick concrete within 100 yards of the finish. Then the blue finish arch was directly ahead of me right where I’d left it, and I welcomed myself back to the Fargodome, closing the book on state 27 in an official time of 3:51:45.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Fargo Marathon

Mission accomplished in state 27

I’d passed quite a few runners in the second half of the race, a testament to smart pacing. And my one-minute pit stop in mile 21 aside, I’d come within two minutes of an even split for the first and second halves — a moral victory for me, the master of the positive split.

Seeing my Seven Continents and now 50 States finisher buddy, I congratulated him on his huge accomplishment; his own reaction might best be described as nonplussed. Hopefully he’d not deny himself his hard-earned opportunity to bask in the moment and celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Then I meandered through the finish chute, gratefully allowing the friendly volunteer to hang Fargo’s medal of honor around my neck. And wow, talk about heft — for a second I thought my neck might cramp under the weight before my core muscles kicked in. Definitely a heavyweight reward for a heavyweight effort.

With the last of my adrenaline ebbing, I could feel my injured foot starting to chirp at me. I’d ensured myself a limp for the rest of the weekend, but no matter — I wasn’t planning to run for a few days anyway, so I’d be happy to give the foot the rest & recovery it deserved.

Mike Sohaskey - Fargo Marathon finisher photo op

I reunited with a warm dry Katie who had, of course, made it back in time to see me finish. I grabbed two bites of banana plus some chocolate milk, then we stuck around to soak up the post-race vibe and cheer across a steady stream of finishers, including RaceRaves member and fellow 50 Stater Scott B. from Texas. Later that day we’d celebrate at Fargo’s own Drekker Brewing Company with another RaceRaves member, John P. from Tulsa, who also happens to be a fellow Rice University alum with whom I continue to stay in touch. It’s a small world, after all.

In summary, Fargo is a fun, quirky, self-deprecating town that refuses to take itself too seriously. At the same time, it strives to make the best of its location in the Siberia of the continental United States. All the Fargoans we met seemed like genuinely friendly people, which I’m confident saying because coming from California, my insincerity radar is pretty well tuned. So even though it’s democratically appalling that North Dakota has as much representation in the US Senate as California, Texas or New York, and though I still have no good answer for friends who ask me, “Why do we need two Dakotas?”, I can wholeheartedly recommend this masterfully orchestrated Midwestern marathon that punches way above its weight class.

‘Cuz be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Dome.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho Fargo Marathon finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: Sometimes a marathon weekend just feels good from start to finish — marathons like Missoula and Jackson Hole spring to mind, and Fargo is high on that list.  Which is a major reason this has become the go-to marathon in North Dakota for 50 States runners like me. With a tagline like “North of Normal,” the state’s largest city clearly embraces its cool and quirky vibe, and is an easy place to spend a memorable weekend. A word to the weather-wise, though: do come layered up and ready to withstand winter’s last gasp — even in mid-May, with most states happily transitioning to hay fever season, Fargo (and its adjacent sister city Moorhead, MN) greeted us with wind, rain and temperatures in the mid-40s. That said, for race director Mark Knutson and his team this clearly wasn’t their first rodeo, and the race’s start & finish inside the Fargodome on the NDSU campus was a stroke of genius. Because on a race day when Mother Nature was in foul temper, truly there was no place like Dome.

Outside of race activities, three examples of Fargo’s quirky charm that await your discovery: 1) As you drive around town, keep an eye out for the 15 or so full-size, painted fiberglass bison that adorn the city; these were commissioned for the 2005 art project Herd About The Prairie: A Virtual Art Stampede and were first unveiled at the 2006 marathon (see uploaded collage); 2) For fans of the 1996 eponymous Oscar-winning movie by the Coen Brothers, the actual woodchipper used in the film is on display in the Fargo–Moorhead Visitors Center; 3) As you might expect in a college town where winter tends to usurp much of spring and autumn, Fargo features an impressive microbrewery scene, and I can personally recommend the friendly confines of the Drekker Brewing Company where we met RaceRaves member John P. after the race. John is a pro when it comes to (in his words) “post-race pain management,” so if you’re a 50 Stater or traveling runner who’s always looking for the best places across the country to grab a post-race beer, follow John (@slowjuan) and check out his reviews on RaceRaves.

If you have limited travel opportunities, I can certainly see why you’d prioritize Hawaii, California or even Montana over North Dakota. But if you’re a traveling runner intent on exploring and experiencing the United States in all its color and flavor, then I can’t recommend Fargo enough, dontcha know.

A note on travel: as Southwest Airlines devotees we flew into the closest hub, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), on Thursday (for a Saturday race) and drove the 250 miles across Minnesota to Fargo, a wide-open drive that featured greenery galore plus a whole lot of farmland and several of the state’s celebrated 10,000+ lakes.

Mike Sohaskey's collage of bison statues in downtown Fargo, from Herd About the Prairie

Colorful examples from “Herd About The Prairie: A Virtual Art Stampede”

PRODUCTION: Note to race directors: you’ll go far with production like Fargo’s. As mentioned above, Executive Director Mark Knutson clearly knows what he’s doing, having launched the marathon in 2005 and helmed numerous other events in addition. The prerace expo, with vendor booths uniquely situated on the concourse of the Fargodome, was thoughtfully designed and easily navigated, highlighted by a surprisingly interesting session with guest speakers Cindy Lewandowski and Scott Jansky, the winners of the inaugural 2005 Fargo Marathon. Each was returning to the Fargo Marathon for the first time, and they talked about their lives post-Fargo, with Cindy having gone on to complete a marathon in all 50 states.

Mark Knutson, Fargo Marathon Executive Director

The calm before the storm of race day: Executive Director Mark Knutson

Aid stations along the course featured signs to distinguish water from Powerade. And though this detail may seem small, veteran runners will appreciate its significance — during a marathon, the brain goes into standby mode as glucose is shunted to the muscles where it’s needed, so any visual cue a race director can provide to take the onus of decision-making off the runners will be advantageous and much appreciated. No runner likes having to waste time and energy at an aid station sorting out which drink is which with a well-meaning but frazzled volunteer, and especially if all drinks are served in the same nondescript white Dixie cup (though as I write this now during the COVID-19 pandemic, individual cups served by volunteers may soon be a thing of the past). And another example of Fargo’s keen attention to detail — for all those runners inevitably staring down at their shoe tops late in the race, the mile markers were noted in white paint on the street. So unless you were running with your eyes closed (in which case you had bigger problems than losing track of distance), you couldn’t miss them. Together with smart touches like these, starting and finishing inside the Fargodome may have been the wild card that earns Fargo a 5-shoe rating.

One hint for getting to the Fargodome on race morning: traffic on I–29 leading into the dome was a mess, with a long line to exit the highway. If you come from a big city or somewhere like SoCal where highway driving can sometimes feel like one of the desert chase scenes from Mad Max: Fury Road, you’ll quickly recognize that Fargo drivers (like their non-driving counterparts) are incredibly nice people, and that hypothetically speaking you could potentially save yourself a ton of time by bypassing them all and then quickly merging back into the slow-moving line closer to the exit. I’d never be the one to condone such behavior, much less recommend it, but I’m just saying in theory it’s possible.

2019 Fargo Marathon finisher medal

SWAG: Definitely among the best I’ve received, including a sturdy orange drawstring bag with two zippered pockets, as well as what’s quickly become one of my two favorite hoodies — an attractive offering with denim-blue sleeves/hood and gray torso emblazoned with the colorful Fargo Marathon logo (on that note, I’d urge other RDs looking for quality race swag to take a close look at CI Apparel in Fargo). The finisher medal, always the true object of my swag affection, is colorful (maybe too colorful) and hefty enough to cause a neck cramp, though the medal’s muddled collage imagery is a bit busy for my taste, as though the designer were considering a number of candidate images and ultimately decided to include them all. On the back of the medal, a Fargo tradition as I understand it, is engraved a relevant Bible verse familiar to many runners: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us” Hebrews 12:1. And finally, rounding out Fargo’s top-notch swag was a race poster featuring the same imagery as the medal. All in all, marathon #40 in state #27 was a runaway success, and between Fargo and my 2011 experience at Crazy Horse, I’m almost willing to concede the value of having two Dakotas. Almost.

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves, after Fargo Marathon

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
May 18, 2019 (start time 7:00 am, sunrise 5:49 am)
26.36 miles in Fargo, ND (state 27 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:51:45 (first time running the Fargo Marathon), 8:51/mile
Finish place: 372 overall, 34/88 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 1,365 (782 men, 583 women)
Race weather: cold (46°F) with light rain and gusting winds (20-25 mph, up to 31 mph)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 134 ft gain, 132 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 879 ft, 909 ft

Isn’t it pretty to think so?
– Ernest Hemingway

If you’ve never experienced it for yourself, trust me when I say… the runner’s high? It’s real.

A runner’s high is the temporary euphoria induced by the release of endorphins (short for “endogenous morphine”) in the brain after intense exercise such as a marathon, or half marathon, or ultramarathon (though usually not a Netflix marathon). In the days following a race, as the runner’s high fades and its attendant feelings of accomplishment subside, many runners respond by immediately setting their sights on their next challenge, in the hopes of recapturing that elusive euphoria. Sound familiar? This is the athlete’s version of chasing the dragon.

In some cases, this addictive goal-setting can manifest in extreme ways — say, running a marathon in all 50 states. I mean, that CAN’T be good for you, amirite?

