Posts Tagged ‘50 States’

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

Gallopalooza — the horses of Louisville

Gallopalooza — a celebration of Louisville artistry & community

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

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

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

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

Then The Greatest died.

Muhammad Ali career record sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad Ali tribute collage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad Ali tribute collage2

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

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

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

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

The road to Hatfield McCoy Marathon in South Williamson

The road to South Williamson

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

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

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

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mile 1 fog at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The morning fog watches over its domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hill at mile 8 - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy Mini-dwarf horses at mile 10 of Marathon

Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses (mile 10)

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing into West Virginia at Hatfield McCoy Marathon halfway point

Crossing the West Virginia border at the halfway point

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

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

Loose gravel trail at the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, mile 18

The course transitions to loose gravel in mile 18

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

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

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

Wooden foot bridge_mile 19 of Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey approaching mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Approaching…

Departing mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

… and departing the mile 20 aid station

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy Marathon elevation profile

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

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

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

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

The mile 24 hill looms ahead - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The mile 24 hill looms ahead

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving Hatfield & McCoy at finish

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line

Happy to mediate a finish-line truce

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

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

It was Kentucky that won by a knockout.

Sunset outside Lexington, Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if @hotmail.com political train wrecks?

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

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy splits

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Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.
– Sunny Blende, M.S., Sports Nutritionist

Start-line-selfie

Let’s call this one Giddy Anticipation

(An abridged version of this post was published on Ultrarunning.com)

The final a cappella tones of the National Anthem drifted away on the chill morning breeze, and like that we were fully exposed. Not just to the frigid temperatures, but to the epic challenge ahead of us. Dan and Otter’s pent-up energy crackled on either side of me, my lowfat frame shivering between them in its bid to stay warm. Curiously my full-body shiver response was most vigorous in my posterior, as though the spirit of Beyoncé had suddenly occupied Château Caucasia.

I tried to savor the moment, focusing on the fact this would be far more than a novel challenge at a longer distance. Over the next 12 hours I’d be attempting to run 50 miles—19 more than I’d ever run in one day, and roughly the same mileage I’d been totaling on a weekly basis for the past several months. And yet I felt an extraordinary and almost unsettling sense of calm—was mine the blissful ignorance of a turkey accepting an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner?

Shivering backside notwithstanding, the weather in Kettle Moraine State Forest would be perfect for the task at hand: cloudy skies to minimize the sun’s influence; cooler temps to prevent overheating, not to mention deter bugs (including ticks!) & allergens; and light intermittent rains in the days leading up to the race, which ensured we’d be running on cushiony trails free of dust. If the weather gods had instructed me to “Take as much time as you need,” I couldn’t have designed more ideal conditions.

All that said, my brain kept circling back to the same question: Was I ready to run 50 miles? The answer was as clear as the patchy mud all around us:

I have no idea.

Wisconsin flg

Dan & Otter had arrived in Kettle Moraine—Dan with his father-in-law Steve, Otter with his girlfriend Lisa—in search of redemption. Dan had dropped at mile 39.3 of the North Country 50-Mile Run three years earlier, the victim of ill-timed patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), while Otter had dropped at mile 43.3 of last year’s Ice Age 50 due to time-limit concerns. For each of them, revenge would be a dish best served cold—and cloudy, and windy. So we all had something to prove.

Before we’d even crossed the Wisconsin border, our best-laid plans had nearly gone astray. In a classic case of not AGAIN, Dan had experienced a flareup in his left knee ahead of last month’s Silurian Springs 25K, dropping from the 50K to the 25K as a result. He’d finished the 25K strong, but had since been babying the knee in preparation for Ice Age—meaning his training regimen over the past month had been limited. For his part, Otter was recovering from a nasty cold that still sent him into the occasional coughing fit. Of all the recreational options you might choose on a weakened immune system, an ultramarathon wouldn’t be high on that list.

Me, I’d be the healthiest among us, coming off back-to-back marathons six days apart in Boston & Big Sur. If anything, my concern was OVERtraining, and a resulting lack of energy similar to what had flummoxed in Boston. But having curtailed my training significantly in the three weeks since Big Sur, I was eager to find out how well my body had recovered from two beatings on concrete in close succession. Unfortunately, with all my training focused on road marathons in Boston and Big Sur, my trail time in recent months had been minimal. And in fact, by crossing the finish line at Ice Age I would have tripled the mileage on my trail shoes. So this would definitely be a trial (or trail) by fire.

Runners&Crew_start

All for one, and one for all! (L-R: Dan, Steve, me, Katie, Otter, Lisa) (photo: Dan Solera)

During our group carbo-loading session the night before, Dan and I had admitted to the same ambitious goal. Whereas “Just finish (in under 12 hours)” was our overall goal for the day, we’d set our best-case scenario at under 10 hours. Because if you’re going to run the race, you may as well aim high. At an average pace of 12:00/mile I knew we could do it—if everything went smoothly and according to plan {cue mad scientist laugh}.

By definition it would be a long day of running and—based on every first-timer story I’d ever read or heard—an inevitable sufferfest. Anticipating that, I’d divided the race mentally into a series of five 10-milers. Here’s how I expected the day to unfold:

Miles 1-10: Start strong, feel great to be running through the forest with friends

Miles 11-20: Settle in, maintain a comfortable pace, ensure all systems are go

Miles 21-30: The struggle officially begins as I pass the marathon mark and approach my longest-ever distance (50K)

Miles 31-40: Fatigue sets in, legs tighten and focus dwindles; if my nutrition isn’t dialed in, the wheels could come off in a hurry

Miles 41-50: Hang on for dear life, channel my inner Dean Karnazes (“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”), do whatever it takes to reach the finish line in under 12 hours.

As it turns out, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Ultrafood

The plan was to sleep like a baby before the race & eat like one during it

Miles 1–10 (Green means GO)
As the National Anthem faded, race director Jeff Mallach wasted no time sending us on our way with a flurry of cheers from both runners & spectators. The three of us immediately set about debating whether, with a 6:04am start time, the cutoff would be 12 hours later or 6:00pm sharp. The unspoken hope was that none of us would need to care.

I’d agreed with Dan & Otter’s plan to stay together for the first 9-mile loop, to ensure we kept each other in check while maintaining a smart & steady pace. The wide & welcoming Nordic Trail was trail running at its finest, with rain-softened dirt and grasses cushioning every step amid radiant surroundings, as though the entire forest had recently been treated to a fresh coat of green paint. I could see how, in late autumn before the first snowfall, our route might resemble a scene from “The Blair Witch Project,” with skeletal trees and naked dirt casting a dull, uniform brown over the entire scene. Now though, with the flush of spring fresh on its cheeks, coupled with the recent rains, Kettle Moraine could easily have passed for the Pacific Northwest.

Cruising though the conifers we conversed easily, sharing stories and enjoying this day we’d planned for a year, seemingly oblivious to the 40+ more miles we still had to run. This steady stream of conversation also ensured we were never working hard enough to get out of breath. We took turns running in pairs on the wide doubletrack, occasionally emerging from the forest into a wind-exposed meadow before being swallowed again by the soaring canopy of towering evergreens and more modest hardwoods.

At one point, curious about the plant life lining the trail I pointed down and asked “Any idea what this is?”—to which I got simultaneous reponses of “grass” (from Otter) and “dirt” (from Dan). Ask a silly question…

Dan-&-Otter_Nordic-Trail

Dan & Otter set the pace on the Nordic Trail

On every incline, even those of moderate ascent, we’d slow to a hike to stay within our aerobic (fat-burning) zone. And here I was lucky to be running with two ultra vets, since this strategy flew in the face of my training & programming. I’ve always conditioned myself to run uphill until either I’m out of breath or I can’t lift my quads—basically run ‘til I can’t run, then hike ‘til I can run again. This was another reason Otter had smartly recommended we run together—he knew the temptation to attack those early hills would be strong. And he knew energy saved now would prevent an ugly bonk later.