There’s even an online running club called the Marathon Maniacs that challenges its members to outdo each other by running as many marathons as possible in close proximity. To qualify for the club, prospective members must run three club-approved marathons in 90 days. And yes, like any drug the brain gradually develops a tolerance to exercise-induced euphoria, forcing its devotees to ramp up the running — for example, to achieve the “highest level of the Maniacs,” i.e. Titanium status, members must run 52 marathons or more within 365 days. As of this writing, a whopping 291 Titanium-level members are listed on the club’s website. Which usually elicits the same question from non-runners: “Do these people have jobs?”

Big Island beauty

This philosophy of “More is better” inspires some high-achieving runners to challenge themselves and test their limits, while leading others straight into physical therapy with overtraining syndrome and chronic running injuries. And the line between the two can be a fine one, indeed.

Q: With all this in mind, then, and having participated in one of the world’s most epic races at the Tokyo Marathon six days earlier, what could I do to mitigate the post-race hangover and emotional lull, which in this case would prove more acute than most?

A: Run another marathon, of course!

Ok, so that wasn’t exactly my thinking when I signed up to run the inaugural REVEL Kūlia (Hawaiian for “Strive to reach the summit”) Marathon, shortly after it was announced in September. Truth is, I’d always wanted to explore the Big Island with Katie. Because although we’d spent appreciable time in both Kauai — where we were engaged on 3/3/03 and married on 4/4/04 — and Maui, and I’d visited the Big Island with my buddy Pete nearly two decades earlier, Katie had never set foot on the largest and youngest of the Hawaiian Islands.

Still smiling after all these years! (Kauai, 2004)

So a new marathon on the Big Island, one which just happened to fall the weekend after Tokyo, seemed like the perfect opportunity to schedule a long-overdue visit. We could spend a couple of days in Kyoto after the Tokyo Marathon and then “drop by” Hawaii on our way home to California.

Fortuitously, the timing for Tokyo and Hawaii worked out perfectly this year as the calm before the storm of our RaceRaves March Lunacy tournament. Scheduled to coincide with the NCAA’s own March Madness, this year’s tournament wouldn’t launch until March 17. And so, knowing that our busiest stretch of the year awaited us (though blissfully unaware it would require seven all-nighters in a three-week span), we decided to take full advantage of the brief respite to chill out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Oh, and did I mention Hawaii would be state 26 on my 50 states journey? How’s that for a convenient coincidink?

The sun also rises on Hawaii’s newest marathon

All downhill from here
What a difference a week makes, I thought as the mystical fanfare of the conch shell (Pū, in the Hawaiian) reverberated in the cool, crisp Saturday morning air. Together with a native prayer and the National Anthem, the ceremony marked the official start of the morning’s proceedings. To the east the sun peeked over the horizon, as if awakening to the trumpeting of the Pū the way a rancher might awaken to a crowing rooster. I’m not in Tokyo anymore.

Along with 300 or so of my fellow marathoners, I stood alongside the Ka’Ohe Game Management Area, roughly a dozen miles the way the crow flies (a useful measure of distance in Hawaii) from the tallest mountain in the world. And if you thought that distinction belonged to Mt Everest, then welcome to Geology 101 on “Blisters, Cramps & Peaks.” Because when measured from its oceanic base (since most of the mountain is underwater), the dormant volcano of Mauna Kea stands taller than Everest with an absolute height of more than 33,000 feet. Taking into account only the portion of the volcano above sea level (13,803 feet), Mauna Kea still reigns supreme as the highest peak in Hawaii.

I wasn’t surprised at the relatively small number of runners that now lined up at the start line according to their projected finish times. After all, this was an inaugural event… in Hawaii… in early March. And though airfare and lodging constitute the major expenses for anyone visiting from the mainland, Kulia is also the most expensive of the eight events in the REVEL Race Series — I’d paid an early-bird registration price of $130 thanks to a $10 discount code.

With the rising sun at our backs we set off on a smooth but immediate downhill trajectory, the early morning cloud cover hanging over our final destination more than one vertical mile below us. Looking down on the clouds, I would have guessed we were much higher than our starting elevation of 5,700 feet. Luckily, though, I would have been mistaken because we’d give back nearly all of that elevation on our way to the finish line just short of the Pacific Ocean.

Highland pastures and eucalyptus trees lined each side of the road — the scenery wouldn’t change much throughout the race, and that was a good thing. A comfortable chill translated to perfect running weather, a welcome reprieve from the cold rain of Tokyo one week earlier.

Despite having only six calendar days between marathons, I had in fact enjoyed an extra day of recovery time courtesy of the International Date Line. The IDL follows a crooked path from the North Pole to the South Pole, marking the divide between the Western and Eastern Hemisphere — which means Tokyo sits on one side of the IDL and Hawaii on the other, 19 hours apart. And that, in turn, meant that the Thursday on which we flew to Hawaii would be the longest day of our lives, as we boarded a plane from Tokyo at 9:30pm on Thursday night and arrived in Kona at 9:40am that same Thursday morning, 7+ hours later.

Crossing the International Date Line may be the closest mankind ever comes to time travel.

Fortunately, in this case it worked in our favor.

Perfect morning for a run, mile 3

The early miles passed quickly and smoothly as we cruised along in the southbound lane on Saddle Road. Race-day tension melted away as the beauty of our surroundings, together with the mild temperatures, overshadowed the fact this was my second marathon in a week. Gray clouds hung in the distance. A rainbow extended across the valley, welcoming the new day. The entire island seemed to spread out before us and stretch out below us. And beyond it all lay the planet’s largest body of water, a fitting backdrop to Mother Nature’s ever-changing theater.

All that was missing was a soundtrack, and my mind responded to the challenge with “Lava,” the whimsical song from the 2014 Pixar animated short film of the same name: 🎵 I have a dream, I hope will come true… 🎶

Yes indeed, it felt good to be back in Hawaii. I couldn’t believe I’d been seven years a stranger.

The Big Island — and Hawaii in general — is a very zen place

Downhill running: your best bet for Boston?
For their part my legs felt limber, felt strong, though at the same time I wasn’t naïve — I knew I hadn’t yet recovered from Tokyo, and especially with all the travel. And so, in the back of my mind, I knew that at some point this morning the bill(s) for my truncated recovery, compounded by the downhill pounding that awaited us, would come due. The question was, for how long could I elude my creditors?

Because the truth is, one of the biggest misnomers in this sport is that with gravity on your side, downhill running is easier. While this may be true for shorter distances on gentler gradients, running downhill for 26.2 miles will punish your legs like nothing else — and the steeper the descent, the more time you’ll spend in the pain cave. This is because a) every step drops a bit relative to the preceding step, wreaking havoc on your quad muscles which suffer microscopic tears with every step, and b) if you’re like me, you have an inescapable tendency to brake instinctively with every step, which eventually shreds your calves.

As if that weren’t enough, if your quads, calves and glutes aren’t sufficiently strong to withstand the eccentric loading and resultant pounding, then running extended downhills also exposes your knees to injury, as the protection normally afforded by the surrounding muscle groups diminishes. Fun times!

The day before the marathon was bigly windy

So then why, you may wonder, do runners ever choose to tackle severely downhill courses like REVEL Kulia? In large part, their willingness (and even eagerness) to do so springs from a self-fulfilling prophecy propagated by the events themselves. These races feed into the popular mindset that downhill = fast to promise personal bests and Boston Qualifying (BQ) times. And in many cases, the races deliver — many a runner has set a personal record or qualified for Boston on downhill courses, including me at the 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon.

And that’s where the “self-fulfilling” part of the prophecy comes into play. Buying into the downhill = fast mentality and convinced that gravity is their secret weapon, many BQ hopefuls (i.e. faster marathoners) seek out downhill courses on which to qualify for Boston, which leads to an inordinately high proportion of finishers successfully qualifying for Boston at that event, which leads the event to hype its impressively high Boston Qualifier numbers to prospective runners, which motivates more runners to sign up for that race the next year in the hopes of improving their own BQ chances.

Soon you have an explosion of downhill events across the country catering to BQ hopefuls, including eight REVEL events which bill themselves as “fast and beautiful” and which range in severity from 2,000 feet (the new Chilliwack in British Columbia) to nearly 5,700 feet (Kulia) of downhill, with five of their events exceeding 5,000 feet of net elevation loss. In this way, and thanks to shrewd marketing, REVEL has earned a reputation among marathoners as a “best bet” for Boston hopefuls.

If you spend any time in the various running groups on Facebook, you’ve probably encountered the well-worn argument that says REVEL races shouldn’t count as Boston Qualifiers because they’re too downhill and therefore provide runners with too much of an advantage. As if finding 26.2 miles of downhill is all there is to qualifying for Boston. And the last time I checked, these events were open to all runners, not just elites and select BQ hopefuls.

REVEL Kulia Marathon elevation profile

And speaking of elites, if running downhill is so advantageous, then why won’t marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge be running downhill when he chases history this fall in attempting to become the first human to break the two-hour marathon barrier? And why didn’t he do so in his previous attempt with Nike’s Breaking2 project two years ago? Neither sub-two attempt is officially sanctioned for other reasons, so then why not use every advantage at his disposal? Unless running 26.2 miles downhill does not in fact confer a significant advantage.

And while many of the U.S. marathons with the highest proportion of Boston qualifiers are run on downhill courses, in each of the past two years the runaway winners in this category have been the Last Chance BQ.2 races, held each September in Grand Rapids, MI (where 65% of finishers qualified for Boston in 2018) and Geneva, IL (where 53% of finishers BQ’ed last year). What’s so magical about these two events, run on flat multi-loop courses within local parks? Is the Gatorade at the aid stations laced with amphetamines? Do the organizers release a swarm of hungry mosquitos at mile 20?

Unfortunately the answer isn’t nearly so titillating; rather, these events owe their lofty BQ numbers to self-selection. Both events fall on the final weekend of registration for the next year’s Boston Marathon, meaning they are quite literally the last chance(s) for runners to qualify for Boston. And that timing in turn attracts serious last-minute hopefuls with no margin for error. Not only that, but the events themselves maintain strict eligibility requirements to ensure that only runners with a legitimate shot of qualifying toe the start line.