Before I knew it we’d come full circle and reached the start line aid station (mile 9), where Katie, Lisa & Steve—on this day the Most Valuable Crew—waited. Glancing over my dining options, I grabbed one quarter of a PB&J and a cup of the original sports drink, Mountain Dew. It had been years—check that, decades—since I’d tasted Mountain Dew, and on this day we’d be reunited like old friends.

Given we were running ~10 minutes ahead of Otter’s projected time, Steve looked at me with clear trepidation in his eyes and made a gentle “take it easy” gesture with his hands. “You guys are pacing this really well” he said diplomatically, which I understood to mean “I know you feel great now, but you have a long way to go—don’t do anything stupid and flame out early.” Feeling a swell of appreciation, I assured him we’d been running comfortably and hiking the uphills. And I knew Dan would be in very capable hands for the next 41 miles.

Not wanting to waste time at this first stop, I exchanged “See you soon”s with Katie and pushed on ahead of Dan & Otter, our tacit agreement being that after the first 9 miles we’d run at our own pace.

Otter&me_mile9

(photo: Bill Flaws, Running in the USA)

I seldom use aid stations for anything more than the occasional cup of water, since I don’t sweat much and prefer to carry (and trust) my own nutrition. But knowing I’d need them early & often at Ice Age, I’d resolved to get in & out of each one as fast as possible. Otter had made another valid point here: assuming 15 aid station stops at 4 minutes per (not a long time when you’re hungry, stiff & tired), you’ve already sacrificed an entire hour of your race to the aid station gods. So get in, get what you need and get out.

To keep my hands free (in case of a fall) I’d ruled against carrying a bottle in favor of my hydration pack, which I filled with a liter of Skratch Labs drink mix (water + electrolytes) along with pouches of puréed (i.e. baby) food and packets of GU. I wanted my go-to nutrition to be as easily digestible and stomach-friendly as possible, supplemented by aid station bananas and PB&J. Nom nom.

I’m not the superstitious sort, but I do subscribe to the theory that the more you pack, the less you’ll need. For that reason I’d packed enough wardrobe options to make Katy Perry jealous. Katie had several potential changes of clothes & shoes ready to go, in case anything rubbed, chafed, or blistered. And I’d brought hiking poles in the event any of us needed extra support late in the race. I also carried bandaids, baby wipes for ‘tween-aid-station emergencies and a 5-Hour Energy for a shot of caffeine late in the race. Plus, I’d be carrying my iPhone in my Spibelt for picture-taking purposes. Boy Scouts ain’t got nothin’ on me!

One ten-mile race down, four to go.

Back to the start_mile9

Full circle: Dan leads the way back through the start line at mile 9

Miles 11–20 (Settling in on the singletrack)
Quickly I reached Confusion Corner at mile 11, which on this day was most notable for its lack of confusion. There, a helpful volunteer directed everyone onto the Ice Age Trail for the out-and-back to Rice Lake. In fact, the entire course was free of confusion and impeccably marked, with yellow flags denoting the 50-mile route and orange flags the 50K. Even with my notoriously faulty sense of direction, I was never in danger of taking a wrong turn.

Here on the beautifully groomed singletrack of the Ice Age Trail, a game of leapfrog developed which would hold for the next 20 miles. At each aid station I’d fuel up quickly and leave ahead of Dan, who would soon overtake & pass me with a whoop of warning or—in one case—the theme from “Jaws”. He’d dance by and gradually extend his lead with long fluid strides… then we’d hit a descent and he’d gracefully airwalk downhill as if it were a treadmill, while I tediously picked my way over rocks & roots or down wooden-framed steps, careful not to treat those around me to my first face-plant of the day.

Ice-Age_miles-11-32

Scenes from the Ice Age Trail, Section 2 (miles 11-32)

At one point Dan turned a corner 30 feet ahead of me, and by the time I reached the same spot he was already down a hill and out of sight around the next bend, like a will-o’-the-wisp in running shoes. As much as I wanted to chase him down, though, I focused instead on maintaining a steady, comfortable pace, reminding myself to keep my eyes on the prize—the finish line was still a long way off.

Besides, Dan & Otter had a bit of a home-field advantage here, having made the two-hour drive from their hometown Chicago several times in recent months to train on these trails. So far though, I had to admit—I was thoroughly enjoying my own personal introduction to Kettle Moraine.

Lisa & Otter_mile13

Lisa & Otter review their strategery, mile 13.1

Aid station stops became models of efficiency. Katie and Lisa would cheer us in as we approached, Lisa bundled in a hooded green winter jacket that had scantily clad runners telling her she looked cold. Katie, nestled deep within her own poofy jacket, would greet me each time with the agreed-upon “What do you need?” She’d hand me a pouch of puréed food, which I’d down along with ¼ PB&J, two bites of banana, a cup of Mountain Dew and a few sips of water before heading out again. Easy peasy, baby food squeezy.

Both the men’s and women’s leaders flew by us along this stretch, headed back toward Confusion Corner well ahead of their pursuers. Lead woman Larisa Dannis (7:05:56) glided past us, moving purposefully and looking sharp in her INKnBURN gear. I too had donned INKnBURN shorts for the race, mainly for practical reasons since they’re the most comfortable running shorts I own. Unfortunately, any similarity between our running styles ended there.

Two ten-mile races down, three to go.

Uphill caravan

Uphill caravan, mile 15 (photo: Dan Solera)

Miles 21–30 (Waiting for The Wall)
I rolled into the turnaround at Rice Lake (mile 21.7) feeling strong and silently lauding the cool weather—on a warmer day, this course could have been much less hospitable, with the reeds around Rice Lake providing a haven for swarming gnats and hungry no-see-ums. Again I hastened through my aid station routine, doing a few leg lifts this time to keep my hip flexors loose. Dan had a similar idea, holding Steve’s hands as he leaned back in an upright sitting position to stretch both quads & hamstrings. I fueled up, gulped down my obligatory shot of Mountain Dew and continued back the way I’d come.

Rice Lake_mile 22

Rice Lake, mile 22

At each aid station I marveled at the selflessness of the volunteers, incredible people who were donating pretty much an entire day of their lives to stand out in the cold for us, to restock food for us, to pour drinks for us, and to ensure that each & every runner who passed through their aid station had exactly what they needed. “You’re doing all the hard work!” they’d respond modestly when I thanked them. I wish I’d had the time & wits to stop and chat with every volunteer, since some have been doing this for over 20 years. I say it in pretty much every race recap, and it rang especially true at Ice Age—volunteers they make the running world go ‘round.

At every mile I mutely celebrated the satisfying beep of my Garmin and immediately looked forward to the next, appreciating life as an endorphin junkie. Dan and I were now running alone in the damp woods, trading the occasional snippet of conversation but otherwise focused on the task at hand. These moments of easy comradery were among the highlights of the day, and I wouldn’t have traded them for a course record.

As we passed the 25-mile mark, I pointed out optimistically that we’d now be counting down mileage to the finish. And I understood Dan’s reluctance to count unhatched chickens—while mile 25 may be the physical midway point of the course, we both knew the next 25 miles would feel much longer than the first 25. Nonetheless the thought of counting down miles with less than a marathon to go provided a nice psychological pick-me-up. And I was quick to seize on any available edge, real or perceived.

Tree-tunnel_mile24_BCH

Rain—no wait, are those sleet pellets?—began to fall lightly at the marathon (mile 26.2) mark, so gentle and transient as to be nothing more than an amusing distraction. A brisk, chilling breeze periodically flexed its muscles as we traversed open meadows or paused at exposed aid stations, but at no time did I ever feel too warm or too cold. All day long I was the Goldilocks of ultramarathoners, my body temperature juuuuust right.

As I neared the aid station at mile 30.2, I felt my core and upper quads starting to tighten noticeably and thought Uh oh, here we go. In response, I added leg lifts & leg swings to my aid station routine, setting Katie’s expectations that it would take me longer to cover miles 30–40 (to reach our next rendezvous point at mile 40.2) than it had the previous 10 miles. Her expression never deviated from calm and reassuring, confirming I still looked as good as I felt. So much so that I decided not to grab my headphones, since the idea of distracting from the awesomeness around me with a playlist or podcast felt counterproductive. If anything I wanted to be more in tune with my body and my surroundings, not less. So far, so good.

Three ten-mile races down, two to go.

Dan_mile30

“I know I left those legs around here somewhere…”

Miles 31–40 (Where no Mike has gone before)
Again I left the aid station ahead of Dan, who was likewise looking strong & poised for the final 20 miles. Given that crew members would be unable to access aid stations for the next 10 miles, this stretch promised to feel like the longest yet.

Reaching the 50K (mile 31.1) mark, I recognized the occasion by pausing for a “longest run ever” selfie. Also along this stretch I paused for the first and only time to relieve myself. Unfortunately, despite the 56,000 acres of dirt-, grass- and pine needle-carpeted forest surrounding me on all sides, in my preoccupation to shield myself from oncoming runners I somehow managed to empty my bladder directly on my shoetop. And all I could do was laugh at my own sad ineptitude. Watch that sock get wet now & cause blisters, I thought, wiggling my toes and shaking my foot like a wet dog before forging ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at 50K of Ice Age Trail 50

“Longest run ever” selfie at 50K, still with two dry feet

If I were to voice one—complaint is too strong a word—reservation about Ice Age, it would be the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, particularly when the leaders would fly by like methed-up gazelles. Two-way traffic is admittedly unavoidable, and the vast majority of runners handled it with grace and aplomb, recognizing for example that downhill runners have the right-of-way. That said, the occasional miscreant would come barreling down the middle of the singletrack trail with their head down like a charging rhino, forcing anyone in their path to hop off the trail or distort their tired body to avoid a nasty head-on collision. Trail runners are typically easy-going folks and these instances were rare, but even once was too much at a race like Ice Age, where sharing the trail is the only way everyone can achieve the same ambitious goal.

Despite the two-way traffic, throughout the day I enjoyed several miles of what I love most about trails—no traffic, no red lights, no dogs barking from behind chain-link fences, just running alone in a quiet, beautiful place. Ever the voice of experience, Otter had recommended we each adopt a mantra for when the going got tough. I’d jokingly channeled my inner gladiator and suggested “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” But at the moment it fit perfectly… because I really was.

Ice-Age-buckles

24 years of Ice Age glory on display

At some point light snowflakes fluttered around me, dissipating as quickly as the sleet. Then the sun broke through the clouds, providing a brief respite of warmth before again retreating, this time for good. It was as though the god of weather had entrusted the day to his young and inexperienced protégé.

But where was Dan? Here the aid stations were spaced 3 and 4 miles apart, and each one I departed without seeing him enter. He hadn’t been far behind me at mile 30.2, and I felt a twinge of concern that his knee might be acting up. Vanquishing it immediately, I assured myself he was fine and probably just battling the same heavy-leggedness I’d felt at mile 30 (which, amazingly, had dissipated as quickly as the sleet and snow). And I was confident Otter would be having an excellent adventure of his own.

As I reached the Horserider’s aid station at mile 37, my Garmin chirped a warning and displayed a “LOW BATTERY” message. Shite. Quickly I flipped the display from my real-time stats to time-of-day only, hoping to conserve as much battery life as possible. I hadn’t glanced at my wrist all day, appreciating my Garmin only for its regular mile updates. Sure I’d assumed my battery wouldn’t survive the entire 12 hours, but this was even earlier than anticipated.

Dan_mile21

Sometimes you see the camera before it sees you (Rice Lake, mile 21.7)

The hills kept coming. Otter had warned us that this third section of the course, the 18-mile out-and-back to the Emma Carlin aid station, would be “objectively the hilliest… both in terms of the number of hills, as well as the overall elevation gain”. This included one of the toughest climbs of the course in Bald Bluff at mile 35. And yet the hills never felt interminable, nor were any as severe as the ones I frequent in California. My memory may be deceiving me here, but each hill seemed to be followed by a stretch of highly runnable terrain.

I continued to stay within my aerobic zone, power-hiking the steeper hills—always with hands on quads, for better stability and more power—while running the gentler ones. The frequency of my uphill running increased with each passing mile. And in fact I felt more comfortable running the uphills, since the most challenging part of these later miles was restarting from a standstill each time I crested a hill or left an aid station. Once I’d get the legs cranking again, though, it was all good.

During an ultra, “It’s not so much if you’re going to have stomach problems, it’s when you’re going to have stomach problems, and what you’re going to do about it,” says sports nutritionist and ultramarathoner Sunny Blende. That said, my stomach defied convention all day long by behaving like a baby asleep in the back seat of a car. Sure, by mile 37 the PB&J sandwiches were getting a bit stale and increasingly difficult to swallow. But my stomach never faltered, a fact I attribute to 1) the weather, 2) Otter’s advice to eat early & often, and 3) my reliance on real food, puréed and otherwise, rather than lab-synthesized maltodextrin and Soylent Green.

Baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… Welcome to the machine, I thought wryly.

Sentry Steve_mile26

Steve plays sentry at mile 17.3

Several times I lost focus and scuffed my toe on a rogue rock or root, lurching forward but regaining my balance in time to prevent a fall. Until finally it happened — just before the mile 40 turnaround, I lifted my right foot one inch to clear a two-inch high rock and tumbled forward in a flying somersault tuck with a half-twist, landing softly in the green foliage beside the trail. Alone and unfazed, I hopped up and continued on my way, relieved that I’d finally put that inevitable episode behind me. I’m used to face-planting on dusty rocky SoCal trails, so falling in Kettle Moraine was like landing on unicorn feathers.

I saw Katie, Lisa & Steve for the ninth and final time at the Emma Carlin aid station (mile 40.2). His brow furrowed, Steve signaled at me to ask whether I’d seen Dan. I gestured back that I hadn’t. Approaching the food table I admitted to the volunteers, “I thought Emma Carlin was the stuff of legend, I can’t believe I’m actually here”. They assured me they were real and that I was still standing. They also informed me the bar was open, and I glanced back to see a table stocked with Samuel Adams and sporting a “Flatlander Ultrarunners” sign. Who in their right mind, at mile 40 of an ultramarathon…? I thought. Clearly I wasn’t thinking straight or I would’ve known the answer…

I knew better than to sit down, not that I felt like it. Aid station fatigue was setting in, but as tired as I was of eating PB&J and drinking Mountain Dew, 10 more miles felt like nothing, and I almost felt like I could reach out and touch the finish line. My nutrition was dialed in and my body felt good—time to buckle down (pun intended) and get this done. I gave Katie a peck on the forehead and told her I’d see her at the finish.

Four ten-mile races down, one to go.

RunHappy

It was a #LiveLong and #RunHappy kind of day in Kettle Moraine

Miles 41­­–50 (DNF = Do Nothing Fatal)
The main benefit of the out-and-back course layout was that roughly five minutes after leaving Emma Carlin, I passed Dan coming the other way. I felt a shot of adrenaline on seeing him, as he looked to be in high spirits and trained his camera on me as I approached. And that was the definitive moment I realized Damn, we are all going to finish this thing.