The point being (see? there was one buried in here somewhere), downhill running isn’t easy… and choosing a downhill course is no guarantee of success. I’d learned that painful lesson the hard way at my first REVEL race in Mt Charleston, Nevada last year. Luckily I’d run it strictly as a training run for the Comrades Marathon down run, but on a warm day and with a net elevation loss of 5,100 feet, the course had left a trail of carnage — and nearly 400 Boston qualifiers — in its wake. Katie admitted she’d never seen so many finishers crying and suffering at a finish line.

So then I’d chosen Kulia in spite of its steeply downhill profile, in large part because the timing and location worked out perfectly. That, plus the fact REVEL does a nice job with logistics.

🎵 … that you’re here with me, and I’m here with you… 🎶

What a difference a week makes
My plan for the day was to run comfortably for as long as possible, then dig deep and hold on until the finish. I thought early on I might try to negative-split the course (i.e. run the second half faster than the first), until I realized that trying to slow myself down while I was feeling good might actually prove more stressful than simply going with the flow and letting gravity do what it do best.

With that in mind, I’d set my A, B and C goals as a sub-3:45 finish (A), a sub-4 finish (B) and any type of finish (C). Although as worst-case scenarios go, having to return to Hawaii because I’d DNFed a marathon was among the best of the worst.

With the winter sun inching its way up in the sky in mile 4, we were greeted by the strident crow of a late-rising rooster somewhere off to our left. I had to smile — my kind of rooster, this night owl.

Mile 5 passed quickly — too quickly, as it turned out — in conversation with a fellow who was training for the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Race in July. Running at a comfy conversational pace, I glanced down as my Garmin registered a 7:57 mile time. Easy there, boy. I wished my new friend luck and watched him cruise ahead as I pulled back on the throttle — in his neon green tee I’d have no problem following his progress for the next few miles.

A gathering of goats appeared along the side of the road, clearly none too impressed that we humans had nothing better to do than chase each other down this hill.

A headwind kicked up in mile 10, too little too late to spoil the party as we turned back south, thereby positioning the wind at our back. This was the first of only three turns we’d make on the day, the next in mile 15 and the last one within yards of the finish line.

Two thumbs up on Mamalahoa Hwy (photo: REVEL)

Now on Mamalahoa Hwy (Rte 190, which circles the island), the two-lane road widened a bit to include a shoulder on each side. In the cool weather I’d yet to take advantage of the aid stations, though clearly the route needed more trash bins for those who had — in several spots I noticed discarded Dixie cups or GU packets, which could have easily ended up catching a gust and blowing off the road to become island litter for a grazing goat to find. And again I was reminded of Tokyo, where volunteers had stood holding trash bags every 50 yards or so along the tidiest marathon course I’ve ever seen.

What a difference a week makes. The thought struck me again, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the stark contrast that spanned seven days and 4,000 miles. Warm, dry temperatures vs. cold, steady rain. Wide-open expanses vs. soaring skyscrapers. Peace and quiet vs. hustle and bustle. And most striking of all, 325 runners vs. more than 100x that number — roughly half the population of Kauai.

What the course lacked in trash bags, it made up for in photographers. Every few minutes, it seemed, I would see either an official photographer or a sign announcing a photographer ahead. I spent a lot of time smiling (or faux-smiling, in the last few miles) for the cameras. And all photos were free to download after the race, yet another striking contrast with the Tokyo money-making machine.

On the other hand, the one notable similarity of Hawaii to Tokyo — with a high-five to the folks at the Kings’ Land Resort in Waikoloa Village — was the heated toilet in our hotel suite, though admittedly it didn’t hold quite the same appeal here in sunny Hawaii as it had in cold, rainy Tokyo.

Headed south now on 190, the route would flatten out over the next four miles, offering a welcome reprieve from the incessant downward trajectory. After running downhill for 10 miles the level surface felt more challenging, but still I tried to take it easy, slowing my pace into the 9+ min/mile zone while still feeling good.

Our second turn of the day pointed us in the same direction that, well, pretty much every turn in Hawaii points — toward the ocean. This time our route pointed westward on Waikoloa Road, with the vast Pacific below us stretching toward the horizon and — wait, was that Maui visible across the water? Aloha, Maui!

Each island in the Hawaiian archipelago has its own unique charm, but the Big Island stands out in several respects. One is its sheer size — true to its name, the Big Island is the largest island in the United States, with a size larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It’s also the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands, boasting 63% of the land mass of the state and yet only 13% of its population. So there’s a lot more open space to explore than you’ll find on Oahu or Maui or even Kauai.

Not only that, but it’s still growing. The youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island has existed for less than 700,000 years. And owing to tectonic movement, the Big Island currently sits over the geologic hotspot that created the state’s other islands, which explains why it’s also home to two active volcanoes — Kilauea and Mauna Loa, the latter the largest above-ground volcano on the planet.

In fact, thanks to this hotspot the Big Island had recently gotten even bigger. On May 17, 2018, Kilauea (which had been erupting almost continuously at low levels since 1983) unleashed its fury in a violent eruption of ash and lava that destroyed 716 residences and added 875 new acres to the island. And Kilauea’s eruption may have deserved some of the credit for the smaller field size at REVEL Kulia — in the week leading up to the race, three months after the volcanic eruption on the far side of the island was officially declared over, race organizers were still fielding phone calls from prospective runners who were hesitant to travel to the Big Island.

The Big Island’s youth means much of its landscape is dominated by volcanic rock, and thus stereotypical white-sand beaches are tougher to come by than on the other islands. Rest assured, though, there are more than enough activities to engage the average tourist — hiking, snorkeling, ocean kayaking and exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park are among the most popular ways to get to know Hawaii’s big baby.

🎵 … I wish that the earth, sea, and the sky up above… 🎶

Hōlei Sea Arch at the end of Chain of Craters Road, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’…
The road sloped forward and the downhill began again in earnest as we turned onto Waikoloa Road. Passing the mile 15 aid station, I flashed the volunteers a thumbs-up, thanked them and grabbed my bottle of Maurten carbohydrate drink waiting right where Katie had left it for me. (While we runners had been riding the bus to the start line and most non-runners had still been asleep in bed, she’d driven up to mile 15, dropped off my bottle and turned back before the road had closed.)

A slight camber in the road caused brief concern, though luckily it didn’t last long — this downhill was bad enough without the road tilting under my feet.

Regularly sipping from my bottle and now moving at an increasingly sluggish pace (sorry, gravity), I reached mile 18 feeling ready to call it a day. The Maurten was doing nothing for my energy levels, because truth be told my energy levels were fine, as usual during a marathon — instead, it was my rapidly deteriorating quad muscles that were slowing me down. Because mile 18 was the point at which my overworked engine started to leak oil, and the wheels started to loosen significantly, if not fall off.

Original statue of Kamehameha the Great, Kapa’au

Right around this time we also turned into a stiff headwind, which nearly stopped me dead in my tracks. If this wind kept up for much longer, I thought, I’d have no choice but to wave the white flag and walk it in from here. Fortunately, we turned away from the headwind before I was forced to make that painful call.

Speaking of painful, though, my left calf started to tighten significantly in mile 18; I couldn’t recall that ever happening in a marathon. Yes indeed, these last 8 miles were going to be all kinds of fun.

Luckily I could suffer in relative private, since outside of the small aid stations there was a grand total of maybe ten spectators along the entire route, all of them clustered in Waikoloa Village where I saw Katie just after mile 21. I’m pretty sure no one on the island aside from the organizers, participants, volunteers and Katie knew there was a marathon happening today.

I managed a quick smile and accepted my second bottle of Maurten from Katie as I shuffled past. Passing an older fellow who stood cheering on the runners, I complimented him on his eye-catching red, white and blue t-shirt: “Make America Civil Again: Anyone Else in 2020.”

The busiest stretch of the day — Waikoloa Village, mile 22

I felt a surge of adrenaline (Katie sightings do that) and hoped that with it would arrive a second (or third, or fourth) wind, though with five miles to go I was mainly hoping my janky left calf wouldn’t cramp. I’d never cramped during a race, and I didn’t want this to be the first time.

This may have been the first road race, though, where I didn’t see a single spectator sign. Which doesn’t mean the course lacked signage — as was the case at Mt Charleston last year, REVEL had come prepared with their own motivational messages distributed along the route including:

  • Only 25 miles to go!
  • Slay the day
  • 99% of the people in the world can’t do what you’re doing right now
  • It’s just a hill. GET OVER IT.
  • That’s not sweat, that’s liquid awesomeness
  • Run like Ryan Gosling is at the finish line. (What, no Scarlett Johansson sign?)
  • Stop reading this and keep running!
  • Pain is just a vehicle {somethin’ somethin’ about success}

(On that note, there’s something uniquely demoralizing about signs that use the word “pain” … no matter what the message, just seeing the word seems to make things worse.)

In mile 22 the 3:50 pacer passed me running alone; I tried briefly to keep up but quickly discarded that absurd notion. As her silhouette receded in the distance, so too did my “A” goal of a sub-3:45 finish. Forget 3:45, I thought bitterly, at this stage I’ll be lucky to finish by 3:45pm.

And down the stretch they come! (mile 26 and then some)

My pace crept up into the 10 min/mile range as we turned back west, where a robust tailwind was waiting to escort us to the finish. In any other race I might have sung Mother Nature’s praises; now though, with my quads and calves threatening a meltdown at any moment, I neither wanted nor needed a tailwind pushing me, and I’d prove unable to take advantage.