Fifteen minutes later I passed Otter, pulsing with characteristic energy and a manic look in his eyes. I blurted out encouragement in passing, his response reaching my ears Doppler-style as he never broke stride: “YOU BETTER GET GOING, ‘CUZ I’M GOING TO CATCH YOU!” Absurd as his words sounded, his voice was so strong and so full of conviction that for one brief moment it crossed my mind, He may actually mean it.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing—and I missed it. Otter rolled into Emma Carlin and took the Flatlanders up on their offer to do a beer bong. At mile 40 of a 50-miler. In his defense, he did choose a light beer—and I can’t help but think this was a symbolic middle finger to his 2015 Ice Age effort, which ended prematurely at mile 43.3.

Otter_beer bong_mile40

Otter demonstrates proper mile 40 beer bong technique as the paparazzi look on in awe

When I heard about Otter’s Emma Carlin moment I felt amused sympathy for Lisa, who as his crew had gamely shouldered the responsibility for ensuring he had everything he needed when he needed it—food, water, ibuprofen, salt tablets, etc. So I could only imagine how she must have felt on seeing him sidle up to the Flatlanders’ dehydration station. On the most pleasant day, hers (and Katie’s and Steve’s) could easily be construed as a thankless job. On this day, though, with temperatures peaking in the 40s and aid stations exposed to a bone-chilling wind, the job of crew member verged on cruel & unusual. Luckily Lisa’s Michigan constitution and sense of humor shined through when she needed them most.

With one final chirp of surrender, my Garmin bid the day farewell just short of mile 41. For the final 9 miles I’d be on my own, without the addictive beep of each mile marker to count on.

For most runners, the scarlet letters “DNF” mean “Did Not Finish”, but ultrarunners like to joke that they stand for “Did Nothing Fatal”. And that was my goal over those final 10 miles. I’d come too far to lose focus now—one errant step or ill-timed face-plant could negate the past 8+ hours of effort, particularly on the downhills where my stiffening legs had lost much of their earlier flexibility.

Katie&Me_mile40

Nothin’ but happy at mile 40.2

Steve had witnessed just such a game-changer firsthand at mile 30. He’d helped a fellow who’d fallen on the trail and sustained a nasty cut beside his left eye, a cut requiring medical attention that ended his own race not with a bang but a whimper.

Under the verdant canopy my eyes remained glued to the damp ground, dancing over rocks and roots, triangulating my next step before darting ahead to map out my next three. I took what the trail gave, never forcing the issue—each step as long or as short, as lithe or as deliberate as the capricious terrain dictated.

And I pondered the question: How was this happening? Other than predictable fatigue my feet, legs and body felt strong. Where were the cramps? Where were the heaves? Not even a blister to provide some discomfort drama over these last few miles. With my past 1½ years of training being dominated by Boston, I’d forgotten just how much I missed trail running.

Bald Bluff (Dan)

One section of Bald Bluff, the toughest climb on the course (photo: Dan Solera)

With a dead Garmin and a refusal to glance at my iPhone, I had no idea how much time had elapsed or what my pace was. Was a 10-hour finish still reasonable? I told myself Dan would be charging up from behind at any second, dancing by me and disappearing down the next hill out of sight. So I needed to bear down and maintain my pace—now was not the time to give in to fatigue. Run those flats! Hike those hills! Don’t let off the throttle!

The gentle crunch of my footfalls, the measured timbre of my breathing and the hypnotic swish of liquid in my hydration pack were the only sounds audible in the dormant forest.

At the mile 43.3 aid station, I deviated from my routine ever so slightly for an experiment, popping a salt tablet in my mouth before heading out again. I wasn’t sweating heavily and I didn’t feel low on salt; nonetheless I figured I’d give it a shot to see if it made a difference. As my tongue recoiled from the pungent grains I realized NOPE, salt wasn’t what I needed, and spat the capsule into the bushes. Lesson learned.

Approaching the penultimate aid station at mile 47.6, it struck me that I’d effectively whittled the challenge of the day down to the Ice Age 5K. Someone had posted a handwritten sign that read “IF YOU START TO FEEL GOOD DURING AN ULTRA, DON’T WORRY, YOU WILL GET OVER IT”—and I marveled again that so much conventional ultrarunning wisdom had gone out the window here in Kettle Moraine. I gulped down one last cup of Mountain Dew and pushed ahead, blowing past the final aid station 0.9 miles later with a nod of appreciation. “1½ miles to go!” the volunteer confirmed as I passed.

Home stretch_mile50

Still looking Instagram-purty after 50 miles

Like an audio tour of the course, Otter’s voice in my head shepherded me toward the finish. “Remember this hill,” he’d said as we’d tackled our first descent on fresh legs. “On your way back this will be your last uphill before the finish.” Then that hill was behind me, and I wanted to hug the bundled-up couple who informed me I had a quarter mile to go. Oh, what a feeling.

A wave of awestruck pride washed over me on spying the lime green FINISH banner directly ahead. I high-fived Steve, then Katie, and then I spotted it—the official timer clock perched next to the finish line, dispassionately reducing the blood, sweat & tears of each finisher to six unique digits. Mine were 09:54:30.

I’d broken 10 hours.

Holy SHIT.

Finish time

A mammoth accomplishment
Gratefully I accepted my first-ever finisher buckle—embossed with woolly mammoth mascot—then wrapped a beaming Katie in a huge embrace that was 50 miles & 10 hours in the making. Quickly I changed into warm dry clothes before staking out a spot at the finish to wait for Dan. He emerged from the woods a short time later, arms raised triumphantly in understated celebration. An animated Otter followed 50 minutes later, spiking his water bottle just short of the finish line before flying across, wings up. As he rode his adrenaline high into the finish area where Lisa awaited, I heard someone nearby tell their friends, “That was the fellow who did the beer bong.” And with that, Otter forever became a cult hero among the Ice Age faithful.

Runners & crew reunited in the finish area, where we piled our plates high with food and giddily relived the past 11+ hours. Only after wrapping myself in two blankets (kindly provided by Lisa) did I stop shivering, an unfortunate side effect of having run for 10 hours in cold weather with very little body fat. As the official clock neared the 12-hour time limit, we creakily stood to cheer the final few finishers across the line, one of whom generated some last-minute drama by face-planting less than 100 feet from the finish.

Whereas in Boston I wished I could bottle the experience, at Ice Age I wished I could bottle both the experience and my performance. I’m not sure I could run a more steady race than this one. It was as though I’d come to Kettle Moraine expecting to have to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, only to find on race day that all six sides were the same color.

9xbpxu9rpmfi4

Otter channels his inner Rob Gronkowski

I want to say I endured tremendous suffering, and experienced epiphanic moments of clarity that come with taxing the human body to its limits. But I didn’t. I want to say this was my toughest running challenge yet. But it wasn’t—that title still goes to the 2012 Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, where a freak heat wave taught me the true definition of endurance. And I want to say I left it all out on the lush trails of Kettle Moraine, emptying the tank and giving all I had to give. But I can’t—and in fact, less than 48 hours after Ice Age my legs felt as though I’d actually taken the weekend off. Empirically speaking, 10 slower hours on soft dirt is much more forgiving than 3½ faster hours on concrete.

Ice Age was a confluence of many factors that added up to an awesome race— among them an inspiring course, perfect weather and (maybe more anything) unmatched comradery. It certainly helped that one of those comrades was an eager fount of ultrawisdom, since Otter’s pre-race advice & enthusiasm—beginning months in advance—played a key role in my arriving at the Nordic Trailhead feeling relaxed and ready. As Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” On Saturday, the three of us knew what the hell we were doing.

Jeff&Me_postrace

Race Director Jeff Mallach (no thanks to my iPhone lens, which fogged over in the cold)

But as important as redemption was for both of my companions, I can’t help believing that Otter’s triumph carried with it more personal meaning. Otter lost his father just a month before Ice Age, and though I never met David Otto, the legacy of the father shines brightly in the warm, empathetic and incredibly funny man his son has become. I’m guessing the chance to process the emotional whirlwind of the previous month on his own terms, in the welcoming woods of southern Wisconsin, was as powerful and cathartic a motivator as any finisher buckle or quest for redemption could ever be.

The three of us left Wisconsin—state #12 on my 50 states journey—with nothing left to prove. So then what’s next? At 43 states and counting, closing out his own 50 states tour remains Dan’s priority, having put that goal on hiatus to train for Berlin last year and Ice Age so far this year. Otter has yet to settle on his next big challenge, but if I were a betting man I’d lay good money on a 100K, 100-miler or—who knows?—maybe even a multi-stage Desert Challenge in his future.

Lisa & Otter celebrate

50 miles later, I’m not sure that’s where Lisa’s nose wants to be

Me, I’m still on an Ice Age high as I write this over a week later. That said, I’m already looking toward the next challenge and have two other 50+ milers in mind, including a 56-miler in South Africa that’s calling my name. But not immediately. And next time I’ll be under no delusion, knowing I’ll face considerably more resistance than I did in Kettle Moraine. But for now I need time to process the experience, to let the reality of our group accomplishment sink in and to revel in it. Otherwise what’s the point? If this were a high school yearbook, I might say Ice Age was 2 good 2 be 4 gotten.

Because the truth is, while I love running road races—there’s nothing like the thrill of a World Marathon Major, and both London & Tokyo await—I’m at home out on the trails, where my mind feels uncluttered and my body performs its best. I don’t need screaming spectators or deafening bands to motivate me; on the contrary, the profound quiet of Kettle Moraine State Forest inspired me all day long in a way that few stretches of raucous road outside of Boston ever could. Give me a start & finish line, two excellent running buddies and an all-star crew, and I can run all day.

And now I know that.

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished!

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a runner looking to make the leap to the 50-mile distance, do yourself a favor and check out the Ice Age Trail 50. It’s the perfect course for 50-mile newbies, a reasonably challenging hybrid of runnable flats and hikable hills. Well-groomed dirt and grass trails make up the bulk of the terrain, which isn’t particularly technical despite numerous rocky ascents & descents (gaiters will help keep those rocks out of your shoes). And speaking of ascents, there are a few relatively steep hills but nothing monstrous, so if you strengthen your core muscles and shore up your power-hiking skills during training, you should be fine.

Kettle Moraine State Forest is a gorgeous venue for the race, particularly in mid-May when spring has sprung and when heat & humidity are less likely to be a factor. If you’re lucky, you may even get the perfectly cool temperatures we got, and two awesome running buddies to join you. I can even recommend the Lake Lawn Resort in nearby Delavan, an easy 25-30 min car ride from the start line, if you’re looking for convenient non-camping accommodations.

The only downside to Ice Age is the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, though this only became a problem with a handful of runners who­—for whatever reason—came barreling down the center of the trail refusing to yield the right-of-way. This could have resulted in some nasty collisions had the rest of us not been hypervigilant and quick to step aside. As with any event, though, it’s tough to police assholery.

Katie&me_finish

Me, the finish and the reason I reached the finish

PRODUCTION: Race-day production was top-notch. Despite being one of the largest 50-milers in the country, Ice Age reminded me why I miss low-key trail races. The course was clearly marked with yellow (50M) and/or orange (50K) flags at every turn, aid stations were well-stocked and well-spaced (the longest interval between stations was 5.1 miles, and that was at mile 9), and without exception the volunteers were nothing short of brilliant. After all, these folks were selflessly sacrificing an entire day of their lives so the rest of us could work through personal issues run an absurdly long way. I introduced myself to Race Director Jeff Mallach after the race, and he seemed genuinely surprised and appreciative that we’d made the trip from California just to run his race.

The only potential issue—and one I never encountered personally—was a shortage of medical personnel & supplies on the course, e.g. when Steve drove the fellow who’d sustained a bloody gash beside his eye back to the start/finish area for medical attention.

SWAG: How to argue with my first-ever ultra buckle? The Ice Age buckle with its woolly mammoth logo is one good-looking piece of hardware. Credit to RD Jeff Mallach for not subscribing to the “Bigger is better” mentality—as with other things, garishly large medals smack of a race trying to make up for something. And though the long-sleeve tech tee may be a bit bright, its lime green color will go a long way toward making me visible to oncoming traffic on my training runs.

Read Dan’s excellent Ice Age recap HERE.

For a different perspective, which will make you want to either sign up for this race immediately or flee in the other direction, check out Jeff Lung’s recap of the 2012 Ice Age Trail 50 HERE.

Read Otter’s recap of the 2013 North Country Run, his first 50-miler, HERE.

Ice Age buckle

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
May 14, 2016 (start time 6:04am)
50 miles in Kettle Moraine State Forest, Whitewater, WI (state 12 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 9:54:30 (first time running the Ice Age Trail 50), 11:54/mile
Finish place: 95 overall, 15/40 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 297 (208 men, 89 women)
Race weather: cold & cloudy at the start (temp 39°F) and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,472 ft ascent, 2,510 ft descent through 41 miles
Elevation change (Strava, based on Otter’s Suunto data): 6,762 ft through 50 miles
~6,000 calories burned, ~2,000 calories replaced

Ice Age splits

It’s all fun & games until the Garmin dies at mile 40.93 (actually, it was all fun & games after that, too)

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

Cactus silhouette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Tuscon Marathon Expo

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

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

Clearly a morning person, our bus driver.

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

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

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

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

Tucson elevation profile_official

Tucson elevation profile_Mike Sohaskey Garmin

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

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

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

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

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

Tooth sculpture in Oracle

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

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

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

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

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

Flags

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dyslexic runners unite! at mile 19

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

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

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

Taiko drummers at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Taiko performers beat the drum slowly at mile 21

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

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

Mile 23 hill on Edwin Road - Tuscon Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving a Tuscon cactus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Tuscon Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

Sunset on grounds of Hilton Tuscon El Conquistador resort

Sunset on the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador

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

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

Tucson Marathon 2015 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating_Tucson

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

Tucson Marathon splits

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

But I also realize that winning doesn’t always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself.
– Meb Keflezighi

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Start line

(Happy birthday, Nico! At 8 years old you probably don’t spend a lot of time reading your uncle’s blog, so maybe just maybe your mom will pass this wish along to you…)

I’d put the question – long burning in my brain – to Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray during a group run at the annual Running USA conference back in February. Had he ever considered a Boston-type, qualifiers-only race for the half marathon distance? “Funny you should mention that…” was his reply as we ran through the French Quarter in New Orleans, weaving around street cleaners and sidestepping discarded memories of the previous night.

As he’d outlined the template for just such an event, coming to San Diego in November, I’d mentally added it to my late-season schedule. Race management would be handled by Ken Nwadike Jr & his team at SoCal’s own Superhero Events (producers of the Hollywood Half and the Awesome ‘80s Run) as well as Merhawi Keflegizhi, founder & owner of HAWI Management (and who I’m sure never tires of being referred to as “Meb’s brother”). Dave’s own DMSE Sports, meanwhile, would be in charge of the road cones, zip ties and duct tape, as Dave himself likes to say.