Because in essence, these last four miles would simply be a matter of hanging on — the downhill hurt, the tailwind wasn’t helping, and gradually I reached the point where my legs were so torn up I could barely lift them with each step. I felt like one of those poor saps from Greek mythology who turned to stone after gazing upon Medusa’s face.

On the bright (or not bright, as it turns out) side, the weather was cooperating and the day had turned out to be mostly cloudy, such that our frenemy the sun never had a chance to burn away the clouds and ratchet up the heat as it generally does for other Hawaiian marathons.

With my unseeing gaze directed straight ahead (it’s Hawaii, head up!), I felt more than saw the occasional car or truck whiz by on our right, though safety was never a concern since we were well buffered by the width of the road shoulder.

Given my ever-slowing pace, I was amazed that until the last half-mile or so, nobody passed me who I didn’t immediately pass again. Apparently we were all hurting, though I’d be lying if I said my own misery loved the company.

Cheers! Let the recovery begin

I dug deep, focused my remaining energy on each labored step and resolved to stay the course for as long as I could without stopping to walk — walking, after all, would only prolong the discomfort. Having felt my legs wobble when I’d paused to grab my bottle at mile 15, I knew that if I gave into my fatigue and slowed to a walk now, my legs would blissfully throw in the towel and I’d be unable to get them started again.

My inner struggle felt like the ugliest thing on this beautiful island. Do I still have any shot at four hours? Honestly I had no idea, and I refused to glance at my Garmin lest I add to my stress.

Admittedly, every photo taken of me in the last six miles was an abject lie… I sure as hell didn’t feel like smiling or throwing up the shaka sign, but then again I’d paid to do this and we were in Hawaii, so I might as well make the best of it.

The “One Mile To Go” video of me on the REVEL website is almost comical. My arms seem to be single-handedly (no pun intended) trying to propel me to the finish, pumping furiously up top while down below you could barely slide a playing card under my feet with each step. Watching it makes me wince. And yet my form is downright fluid compared to my finish line video — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone cross the finish line as if they were walking barefoot on broken glass:

Cresting one last rise in the road, the finish line came into view below us; try as I might, though, I could no longer lift my legs to speed up. So awkwardly I tossed Katie my bottle, rounded the third and final turn of the day, and passed under the first-ever REVEL Kulia finish arch in a hard-earned time of 3:58:38.

🎵 … will send me someone to lava. 🎶

HEY BUDDY, WHAT’S YOUR HURRY??

Bent, but unbroken
Stopping to gather my wits, I was surprised when my unsteady legs didn’t give way beneath me. Genius hobby of yours, was all my brain could muster. Somehow I was able to bend at the waist to receive my finisher’s medal and purple orchid lei (a thoughtful touch). Looking back at the finish, I saw my SoCal buddy Robert squeeze in under the four-hour mark himself; his companion Karen would finish her 50th state an hour later.

Then I stood rooted to the ground, bent over, hands on knees with an icy wet towel (another awesome REVEL touch) resting on the back of my neck. Someone asked if I wanted medical assistance, and glancing up to meet their eyes I realized I was standing alongside the well-stocked medical tent. No thanks, I’ll be fine… eventually. At least heat hadn’t been an issue as it had been at Mt Charleston.

Trying in vain to get comfortable on my feet­, I collapsed in one of the few available folding chairs off to one side of the gravel highway pullout that doubled as a venue for the post-race party. Granted I was in no mood to mingle, but then again I didn’t seem to be missing much — along with water and chocolate milk (too soon), refreshments included canned beer (way too soon) and Domino’s Pizza (always too soon). Rather than a massage tent (always a bonus), four Rapid Reboot pneumatic compression machines were set up and seemed to be taking forever between customers, so I gave up on that idea. That was it as far as sponsor booths go.

Always great to see a friendly face in a faraway place (photo: Robert Manon)

We stuck around to watch for Bay Area native David, whom we’d met at dinner the previous evening along with his wife Nancy. David had qualified for Boston in four different age groups and was gunning for his fifth different age group BQ at Kulia. Unfortunately 5,700 feet of downhill would take its toll on him as well, and despite needing a qualifying time of 4:05, he’d finish just short of 4:35. But David knows as well as anyone that the marathon is an unforgiving beast. And no doubt he’ll be toeing another start line soon with an eye toward 4:05. I’d recommend one of the flat September Last Chance BQ.2 races in Illinois or Michigan. 😉

That afternoon we hopped in the car and headed north on Hwy 270 to the Pololu Valley Lookout, which offers spectacular ocean views along with access to a black sand beach on the valley floor. Thing is, you first have to reach the valley floor, which requires a short, steep and rocky hike that drops ~420 ft in 0.6 miles. Which normally wouldn’t be a problem — unless you’ve already dropped 5,700 feet in 26.2 miles that same day. I felt as though I were trying to negotiate the descent with concrete pillars for legs, and if it hadn’t been for Katie’s shoulder I wouldn’t have stood a chance. So then my advice if you’re planning to run REVEL Kulia for speed: save the hiking for the next day.

Not that the next day in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park was much better. In fact, it may have been worse for my calves, even though my quads escaped Kulia relatively unscathed. Volcanic black rock makes for unstable footing under the best of circumstances, and this was certainly not that. Even on smooth paved surfaces, the slightest downhill left me shuffling sideways or grasping at Katie’s shoulder for stability… and stepping down from even the lowest curb? Fuhgeddaboudit.

On one walk in the park we encountered an older couple, the man using a walking stick and clinging to his wife’s shoulder for support on one short decline. Looking at them felt like looking in a funhouse mirror that, rather than making us short & squat or tall & thin, aged us 30 years. He and I were moving similarly, and suddenly I had a renewed empathy for the challenges of aging. Not since I’d put my ankle on backward during the 2013 ET Full Moon Midnight Marathon had I felt so helpless on my own two feet.

And with that, the decision was made for me. In much the same way that professional coaches and politicians who otherwise would be fired suddenly resign to “spend more time with their family,” I’d be taking forced time off after Kulia to come down from my protracted runner’s high and fully appreciate an amazing week. Two countries, two continents, state 26 of my 50 States quest… it was all good. Even my aggrieved calves would (eventually) come to agree.

Hawaii’s newest marathon features a beautiful course that I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Team REVEL does a solid, consistently professional job in helping their runners set personal bests and qualify for Boston, and Kulia is no exception. But if you do view REVEL as your ticket to Boston, be sure to approach it with eyes wide open.

Because if you think running downhill (and especially this much downhill) is easy, then I leave you with the wisdom of Ernest Hemingway protagonist Jake Barnes, whose wistful words close The Sun Also Rises as he reflects on a star-crossed relationship that might have been.

“Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?”

BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve ever run a REVEL race, then you know exactly what awaits you on the Big Island… and if you haven’t, you may want to carry a fire extinguisher just in case your legs spontaneously combust. With nearly 5,700 feet of descent according to my Garmin, Kulia wears the downhill crown as the steepest of the eight REVEL courses — which is a bit like calling the Pacific the deepest of the oceans.

Physically, my own race could be broken down into two clear segments — 18 miles of “Count me in!” followed by eight miles of “Get me OUT.” Even a tailwind in the last six miles couldn’t save me from imploding. Granted, I’d run Tokyo six days earlier or I might have expected more of a 20/6 or 22/4 split. In any case, based on my previous REVEL experience at last year’s Mt Charleston Marathon in Nevada, I knew the last few miles would be painful… I just didn’t expect that my quads and calves would call it quits in unison.

On the bright side, it’s Hawaii so the scenery is beautiful. Gazing out across the Pacific Ocean and seeing Maui in the distance certainly helped to distract from my mounting fatigue. Best of all, once you cross the finish line you are now free to move about the island and to enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer — if you can still walk, that is. It’s no accident the medical tent is only steps away from the finish line.

Just another evening in Hawaii…

… and literally one minute later

PRODUCTION: This year’s inaugural Kulia race definitely delivered on REVEL’s promise of “fast and beautiful,” though the evidence suggests that with 5,700 feet of elevation loss, the company may well have reached the law of diminishing returns on speed.

Not surprisingly given its venue, Kulia is the most expensive of the REVEL events — I’d paid an early-bird registration price of $130 including a $10 discount code. Still significantly cheaper than say, Honolulu, and probably not a deal-breaker if you’re traveling from the mainland to run in Hawaii. Plus, your registration comes with all the niceties you’d expect from a REVEL event, including free gloves/heat sheet to stay warm on race morning, near-immediate results via email, free race photos, and even free goodr sunglasses. Race day also featured some distinctly Hawaiian touches including a pre-race conch blowing and native prayer, plus purple orchid leis at the finish line. And who doesn’t love a lei?

The expo was small and easily navigated, with several of the same vendors I’d seen at last year’s Mt Charleston expo including doTERRA (essential oils) and Rapid Reboot (recovery). We also met the garrulous race director of the Big Island International Marathon who was none too pleased (understandably so) that REVEL had shown up in his ‘hood and scheduled a marathon/half marathon one week before his own.

On-course support was excellent, including a bottle of Maurten that Katie dropped off and which was waiting for me at the mile 15 aid station. (Mahalo, volunteers!) Be aware, though, if you’re a runner who feeds off spectator support and raucous crowds: outside of aid station volunteers, I could count the number of spectators on two hands. On the plus side, few spectators meant few vehicles, and despite the fact we shared the road with traffic for much of the race, the organizers did a nice job of allowing us a wide berth such that safety concerns were minimal.

That said, the course definitely needed more trash bins, as discarded Dixie cups or GU packets in several spots lay one gust of wind away from becoming island detritus for a grazing goat to find.