Having run my first half marathon in 2001 and 39 more since, I’d been awaiting and looking forward to a race like the USA Half for a long time – a raison d’être for competitive 13.1-ers who (until now) have had no premier event to motivate them as their marathoning counterparts have for 120 years. Even 19 marathons and two 50Ks into my running career, the half marathon still appeals to me as the perfect blend of speed and stamina.

Mike Sohaskey in start corral for Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Holding a steady 1:35 pace in the start corral

Now at last here I was, keeping the 1:35 pace sign company as the dawn’s early light replaced the electric glow of downtown San Diego. Katie stood smiling outside the start corral with camera poised, ready to assume her unofficial role of race photographer before the a cappella singing of the national anthem had even concluded. She wore jeans and a light fleece, while I sported my usual race-day attire of RaceRaves tee and shorts. Nothing unusual about our choice of apparel – except that we were both perfectly comfortable wearing it.

That’s rarely the case – I prefer to reach the start line shivering, knowing that once the starter’s pistol fires and I cross that line, the pendulum will swing and I’ll warm up in a hurry. After all, heat production by muscles can soar 15 to 20 times above resting levels during vigorous exercise. So cooler temperatures benefit the runner, by reducing the amount of heat lost during the conversion of chemical energy to mechanical energy.

This inefficient conversion and the resulting heat loss is, in fact, a major reason the two-hour marathon barrier remains solidly intact.

Spectating, of course, tends not to be vigorous exercise, and so the cooler temperatures that benefit runners prompt most spectators to layer up like race-day mummies. Meaning it’s highly unusual for both runners and spectators to find themselves faced with favorable conditions on race day, especially at the start. Of course, it’s also unusual for race-day temps on Nov 21 to start at 55°F and rise from there.

Welcome to America’s Finest City – the land that seasons forgot.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational course map

As the airhorn sounded and 2,400+ runners streamed under the start banner flanked by U.S. flags, I felt a surprising calm – the offspring of temperate weather and tempered expectations. Shockingly, the Inaugural USA Half would be my first race in six months (and my first in the 45-49 age group), an unheard-of respite in recent years and my longest break between races since 2008.

But I hadn’t been resting on the laurels of my Boston Qualifier at May’s Mountains 2 Beach Marathon (see what I did there?). My absence from the race circuit owed itself to a whirlwind six months spent immersed in work and – the real wild card – purchasing & remodeling a townhouse on the west side of L.A. Managing the latter for three months came to feel like a part-time job/full-time babysitting gig, if babysitting required putting your signature to dozens of government forms. I could even liken a leaky skylight to a soiled diaper… but I won’t.

My euphoric legs carried me smoothly with the flow of foot traffic east along the first ¾-mile straightaway. Like concrete waves mimicking the roll of the ocean behind us, the undulating blocks of B Street prepared our legs for tougher climbs to come. As we passed under Highway 5 and turned north up the first of these climbs, a gentle ocean breeze greeted us as if to say, “Hope this helps – I’m as cold as it gets!” My mind flashed to my mom and sister facing near-freezing temperatures in Dallas, and to my friend Pete’s admission that Chicago had been expecting 3-5 inches of snow the night before.

I’d glanced at the course map the day before and noted the route’s Jekyll & Hyde nature: hilly in the first half, Kansas-flat in the second. But seeing hills on a map is one thing – knowing how they’ll affect your race is another. Barring extremes like a Pikes Peak, it’s tough to assess “hilly” until you’re feeling it in your quads and lungs.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational elevation profile

Living in CA, this strikes me as more “seismogram” than “race elevation profile”

With that in mind, my race strategy was its usual simplicity: run fast. As fast as possible without crashing & burning and ending up a charred mass of muscles, tendons & ligaments by mile 11. This less-than-scientific approach felt reasonable given the recent regression in my training volume, which I’d managed to maintain at 40-45 miles/week, though with very little speed work.

So with a PR of 1:34:02 (Oakland 2012), I figured I’d arrogantly start with the fast kids in the 1:35 pace zone, then hold that pace for as long as possible. If I bonked, I bonked – but if not, then I wanted to see what my legs were capable of after six months of relative rest (compared to my training regimen for Mountains 2 Beach). Problem was, with official pacers running at 1:30 (too fast) and 1:40 (too slow), 1:35 left me running in no man’s land. And I’d be running there entirely by feel, having promised myself I’d use my Garmin only to log my splits for later.

Mike Sohaskey racing in Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

(Free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

Cresting the first ¼-mile ascent, the road immediately turned back downhill as it would several more times over the next six miles. To be fair, what this course taketh it would also giveth back – for each ascent conquered, runners could look forward to a corresponding descent, and my Garmin actually calculated a net loss of ~50 feet over the course of 13.1 miles.

Not that the hilltops provided much in the way of scenic vistas. The first 10 miles of the course wound its way in a counterclockwise loop around the city – nondescript neighborhoods and strip malls dominated the urban landscape, along with the occasional highway over- & underpasses. The most scenic stretch of the first 10 miles was (with apologies to Stephen King) the green mile flanking Balboa Park in mile 3.

But I hadn’t come to San Diego to work on my tan, do some casual sightseeing and collect a medal at the end of it. I was here chasing the same uncomplicated goal as others around me – to get from start to finish as quickly as possible. Unlike other races I saw no walkers along the course, no costumes, no BRFs strolling side-by-side in conversation (though a few remarkable runners were maintaining a brisk pace while pushing a stroller or wheelchair, a la Boston legends Dick Hoyt and his son Rick).

Mike Sohaskey ascending the Halsey Road Bridge in mile 10 of the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Ascending the Halsey Road Bridge in mile 10 (free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

This emphasis on competitive racing is echoed by the USA Half website:

With so many fun runs, mud runs, and color runs being launched nationwide, we noticed a decline in the production of competitive endurance events in the United States. This race was developed to encourage recreational runners to set new goals and challenges for themselves. The USA Half Marathon is the first ‘Qualifiers Only’ half marathon, designed for elite, sub-elite, and competitive runners.

I should interject here to say There’s nothing wrong with the casual runner, the diversity of its participants is what makes our sport great. At the same time, life is all about new goals and challenges, and there are plenty of races that already cater to the casual runner – among them San Diego’s own flagship Rock ‘n’ Roll event in June. So I’m psyched to have an event that targets those of us who actually want to run until we keel over.

In fact, we’d liked the idea so much that we’d independently introduced the event to the running community on RaceRaves back in May, beating Runner’s World to the punch – though that hadn’t prevented them from, ahem, “borrowing” our article title.

Now, 6½ months later, I was here to find out what all our fuss was about.

Free banana sign at Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

In my defense, the free bananas were all-you-can-eat

True to the event’s competitive ethic, musical entertainment along the course was limited to one fellow with his boombox blasting, its distorted speakers clearly taxed beyond their limits. Understandably for 6:00am on a Saturday, spectators were few and far between. Two women blew into vuvuzelas as we passed, each generating a low & uninspiring wail that sounded more like a grieving sea lion than anything motivational.

And on we ran.

At mile six I glanced up to see Katie cheering alongside the mile marker ahead, always a pick-me-up and especially since I hadn’t been sure if/when she’d make it out on the course. Just past her I leaned into the next right turn, heading up the waiting ascent toward Highway 5.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, somewhere along this otherwise unremarkable stretch occurred the lowlight of my race. Apparently 2009 New York City Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon champ Meb Keflezighi was standing near the halfway mark, offering high-fives and cheering on the runners – and yet somehow I MISSED HIM. My best guess is that he didn’t arrive until later, because even as focused as I was and as unassuming as he is, it doesn’t compute that I would’ve passed Meb without noticing him. San Diego is Meb’s hometown – I figured he may be out on the course, particularly with his brother managing the event, and yet I missed him? I was and remain pretty bitter at the possibility. Next year I’ll be running with my head on a swivel, just in case.