The post-race party felt more functional than festive, held as it was in a gravel clearing on the side of the highway with a spread of Domino’s Pizza, water, chocolate milk and canned beer. As the lead singer of Suicidal Tendencies once lamented, all I wanted was a Pepsi, and sadly there was none to be had. Chocolate milk or beer definitely wasn’t going to cut it for a stressed-out stomach that wasn’t yet ready for protein, fat or alcohol.

On a semi-related note, with the REVEL team now in charge things are looking up for this year’s newly resurrected Portland Marathon, which after several years of poor management and underperformance (culminating in a 2018 cancellation and change of leadership) finally promises to live up to its potential.

SWAG: REVEL takes its swag seriously. In addition to everything mentioned above (gloves, goodr sunglasses, lei), their race tees are among the best in the business, while their finisher medals are always hefty and well crafted, even if they insist on featuring their company logo (and was this year’s spiral supposed to represent a… nautilus shell?) rather than, say, a true Hawaiian-themed design. But the ultimate swag, really, is the opportunity to explore and experience the beauty of the Big Island. In the words of legendary marathoner William Shakespeare, “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating for REVEL Kulia Marathon

FINAL STATS:
Mar 9, 2019 (start time 6:30 am, sunrise 6:36 am)
26.15 miles from Waimea to Waikoloa Village, HI (state 26 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:58:38 (inaugural REVEL Kulia), 9:06/mile
Finish place: 132 overall, 20/31 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 323 (171 men, 152 women)
Race weather: clear (46°F) at the start, partly cloudy & warm at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 181 ft gain, 5,747 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 117 ft, 5,686 ft

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

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

Sometimes, timing is everything.

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

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

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

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

Alas.

Run 3B2G sign at LIttle Rock Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Bridges Marathon course map

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

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

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

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

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

Two Rivers Park Bridge at dawn

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

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

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

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

Santa holding the American flag at 3 Bridges Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

Big Dam Bridge at mile 18 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 12 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 10 turnaround at the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

Halfway arch at 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Running on Big Dam Bridge during 3 Bridges Marathon

Flags a-flyin’ on the Big Dam Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 22 on the Two Rivers Park Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

The home stretch on the Two Rivers Park Bridge

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

That had hurt — literally and figuratively.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Santa Claus at the 3 Bridges Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote from President Clinton's 1993 inaugural address

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

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

Little Rock Central HIgh School

Little Rock Central High School

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

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

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

Finish line selfie at 3 Bridges Marathon

25 down, 25 to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3 Bridges Marathon medal at LIttle Rock State Capitol

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map (Dec 2018)

RaceRaves rating:

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

Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.
– John F. Kennedy

In 1908, a concerned President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order to address “the condition of utter physical worthlessness” that had befallen many of his fellow officers. Roosevelt’s order stated that officers of all military branches be able to complete “a march of 50 miles, to be made in three consecutive days and in a total of 20 hours, including rests, the march on any one day to be during consecutive hours.” Though the order met with some resistance, particularly from out-of-shape desk jockeys, others embraced the challenge, with some officers completing the 50-mile trek in a single day. Roosevelt was able to keep the directive in place during his administration, only to see it abandoned once he left office.

Fast forward 54 years to that same Oval Office but a different fitness-focused leader, our 35th President John F. Kennedy. In early 1963 Kennedy, himself a strong proponent of physical fitness, rediscovered Roosevelt’s order and shared it with U.S. Marine Commandant General David M. Shoup. Kennedy noted that the Marines in Roosevelt’s day had been able to complete the demanding 50-mile march in a single day, and he challenged Shoup to answer whether “the strength and stamina of the modern Marine is at least equivalent to that of his antecedents.” Kennedy, in turn, pledged to discover whether his own White House staff members were likewise up to the challenge.

Before Shoup could respond with a plan, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy became the first to accept his brother’s challenge. Wearing leather oxford dress shoes (Blue Ribbon Sports, i.e. Nike, would not be founded until the next year), RFK set out early on the morning of February 9, slogging through snow and sub-freezing temperatures to complete the 50-mile distance in 17 hours 50 minutes. He covered the final 15 miles alone after the last of his aides dropped out at mile 35.

RFK gets a much-needed foot rub from his wife after his 50-mile trek (photo: Life Magazine)

Three days later, Shoup challenged several dozen of his officers to march 50 miles within 20 hours. Many of his Marines successfully (if begrudgingly) conquered the distance, with one second lieutenant completing the march in a speedy 9 hours 53 minutes. Soon, as media coverage of these feats by both RFK and the Marines spread, restless civilians eager to test their physical limits and acquire their own hard-earned blisters took up the gauntlet of their president’s “50 miles in 20 hours” challenge. And while some understandably failed, many others succeeded in impressive fashion. Said Dan Wulff, 17, of Morristown, NJ after completing the trek in 12 hours, 50 minutes in near-record cold: “It goes to prove we are in better shape than people think we are.”

The flame sparked by the “Kennedy Marches” continued to burn brightly through the winter and into the spring, before gradually waning and then fading almost entirely following the president’s assassination that November. Almost. Because while most of the JFK-inspired marches were canceled in the wake of his tragic death, one of the original marches held in the spring of 1963 was instead renamed by its founder (and one of its original four finishers), Buzz Sawyer of Maryland, who resolved to keep the tradition alive.

Thus was the JFK 50 Mile Challenge (re)born as the JFK 50 Mile Memorial. Fast forward another 56 years, and the JFK 50 Mile (as it’s simply known) in Washington County, MD now stands as the oldest ultramarathon race in the country as well as the only original JFK 50 Mile Challenge event still held annually.

Just think — over half a century after JFK made it his stated mission to make America fit again, our nation now boasts an obese, Diet Coke-swilling president who reportedly eschews exercise because he’s convinced it depletes the human body’s “finite” energy reserves. How’s that for progress?

“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try”
In a state of largely uninspiring marathons, the JFK 50 had emerged as the clear Maryland choice for my 50 States quest — in part because the chances of me not running the nation’s oldest ultramarathon, and especially one with such a cool back story, were as slim as an FDR dime. Not only that but the timing would be perfect, with race day falling five months after the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa and less than a month after back-to-back “training marathons” in Kansas City and Des Moines. So my muscle memory for 50-mile weekends would still be strong.

With 26 miles of the race course along the pancake-flat Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath, I even entertained the notion of chasing my 50+ mile personal record of 9:48:25, set five months earlier at Comrades — ironically the longest of my 50+ mile races.

The thing is, though, weather on the East Coast in mid-November can be pretty unpredictable — which is why I’m angling to run most of my East Coast races between April and October. And while I fully expected cold temperatures and even the potential for chilly rain, what I didn’t expect was that we’d be welcomed by snow on our 75-mile drive from Baltimore to Hagerstown.

A lot of snow.

Eight inches of snow.

Ice to meet you: An early-season blizzard welcomed us to Washington County

Although record snowfall totals aren’t readily available for Washington County (‘cuz it’s out in the boonies), on the Thursday evening of our arrival Baltimore accumulated 1.7 inches of snow, eclipsing the old record of 1.2 inches set 110 years earlier — the same year President Teddy Roosevelt issued his “50 miles in 20 hours” directive. Oh, cruel irony…

As if that weren’t enough, 2018 had already been Maryland’s wettest year in recorded history, meaning that even without a slushy white overcoat the trails would be abundantly soggy. So this edition of the JFK 50 was shaping up to be more Tough Mudder than speedy ultramarathon — and eerily similar to RFK’s own winter trek 55 years earlier, minus the leather oxford dress shoes.

Fortunately, unlike Des Moines a month earlier, I’d come prepared for a sloppy cold weather run. And though the race day forecast called for overcast skies, temperatures would remain safely above freezing, meaning I could leave the tights in my suitcase.

And so, at 5:50am on the Saturday of my birthday weekend, I joined 850+ like-minded crazies for a pre-race briefing in the Boonsboro High School gym. Nothing says “happy 48th birthday” quite like playing in the mud all day. And unless it’s Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, nothing whisks me back to adolescence quite like the distinctly nostalgic odor of a high school basketball gym. Put me in said gym with “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasting on the PA, and I may come out looking like the “before” model in a Clearasil ad.

JFK 50 pre-race briefing or the most popular PTA meeting in America?

Race Director Mike (I presume, since I couldn’t hear his introduction) stepped up to the mic, welcomed us to the nation’s largest ultramarathon and confirmed that YES, the Appalachian Trail on which we’d run much of the first 16 miles would be a mess. And he applauded the race’s record number of female entrants, a commendable yet ironic fact given that I’d just been thinking on my walk into the gym how few women were in attendance. (Ultrarunning still has work to do before it can boast the equal or greater female representation of shorter distances.)

It’s funny to think of the JFK 50 as the largest ultramarathon in the United States when Comrades, the largest ultramarathon in the world, annually boasts roughly 20x the number of finishers. And I stand by my assertion that we really do need a Comrades-like event here in the States to rally around and call our own… but that’s a rant for another blog post.

Our fearless leader assured the room that back by popular demand would be the red velvet cake at the 38 Special aid station. As a biologist, I appreciate that everyone’s metabolism is different, and what works for one runner may backfire on another. But though I could not predict the next ten-ish hours, I could pretty much guarantee I wouldn’t be spiking my blood sugar & insulin levels at mile 38. Not if I wanted to reach the finish line in Williamsport on my own two feet.

Our emcee asked everyone to sit and then called on former and current military members to stand for applause. The JFK 50, he noted with pride, is first and foremost a military race (much like the Bataan Memorial Death March I’d run in March), and to this day the most prestigious prize remains the Kennedy Cup, which is awarded to the winning military team.