It didn’t make me feel any better that Katie missed him, too.

Start of mile 7 at the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

The start of mile 7, a.k.a. the “missed Meb” mile

Ironically, that same mile would be my fastest of the day at 6:59. But by the time I’d crested the last of the rolling hills at the halfway mark, their collective message had been heard loud and clear: there would be no PR on this day. But that didn’t mean I’d be slowing down – i­nstead, the last six miles would be the perfect opportunity to see just how much I had left. After all, I hadn’t come here expecting a PR, and it wasn’t like I had any better plans for the next 45 minutes.

And so it went – miles 8-10 ticked off uneventfully at 7:14, 7:09, 7:13. Mile 10 offered a reprieve from the concrete with a brief stretch of dirt path leading to the Halsey Road Bridge. Then it was on to N Harbor Dr for the final 3+ miles, the harbor to our right sparkling in the morning sun as if filled with the orphaned diamonds of sunken pirate ships.

The fact that miles 11-13 bordered the harbor and marina was good news; the bad news was that they also bordered the San Diego International Airport. Since N Harbor Dr is the access road for all airport arrivals and departures, this necessitated a one-mile hairpin detour down Island Harbor Dr toward the water, to avoid crossing (and thereby impeding) the flow of traffic to and from the airport. Like the hills before it, this detour inevitably slowed our pace as we negotiated two U-turns and headed back toward N Harbor Dr. The acrid waft of shuttle bus fuel reached my nostrils, then dispersed on the breeze as quickly as it had arrived.

Mile 10 (North Harbor Drive) of the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Mile 10 along North Harbor Drive, with the harbor to our right

The mile 12 marker greeted us as we exited the airport grounds. Straight into the rising sun we ran, hugging the shoreline, the brilliant blue sky presaging another postcard-perfect day. But aside from the roar of planes taking off, I could’ve run through Middle Earth in that last mile and not known the difference. I was focused only on the ground ten feet ahead of me, my feet chewing up pavement and my mind in the “No man (or woman) shall pass” zone. Yes, I was fatiguing… but “half marathon tired” is a much different beast than “marathon tired”. Rounding the marina I shifted gears one last time, accelerating toward the finish banner flanked – like its start line counterpart – by American flags.

One last Katie sighting to my left, one last surge to nose past one last runner, and I crossed the finish line of the first-ever USA Half Marathon in 1:35:26, my second-best half marathon time in 40 tries. The flatness of the final six miles had enabled a decisive negative split (48:16 first half, 47:10 second half), and my legs had risen to the challenge.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Finish line

Immediately I was handed a bottle of water and then took my time shuffling through the finish chute, basking in the combined warmth of sunshine and accomplishment. Race Director Ken Nwadike Jr and his wife Sabrina stood just beyond the finish line, video camera poised to capture the emotions of spent finishers (see footage on the race website). Ken was everywhere on this day, even out on the course where Katie had seen him rolling along in the driver’s seat of his convertible, top down and camera trained on his runners.

Likewise, fellow organizer Hawi Keflezighi milled around the finish chute, patting finishers on the back and thanking them for coming. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and he recognized the RaceRaves name on my t-shirt. He and Ken (who we’d met at the pre-race expo and would meet again after the race) both struck me as personable and appreciative, another reason I hope to see this event thrive going forward.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Race organizers (L to R) Hawi Keflezighi, Ken Nwadike Jr & Sabrina Nwadike

Race organizers (L-to-R) Hawi Keflezighi, Ken Nwadike Jr & Sabrina Nwadike

As mentioned we’d introduced the running community to the USA Half on RaceRaves back in May, calling the event “The Boston of Half Marathons” in reference to its competitive qualifying standards. This apparently blasphemous title prompted hair-trigger responses from those who felt the Boston Marathon needed its honor defended, with strident protests that lauded Boston’s long and storied history along with its tighter qualifying standards. So to those of you who get all your information from headlines – yes, we realize Boston has a 119-year head start on the USA Half, with all the tradition and community support that entails. And yes, we understand you can’t slap a “Boston Lite” label on an event and hope to build a venerated institution like Boston overnight – it is after all the pinnacle of its sport and the world’s oldest annual marathon.

That said, with an elite group of organizers (including the Boston RD himself) and a message that resonates with runners, the USA Half has the potential to become to half marathoners what Boston has long been to marathoners – a competitive dangling carrot to inspire their training, and a prestigious event to call their own. Add to that San Diego in late autumn, and this event is off to a compelling start.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho post-Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Red, white and through with the Inaugural USA Half

Admittedly, stricter qualifying standards will eventually go a long way toward building the race’s reputation and attracting the most competitive runners. Case in point, my own qualifying standard for this year’s Competitive (Open) Division was 2:05, a time I easily beat while wearing Hulk fists at last year’s Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon. So maybe ([your Boston Qualifying standard ÷ 2] – 2.5 minutes) as a starting point for the non-elite Open Division? That would put the speediest qualifying standard at 1:30 (for men ages 18-34) and mine at 1:40, both of which feel like reasonable guesstimates.

Reflecting on the weathered naval vessels docked a stone’s throw away in the harbor, I glanced over to see the last vestiges of the dismantled finish line being loaded aboard a waiting truck – apparently the race’s 2:30 time limit was no joke. And it struck me that, after a near-PR effort on a hilly course, the USA Half would be the perfect high note on which to end my 2015 racing season.

But where’s the fun in perfect…?

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational medal

RaceRaves rating:

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational RaceRaves summary

BOTTOM LINE: Like the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon I ran back in May, the USA Half is a race by runners, for runners. If your preference is for balloons, costumes and fanfare, you’ll want to stick with the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in June. But if you’re a half marathoner who simply loves to run or who’s looking for a new type of challenge to motivate your training, then do yourself a favor and check out the USA Half. Its “qualifiers only” status and San Diego venue also make it a great option for 50 Staters looking for a distinctive California race.

The course is solidly urban and isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, with the first half falling somewhere between “rolling” and “hilly”. But the second half makes up for the sins of the first, with a Kansas-flat profile and a final three miles that border the sun-drenched harbor and marina. At $95.00 + processing fees the race isn’t cheap, but it’s a solid value – in both production and swag, you get what you pay for (see below).

The overarching patriotism of the event – from the name to the logo to the U.S. flags flanking both the start and finish lines – was a curious choice that wasn’t fully explored. I assume the star-spangled theme was in homage to the host city, which boasts a proud military (and specifically naval) history. In fact, several retired battleships – chief among them the USS Midway – now call the Port of San Diego their permanent home.

Given its overt patriotism and proximity to Veterans Day, it seems appropriate that next year’s race include a tribute to current military personnel, veterans and fallen heroes. And why not partner with a charitable organization that supports veterans? Because honestly, given that nearly $8 of every registration fee already goes to the hot mess that is Active.com, I certainly wouldn’t protest if a portion of my registration went to a worthy cause like veterans programs. This would also help engage the community and increase civic support for the race.

Overall, count me in for next year!

You won't leave the Hash House A Go Go hungry – her salad bowl was as big as her infant child's carrier

You won’t leave the Hash House A Go Go hungry – her salad bowl was as big as her infant child’s carrier

PRODUCTION: As expected given the parties in charge, event production was spot-on and a high point of the race. The pre-race expo (what we saw of it, arriving as we did an hour before it ended thanks to SoCal traffic) was small and easily navigated. Race day itself went off without a hitch, from the firing of the starter’s pistol at 6:00am sharp to the immediate and efficient disassembly of the finish line at 8:30am. The course was impeccably marked, to the point that my Garmin chimed the mile just as I hit the timing mat at mile 10. If GPS units can dream, then mine at that moment dreamed of being the official timer.