He also acknowledged veteran JFK 50 runners with varying (and in some cases staggering) numbers of finishes, recommending them as reliable pacers for anyone with a specific finish time goal. And he noted that “If you plan to finish in under nine hours, we consider you an elite athlete.” Then he offered one last motivational carrot to comfort the most anxious among us, announcing that the 2017 finisher rate had exceeded 95%.

I’ve gotta believe a museum this size focuses on the roads less traveled

With that, class was dismissed, prompting the herd of warm bodies to migrate slowly out of the gym and into the predawn chill. Not surprisingly, I needed to heed the call of nature one last time, and I wasn’t the only one as evidenced by the queue for the relatively few porta-potties set up in the school parking lot. “It’s a 10-minute walk, so if you don’t leave now you’ll miss the start!” warned a voice behind us, though what could we do? It’s not like any of us were leisurely enjoying the cold discomfort of those dark, smelly plastic boxes.

And though I’d rather not have repeated my feat at January’s Houston Marathon where I’d (purposefully) been the second-to-last starter, I was comforted by the fact that this wasn’t Comrades, where gun time is the law of the land. Thanks to the timing chip attached to my bib number, I could start a couple of minutes late knowing that those 120 seconds wouldn’t count against my overall finish time.

Katie and I followed the shadows of the other runners out to Old National Pike, a two-lane road which even in the darkness was clearly the main thoroughfare in tiny Boonsboro, population 3,553. As we approached the hub of activity, a fellow walking toward us said, “Start your watches, the gun just fired and there’s no chip time at the start.” What?!? Are you KIDDING me? The race day instructions we’d received at packet pickup had noted in bold that “The race will start at 6:30am sharp,” without any mention of this key detail. So much for chip time.

Bustling downtown Boonsboro, site of the JFK 50 start line

Granted, over the course of 50 miles two minutes likely means very little to a sub- (meaning “not”) elite runner like myself. And though I’m disciplined in my training, I’m not a Type A personality. That said, I could have done without this surprise shot of adrenaline to start the day. Quickly I started my Garmin, dropped to the curb, clumsily yanked off my wind pants and handed them to Katie, then took off running up the street.

We’d entered Old National Pike 300+ yards behind the start line and amazingly, by the time I reached it 93 seconds after the gun, the red-and-black Altra arch had already been deflated. In fact, I had to check the official race photos later that day to find evidence it had even existed. Did sleepy Boonsboro really need its main intersection back so promptly at 6:30am on a Saturday?

Note to the organizers: I appreciate you guys and everything you do to make this race happen 56 years running, but I hope you’ll consider starting (or ending) the pre-race briefing five minutes earlier, to allow everyone time to make a pit stop afterwards and still reach the start line by 6:30am. Given that we’re already starting (to quote a fellow poet from Tucson 2015) at the ass crack of dawn, what’s another five minutes?

Mile 1 through Boonsboro, only 49 to go!

Glancing up the dusky road, I could barely make out the silhouettes of the back-of-the-pack starters receding in the distance. Knowing that 2½ miles of asphalt awaited before we reached the Appalachian Trail (AT), I relaxed and fell into an easy stride. My biggest concern with starting so far back was that I’d be among the last people to reach the AT and end up trapped behind hundreds of slower runners. Luckily the steady uphill climb made walkers of a lot of runners early and enabled me to pass plenty of them at a comfortable pace. This included my 50 States finisher buddy Meg who was starting slowly and smartly in this, her first 50-miler.

Apparently there were a couple of historic sites along this uphill climb, including the original Washington Monument (completed in 1827) somewhere off to our left. Essentially, though, all that was visible in daybreak’s snow-covered opening act were the uniformly brown skeletons of dormant trees, the occasional rural homestead and the double yellow line we now followed ever upward.

The initial stretch of the Appalachian Trail (AT) was more like “AT lite,” lasting only a mile on relatively flat terrain before returning us to the road for what seemed like another interminable ascent to the trail’s next segment. Slope notwithstanding, these two uphill miles were possibly the most peaceful of the day. The morning breeze animated the otherwise lifeless trees, blowing ice from their branches which then cascaded to the asphalt like glass from a shattered window. Luckily, despite the frozen landscape neither the wind nor weather would be a factor on this day, although the steely gray clouds would prevent our enjoying what I’d read was a beautiful sunrise along this stretch. Alas.

As we worked our way upward in the diffuse morning light, the wintry scene called to mind the memorable refrain penned by one of New England’s favorite sons, Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

Ask not what Mother Nature can do for you…
Reaching the high point of the course (1,750 ft) and having already climbed over 1,200 feet to get there, we entered the much-anticipated second leg of the Appalachian Trail. And it was as good as advertised — but here let me hand the narrative reins over to someone with a broader perspective than a novice JFKer like myself:

I was very fortunate to notch my 31st JFK 50 mile finish yesterday. Trail conditions were the worst ever. Six time champion and fellow 31 time finisher Carolyn Showalter summed it up best in one word: horrendous!
– Dave Janosko, posting on the JFK 50 Facebook page

No argument from me — the next ten miles were hands down (and heads up!) the worst terrain I’ve ever run. This stretch was even slower than the highly technical Tecumseh Trail in Indiana, thanks to the dangerous combination of mud + snow = gooey slush that covered (and in some cases concealed) plenty of rocks, thick roots & discarded branches. Still harboring vivid (and painful) memories of a wrenched rotator cuff and bruised rib sustained at the Run Rabbit Run 50 Miler a year earlier, I’d already planned to approach this stretch with caution, and the conditions only slowed me further.

The rolling terrain didn’t help matters. I didn’t mind the ups so much because there’s better body control and less chance of slipping while climbing, but the downs were both mentally and physically demanding — and especially with other reckless runners flying by me occasionally on one side or the other, sometimes without warning.

Now imagine 10 miles of this

At other times — and this is a trail-running pet peeve of mine — someone would trail close behind on my tail, a disregard for personal space that makes me irritable and anxious in the best of circumstances. And this certainly wasn’t those. If I’m going too slow, just say so and I’ll gladly step aside. On the other hand, if you like my pace and want to follow me, then allowing ten yards between us won’t limit your ability to do so. With the entirety of my focus already trained on not face-planting in the mud, this inexplicable “run in the leader’s back pocket” mindset did little more than stress me out and detract from my enjoyment of running on one of the nation’s most iconic trails.

Without pause my eyes scanned the trail, feeding my brain the constant stream of data it needed to spatially map out the next three steps in advance, a necessity on trails and especially highly technical ones. Every step seemed muddier than the last and presented a new opportunity to lose focus, slip on a large rock or root and take a hard fall. Often, presented with no clear option I’d intentionally step on a slick rock or gnarly wet root or in a muddy hole, taking care as much as possible with the angle of my landing. Maybe I could have moved faster, but in those conditions my 13+ minute/mile pace was already feeling Boston Qualifier-speedy. And odds were good that in short order I’d lose my footing, kiss the ground and come up looking (at best) like a summertime pig.

No, I was quite happy with my pace.

I heard one woman call the snow a “blessing” since it hid the rocks. Yeah, right, in much the same way tomato sauce hides whatever it was you just accidentally cracked a tooth on while biting into your pizza. In reality the snow made the otherwise navigable rocks incredibly slick. Maybe, six years later, this was the delayed payback for my dumb luck in tackling the slickrock of Moab on a fortuitously dry November day.

A relatively smooth stretch of the Appalachian Trail (photo: H3 Photography)

The farther we ran, the more treacherous the footing and the slower my pace. In several places I found myself taking the path of least resistance through ankle-deep mud, checking after every loud {slurp} that I’d successfully extracted my foot with shoe still attached. That for me spelled victory — that and remaining upright, unlike a couple of my less fortunate compatriots who lost their balance only to bounce right back up again and continue on their way, their egos more bruised then their bodies.

But how was the scenery along the historic Appalachian Trail, you ask? Honestly I have no idea. The couple of times I did glance up to catch my breath, all I saw was more snow and naked monochromatic trees. I’d been excited to take my first-ever steps on the AT, and something told me I’d need a return visit to better appreciate its scenic side.

All the high-stepping — over rocks, over roots, over tree branches — coupled with the added effort required to lift my feet out of their sticky, muddy footprints sapped the strength from my quads, so that by the time we reached the end of the AT my legs were pretty much toast. Mentally and physically, I was drained.

A caravan of runners exits the Appalachian Trail down Weverton Cliffs

At long last, though, we did reach the end, and a fitting end it was as the final 1,000 yards led us in caravan-style down Weverton Cliffs to where throngs of spectators (Katie included) cheered our arrival. The silver lining to the previous ten grueling miles was that by the time we reached the Cliffs the steep, slow and slippery descent didn’t feel nearly as treacherous as we’d been led to believe. A black-and-gold “DO NOT CROSS” ribbon lined one side of the descent, reminding runners to stay on the trail to prevent erosion. My immediate impression was of police tape at a crime scene, and I half-expected to look down and see a chalk outline where a fellow runner, desperate to escape the AT, had taken the descent a bit too recklessly.

By the time my feet touched the asphalt, I was so done with the Appalachian Trail — as were my toes, which had lost all sensation about five miles earlier. I found a bundled-up Katie waiting with dry shoes and socks for my hard-working feet, plus baby food for the rest of me. Quickly I downed a pouch of baby food — unlike my previous four 50+ milers, I’d wisely chosen not to carry a bag — and changed into new socks along with my road shoes for the remaining 34+ miles.

Happiness is a warm, dry pair of socks.

Bidding Katie farewell (for now) I got to my feet and set out again, only to realize within a few steps that we still had roughly ¼ mile of muddy trail left before joining the C&O Canal Towpath. Luckily that ¼ mile was more runnable and less sloppy than the previous ten, so I managed to reach the aid station and the Towpath just beyond that with relatively dry feet. But how naïve of me to think they would stay that way.

The initial stretch of the C&O Canal Towpath, looking like the Hulk bathed in the canal

“If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.”
After the bucking bronco of the Appalachian Trail, the C&O Towpath felt like riding atop Secretariat. Setting off briskly, I soon realized my 9:30-9:45 minute/mile pace would be unsustainable, and so was forced to pull back on the reins or risk reducing myself to a fast walk.

And the last thing I wanted at mile 16 was to slow down. Because for the next 26 miles we would be running on the sinuous edge of Maryland along the leafy, muddy, ne’er changing Towpath. Flowing alongside us to our left, the swiftly moving waters of the Potomac River provided relentlessly steady companionship. A few hundred yards across the river in Virginia, the scene looked much the same as on our side — stretches of bare brown trees stood guarding the border like naked, unmoving sentries. Two miles later Virginia became West Virginia, a nondescript changing of the guard that passed without warning or fanfare.

Every so often a bridge carrying traffic across the Potomac would pass overhead, but other than that the C&O Towpath was, as one RaceRaves reviewer described it, very much like Groundhog Day. Though serene enough, the early winter scenery was most memorable for its unapologetic uniformity, and it occurred to me that this could well be Mother Nature’s version of a treadmill.

These two photos represent 26 miles of scenery, with West Virginia visible across the Potomac

Somewhere across the river in West Virginia sat Harpers Ferry, the northernmost point of Confederate-controlled territory during the Civil War, while several miles away on the Maryland side of the border lay Antietam National Battleground, site of the bloodiest battle in American history after which President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. And running right through the middle of all this, I was able to appreciate none of it.

Because this, in a nutshell, is the unfulfilled promise of the JFK 50 course — as a runner you’re literally running through our nation’s history while being completely oblivious to it. Despite its historic Civil War surroundings (many indicated on the race website), our route on the C&O Canal Towpath would follow a stretch of 26 miles in which every mile looked nearly identical to the mile before and after it.

Every ultramarathon — and especially the 50+ milers — has its emotional ebbs and flows, including stretches where I simply tire of running and think, “OK, I’m good, I could happily call it quits now.” But I’m not sure — aside from Tucson three years earlier — that I’d ever been really, truly bored during a race like I was on the C&O Canal Towpath. Certainly the leaden state of my quads didn’t help. Adding to my ennui, personal listening devices were prohibited here at the one race where I might actually have turned to music or podcasts to keep my mind engaged.

The miles crept by like the drip, drip, drip of a slowly leaking faucet, so many muddy miles all blending together one after another after another. I tried to focus, to keep my legs churning and the odometer rolling. Mile 23, 24, 25, 26…

There’s never a bad time for a Katie sighting

Finally, in mile 28 at the Antietam Aid Station, another Katie sighting — my reward for reaching the halfway point. Unfortunately my joy was short-lived as, after noshing on a pb&j sandwich and doing a few knee lifts to loosen my battered quads, I took a few deep breaths and continued on my way. Immediately I looked forward to seeing her again at mile 38.

Over the course of the day I was overtaken by a number of runners; only one, though, stood out for the prosthetic running blade he wore below his right knee. As an Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technician, Adam Popp had been critically injured in Afghanistan in 2007, losing his leg and sustaining traumatic brain injury. Now here he was chasing his second consecutive JFK 50 finish, a stunning feat — I’d barely survived the Appalachian Trail on my own two legs! — and one he’d accomplish in an amazing 9 hours, 34 minutes, 29 seconds. Talk about grit. Much respect, Adam!

Though the flat, hard-packed Towpath was a high school track compared to the Appalachian Trail, it too had absorbed more than its share of rainfall, and in several stretches every step remained an adventure. My foot would slide forward or sideways or even backwards on the muddy trail, the ground working to siphon my remaining energy through the soles of my shoes. As messy as the Towpath was, though, we runners all owe a debt of gratitude to the selfless volunteers who apparently cleared it of large debris the day before the race. Huge thanks to those valiant souls for making a tough situation a bit more manageable.

Trailing the unbreakable Adam Popp at the Antietam Aid Station, mile 28

The miles clicked by — 32, 33, 34, 35, the Potomac our constant if inscrutable companion. Glancing across at West Virginia, I silently promised that I’d return soon for a proper introduction.

Somewhere along this stretch an enormous tree had fallen across the trall, and I expended more energy than I would have liked climbing over its massive trunk.

Aside from aid station stops, I motored along at a fairly consistent 11+ minute/mile pace. But the aid stations were my lifelines, and none more so than the 38 Special (which I actually reached in mile 40). Here I met Katie one last time and then sat briefly to rest my legs, refuel my body and gather my wits for the final 10+ mile push.

The 38 Special aid station featured Christmas cookies, Santa Claus himself and YES, as promised the red velvet cake heard ‘round the world. Likewise as promised, the mere thought of red velvet cake at that moment made my head and stomach spin with nausea.

The 38 Special Aid Station

That said, all of the aid station volunteers were simply amazing — always upbeat, always helpful, and always responsive with everything from an easy smile to your favorite aid station snack to just about any other extemporaneous request, within reason. The volunteers collectively were a highlight of the day, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to endure the endless monotony of the Towpath without them.

JFK himself once said, ““We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” On race day, the JFK 50 volunteers made a huge difference in every runner’s life.

With what can only be described as grudging acceptance, I forced myself up out of my new favorite chair, told Katie I’d see her at the finish and set out, motivated by my desire to reach the end of the C&O Canal Towpath as quickly as possible — which under the circumstances, would not be quick at all. But as I left the 38 Special in my rearview mirror, I missed what would soon earn its place among our most amusing Maryland moments.

Between crewing & spectating stops, Katie happened upon Antietam National Battlefield

Anticipating my needs and then some, Katie had met me at the 38 Special aid station carrying a duffel packed with gear and supplies. After we parted ways and still carrying the duffel, she tried to shortcut her way back to her car by scrambling down the embankment that separated the course from her vehicle, only to end up losing her balance and toppling in the mud. So even though I was the one who ran 11 miles on the slimy Appalachian Trail and another 26 on the slippy slidey Towpath, guess which of us ended up taking home more souvenir JFK 50 mud at the end of the day?

Katie’s clearly one tough mudder.

By this time, my brain was anticipating mile 42 with the same single-minded zeal it normally reserves for finish lines. And at long last my diligence was rewarded as I crossed the final muddy timing mat of the day to signal the end of the C&O Canal Towpath. But the Towpath wouldn’t have been the Towpath without one last swath of sticky mud to circumvent as if to say, “Thanks for coming, sorry you can’t stay.” If Mother Nature could talk, I’m guessing the Towpath would have a sardonic sense of humor.

And I was so over it.

“We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much, to disdain the future now.”
Tentatively I tested my legs on the reliably unyielding asphalt as a volunteer wrapped a reflective armband around my biceps, an indication sunset wasn’t that far away. Then, as if to remind us all that the world’s not flat, the course jagged immediately uphill for a slow ¾ mile before leveling out on its final approach toward Williamsport.

Staying to the left at all times while traffic zoomed by a safe distance to our right, the last eight miles led us for the most part along rolling country roads. And if not for my eagerness to be done, I would have genuinely savored the wide-open expanses of rustic Northern Maryland.

Mile 44, with nothing but open sky and open roads ahead

Few of my fellow runners seemed to be in a hurry, the exception being a swiftly moving woman who, after leapfrogging me a couple of times, passed one final time while telling me, “Don’t worry, you’ll catch me soon.” With that, she turned on the afterburners and disappeared into the distance. Needless to say, I didn’t see her again.

For the first time mile markers appeared along the side of the road, more slowly than I would have liked but reminiscent of Comrades in that these counted down the distance to go rather than counting up the distance already run. This was a nice touch and especially once we passed five miles to go.

Abbreviated stops at the final two aid stations gave my legs just enough oomph for one last push. The Saturday sounds of college football on the radio greeted us at the mile 45 aid station, where friendly volunteers chatted excitedly as a mediocre University of Maryland football team gave a highly ranked Ohio State squad all it could handle. And at the mile 48 aid station I stopped just long enough for a few quick knee lifts and to text Katie my location — I wanted her to know my timing, since I was hoping she’d opted to wait inside the warm school adjacent to the finish line.

Mile 50 of the JFK 50, aka The End

I knew I’d reached the home stretch when I crested East Sunset Ave and saw the widely spaced orange pylons lining the center of the road. With every step I focused all my energy on reaching the next pylon, the booming voice of the PA announcer guiding me home until finally the long-awaited black-and-red finish arch came into view. Throwing out my arms to hug the sky, I high-fived the welcoming spirits of our 35th president and his strong-willed brother as I stopped the clock on my own Kennedy March in an official time of 10:24:33.

As challenging as the past 10½ hours had been, I couldn’t imagine walking a mile — much less 50 — on the Appalachian Trail in RFK’s leather oxford dress shoes.

‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky (photo: H3 Photography)

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”
With gratitude beyond words I accepted my silver finisher’s medal and threw my arms around Katie for an extended embrace, before turning back to the finish to await our friend Meg’s arrival. Luckily we didn’t have long to wait as she crossed the line still looking strong in just seconds over her 10½ hour time goal, an impressive finish in her first 50-miler and especially given the conditions.

Then we all retreated to the Springfield Middle School cafeteria to warm up, change clothes and hopefully find something my stomach could digest. The setting sun reminded me that I’d just spent the entire day, sun up to sundown, running across Washington County.

Unlike previous 50-milers, this time I was able to find post-race comfort in sitting (progress!). And so I sat, for a long time letting the heat of the bustling cafeteria together with my own triumphant glow warm me. As a vegetarian the warmth was better than the post-race food, though dietary preferences aside the culinary options were well above average and included chili (served as a chili cheese dog or Sloppy Joe), pizza and — what else? — red velvet cake.

Meg and I compared notes and medals, the latter of which came in both gold and silver varieties. Not coincidentally, my own silver medal looks very much like a Kennedy half dollar.

Meeting 50 Stater Meg for the first time was a highlight… congrats and well done, Meg!

Jared Hazen of Flagstaff, Arizona had been the first runner across the finish line in a mind-boggling time of 5:34:21, the second-fastest time in the event’s 56-year history. And though I’m the first to admit I’m not an elite athlete, still it boggles my mind to think any human could have run that course nearly five hours faster than I had. To give you a better sense for the impact of the course conditions, I finished in 297th place overall, whereas the 297th place finisher one year earlier had clocked a time of 10:01:10, over 23 minutes speedier.

And in a stark example of ultrarunning’s cruel streak, the course’s most loyal supporter would ultimately become its most heartbreaking casualty. Kim Byron, 63, fell short in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. It’s safe to say we’ll all be rooting for Kim next year.

So in the end, I’d failed to eclipse my 50+ mile personal record set at the 56-mile Comrades Marathon five months earlier. Heck, never mind the PR — I hadn’t even broken ten hours. But on the bright side (because there’s always a bright side), I’d done enough nutrition-wise along the way to fuel me consistently throughout the race, without any of the issues I’d experienced at Comrades.

My real enemy on this day hadn’t been my stomach for a change, but rather my quads. Thanks to all the mud, the muscles in my upper legs felt like they’d just gone 12 rounds with a young Mike Tyson. And like so many other proud fighters who had, they’d thrown in the towel early — only this time their stubborn corner had refused to stop the fight.

My quads nearly seceded at the thought, until I realized this was in celebration of his 100th birthday in 2017

I came away from this race thinking four 50+ milers in 18 months was more than enough, and that maybe it was time to scale back a bit. Sure, conventional ultrarunning wisdom dictates that I take the next step up to 100K or even 100 miles, but I have no desire — I know I could persevere through 100 miles, but what’s the point? I’d much rather speed up again than slow down further, because I still believe it’s more difficult to run a fast marathon than a slow 100 miles. And I have no desire at this point to become an ultrahiker. I can see myself potentially stretching for 100K (and I have just the race in mind), but 100 miles ain’t happening anytime soon. Though if I’ve learned one thing in my running career, it’s that I should never say never.

The next morning we bid Hagerstown goodbye and hit the road for Bethesda to visit friends, having added a patriotic 24th chapter to my 50 States memoir. As a participant in what JFK once termed “the vigorous life,” I’d accepted one of our nation’s preeminent challenges and prevailed in conditions that would have made even Teddy Roosevelt and his Marines proud.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

BOTTOM LINE:
First held in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, the JFK 50 Mile is the country’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. It’s an iconic race that draws some of the country’s most elite runners, as well as folks like me. The event remains a military race at heart with its most prestigious award, the Kennedy Cup, being awarded to its top military team. Buoyed by 56 years of history, this is a must-run race for serious ultrarunners, one that inspires fierce loyalty among its finishers — case in point Kimball Byron, who sadly fell short this year in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. With limited elevation change after the first 16 miles, this is also a great option for anyone looking to tackle their first 50-miler.

The JFK 50 course is part road (paved), part trail (unpaved). About 80% of the course runs on the unpaved Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal Towpath, with the paved 20% coming at the beginning and end. The course is divided into three main sections, starting with the Appalachian Trail (~11 of the first 16 miles) and moving on to the unpaved/crushed gravel C&O Canal Towpath (26 miles) before finishing on paved, rolling country roads (8 miles). The good news is you’ll get through the toughest section of the course (i.e. the Appalachian Trail) at the beginning; the bad news is that the hills and highly technical terrain will sap a lot of the energy and bounce from your legs. This was especially true in 2018, when record annual rainfall and eight inches of snow less than 36 hours earlier created trail conditions that were, according to one 31-time finisher, “the worst ever.” So my recommendation would be to prepare for the worst and then be pleasantly surprised if/when you luck into dry (or at least not marshy) trail conditions.

Despite having four 50+ milers under my belt, this was the first race where I can recall feeling bored for long stretches, particularly on the flat 26-mile C&O Canal Towpath along the Potomac River where the scenery never changed. As one RaceRaves reviewer put it, it was like the running version of Groundhog’s Day. With no hills, no change of scenery and no headphones allowed on the course, I spent much of the middle 26 miles in my own head trying to focus on something other than my heavy quads and mounting fatigue, while slowly ticking off the miles one… at… a… time. If not for having to negotiate frequent mud puddles, I could have run this entire stretch on autopilot.

So although I’d be curious to take another crack at this course under drier conditions, given that we live 2,500 miles away and I still have 26 states remaining, I won’t be returning for a rematch anytime soon. Someday, maybe…

Inspiration is a tough-as-nails 14-year-old in the fight of his life against an insidious disease (and yes, Tyler lives in Idaho)

PRODUCTION:
Race day was a smooth production for the most part. Aid stations were well stocked (which for me means peanut butter & jelly along with bananas), though I could feel my insulin levels spike just surveying the amount of cookies and sugary foods available. And the outstanding volunteers were ready to assist with pretty much anything you’d want or need, from food to Vaseline to good old-fashioned encouragement. As is the case with most events and especially the best ones, the JFK 50 doesn’t happen without the tireless support of its volunteers who sacrifice their day so the rest of us can chase our goals and play in the mud.

Conveniently held at the host hotel (the Homewood Suites by Hilton Hagerstown), the race expo was your typical low-key ultramarathon packet pickup with tables from Altra Running (the presenting sponsor), a local running store and the JFK 50 folks themselves selling race merch past and present. The organizers even created a cool booklet featuring statistics from past JFK 50 finishers and course record holders plus a detailed rundown of historical sites along the course, very few of which you’ll be able to appreciate on race day.

We even managed a post-race visit to the National Portrait Gallery

The post-race spread in the Springfield Middle School cafeteria was low-key but fairly generous including pizza, chili (Sloppy Joe or chili cheese dog, anyone?) and assorted aid station snacks such as pretzels, M&Ms and red velvet cake. Massages were also available for those who were willing to freshen up first. Most importantly for me, the indoor cafeteria offered a warm place to sit and recover while reveling in the accomplishment of another 50-mile run.

I’d recommend to the organizers that the pre-race briefing begin (or end) five minutes earlier, to allow for last-minute porta-potty stops before the race start. By the time I exited the crowded gym after the briefing, took care of business and then walked briskly to the start line, the starter’s pistol had already fired and I was among the last runners to start. Not a terrible thing except the JFK 50 has no chip timing at the start, so the clock started while I was still ¼ mile behind the line in my wind pants and jacket. Oops.

SWAG:
From what I can tell, the JFK 50 finisher medal never changes aside from the year because similar to Comrades, why fix what ain’t broke? The iconic award is a silver- (or gold)-colored medal depicting JFK in profile, reminiscent of (but larger than) the half dollar coin that bears his likeness. The medal hangs from a patriotic red, white and blue ribbon. Like many trail races, the shirt is a simple cotton short-sleeve tee featuring the race’s patriotic logo on front with sponsors listed on back. And though I have no shortage of race tees, I’ll happily wear this one if for no other reason than its promise as a conversation starter.

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating: 

FINAL STATS:
Nov 17, 2018 (start time 6:30 am, sunrise 6:57 am)
50.94 miles (includes ~0.2 miles extra due to starting behind start line) from Boonsboro to Williamsport, MD (state 24 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 10:24:33 (first time running the JFK 50), 12:14/mile
Moving time & pace: 10:07:55, 11:56/mile
Finish place: 297 overall, 82/208 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 762 (591 men, 171 women); 868 starters (663 men, 205 women)
Race weather: cold (39°F) & partly cloud at the start & finish, overcast throughout the race
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,862 ft gain, 2,953 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 239 ft, 1,749 ft

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Des Moines Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

Iowa State Capitol at sunset

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

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

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

Downtown skyline seen in Mile 1 of Des Moines Marathon

Downtown skyline seen across the Des Moines River, mile 1

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

Des Moines Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

Polk County Courthouse

Polk County Courthouse

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

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

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

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

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

Des Moines Marathon course elevation profile

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

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

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

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

Drake Stadium in mile 12 of the Des Moines Marathon

Drake Stadium, mile 12

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

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

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

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

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

The Drake campus flaunts its flamboyant fall foliage, mile 13

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

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

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

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

Finally! a spectator sign that nails the marathon mindset

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

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

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

Crossing the Raccoon River, mile 18

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

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

Mile 20 banner at the Des Moines Marathon

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

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

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

View of Des Moines skyline across Gray's Lake

View across Gray’s Lake, mile 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes we can! (and yes we did)

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Sam Adams recovery drink at Des Moines Marathon

Sam Adams: the founding father of post-race recovery

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

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

Scenes from the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines Iowa

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho Des Moines Marathon finish line selfie

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

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

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

Attending Game One of World Series at Fenway Park

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

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

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

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

I-35 Challenge medals

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

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map on RaceRaves

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with I-35 Challenge banner

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

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

Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t be disappointed.

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

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

National World War I Museum and Memorial by day

The National World War I Museum and Memorial by day…

… and at sunset

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

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

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

Kansas City Marathon start corrals

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

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

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

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

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

Western Auto sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 20 of Kansas City Marathon

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

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

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

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

Approaching Mill Creek Park, mile 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One down, one to go.

Kansas City Marathon finish line

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

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

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

KC Royals mascot and local celebrity Slugger

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

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

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

Iowa welcome sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Kansas City Marathon medal by Union Station

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

Updated 50 States Map:

RaceRaves rating:

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