Aid stations (none of which I used, as usual) looked to be fully stocked, with vigilant volunteers calling out “Gatorade!” or “water!” as runners approached. As seems to be the case wherever I run, volunteers were friendly, encouraging and eager to help. Post-race snacks were plentiful, though finish-line festivities were minimal given the event’s constricted time limit of two-and-a-half hours (mandated by the city, I assume). And Ken made great use of his omnipresent camera, providing free race photos – always a much-appreciated bonus – courtesy of his own Runner Buzz Media.

SWAG: The race swag is a definite selling point, and includes a colorfully patriotic “USA” medal emblazoned with a bald eagle, as well as a black-with-white-zipper USA Half Marathon finishers jacket (though the logo on front could stand to be a bit brighter and more readable). Curiously, the jacket zipper is designed for left-handers. In any case, the jacket is a significant and much-appreciated upgrade from the standard race tech tee. And the medal will definitely stand out from its less flamboyant brethren.

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational finisher's jacket

FINAL STATS:
November 21, 2015
13.16 miles in San Diego, CA
Finish time & pace: 1:35:26 (first time running the Inaugural USA Half Marathon), 7:15/mile
Finish place: 254 overall, 28/174 in M(45-49) age group
Number of finishers: 2,439 (1,121 men, 1,318 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 55°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 456ft ascent, 509ft descent

Clearly my legs were happy to get off the hills

I’m feeling very positive about my negative splits

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

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

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

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

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

Boston.

Sunset over downtown Ventura

Sunset over downtown Ventura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 9

Returning to the Ojai Valley Trail at mile 9

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

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

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

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22

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

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

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 10.5

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

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

SAN DIEGO 200
BOSTON 22 17

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

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

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

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

San Antonio Creek footbridge on Ventura River Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon at mile 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - 2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon homestretch

Mile 26.2 in progress

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

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

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

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

Post-race on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

Speedy guy and motivational pacer Gil Perez

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

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

Boston Qualifying Mike Sohaskey at Mountains 2 Beach Marathon

That mallet’s for the Boston Qualifiers gong behind me

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

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

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

And the only sound missing was “Happy”.

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

Another weekend, another PR for the RaceRaves shirt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 Mountains 2 Beach Marathon medal

RaceRaves rating:
RaceRaves rating

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

Mountains 2 Beach mile splits

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

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

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

Puny. Overwhelmed. And wholly exhilarated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenes from NYC - (C) Mike Sohaskey

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - World Marathon Major #3!

They say you never forget your third…

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

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

New York City Marathon stats from Expo

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

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

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

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

Susan, me, Jeff and Katie at Lattanzi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staten Island Ferry - (C) Mike Sohaskey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at New York City Marathon start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York CIty Marathon - Brooklyn on 4th Ave

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

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

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

Restrooms are conveniently located at the finish!

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

You are my density, Kosuke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - Pulaski Bridge halfway point

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - on 1st Avenue in Manhattan

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - fun t-shirt

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

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - Willis Ave Bridge entering Bronx

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - 5th Avenue in Manhattan

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

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

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

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

Cruising through Harlem in mile 22

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

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

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

New York Marathon - Central Park home stretch

Mile 26: fall foliage meets finishing fever in Central Park

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

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

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

New York City Marathon - Finish line

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

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

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

New York Marathon - Heatsheet crowd at finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City Marathon winners (1970 & 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile split times

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.
― Martin Luther King Jr.

Downtown Mobile skyline at sunset - 2014 First Light Marathon

Upwardly Mobile: The RSA Trustmark Building and Battle House Tower stand tall at sunset…

Downtown Mobile skyline at dusk - 2014 First Light Marathon

… and at dusk, in electric red-and-blue evening wear

The irony struck me immediately.  After hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” no fewer than three times during our first six hours in Mississippi, what greeted me now as I strolled through the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Mobile, Alabama was the equally classic guitar riff from “Hotel California”.

Certainly Mobile felt more like California than had Jackson, if for no other reason than its proximity to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  And the distinctively patriotic red and blue illumination of the three buildings that dominate its downtown landscape (including the 35-story RSA Battle House Tower, the tallest building in Alabama) does lend Mobile, by night at least, a more metropolitan vibe than anything we’d encountered in Jackson.

We’d arrived in Mobile under cover of darkness after a 200-mile drive from Jackson, where that Saturday morning I’d run the Mississippi Blues Marathon.  After a quick check-in to unload our bags, we vamoosed across the street to catch the pre-race expo and pasta carbo-load for the weekend’s second marathon – the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon.

Several months earlier, I’d seen an article on either Active.com or Competitor.com (probably both) with tips on how to beat the “post-marathon blues,” that emotionally lethargic period following intense exercise when jacked-up levels of adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters return to baseline.  On this weekend, my own solution to the post-marathon blues would be to avoid the post-race period altogether – by running another marathon the next day.  Race, rest, repeat.  I have a doctorate in biology, so clearly this was brilliant scientific problem-solving on my part.

In the high-ceilinged atrium of the Mobile Government Plaza building, the First Light Marathon expo was smaller and even more low-key than the Mississippi Blues expo had been.  Included with my race registration was a “BACK 2 BACK” long-sleeve tech t-shirt (in addition to the normal race t-shirt) and a colorful handmade plaque designed exclusively for runners who would be running both races.  Each plaque was painted by a member of the Mobile chapter of L’Arche, an “international federation of communities in which people with intellectual disabilities and those who help them can live, work, and share their lives together.”  The race itself would benefit L’Arche Mobile, and as a long-time supporter of Special Olympics, I’m partial to any organization whose mission is to empower special-needs individuals.

Southern belles at 2014 First Light Marathon expo

A colorful reminder that y’all are in the Heart of Dixie, now!

Although I’d known there’d be other back-to-backers here (Marathon Maniacs are, after all, omnipresent runneroids), I was floored by the numbers posted at the expo: out of 1,310 total marathoners and half marathoners, a whopping 28% (372) would be running their second race of the weekend.  Unfortunately I don’t know how many of those 372 were full marathoners… but never let it be said that running is an addiction.

Sidling up to the well-stocked pasta buffet before it closed, I fell in line across from another back-to-backer who immediately shared the fact that he’d twisted his ankle that morning on Mississippi’s uneven streets (which weren’t nearly as uneven as I’d expected), and that as a vegan he hadn’t eaten pasta in months – though what not eating pasta had to do with being vegan was unclear (maybe he’d grown up on Chef Boyardee Lard-a-roni?).  If within ten seconds of meeting you I know your dietary habits, and your name’s not Scott Jurek, you could probably be making a better first impression.

But even better was his second impression.  Moving on to the drink table with no hint of a limp, he pointed to a cup filled with what looked to be iced tea and asked the older gentleman manning the table, “What is this?”  “Sweet tea,” the man replied in a measured Southern lilt.  “What’s it sweetened with?” volleyed his guest.  “Um… sugar,” was the matter-of-fact response.  “So, like, REAL sugar, not that high-fructose stuff?” pressed the younger man.  At that point our host apparently decided it was time to finalize this exchange: “Son, you’re in Alabama… it’s sugar.”  Stifling a laugh, I grabbed a cup of water with my free hand to keep from high-fiving the older man.  If the real world came with a floating “Like” button, I would’ve punched it at that moment.

The next 30 minutes I spent restocking my diminished carbohydrate stores (that’s runner–speak for “stuffing my face”).  Satiated, we retired to our room to resume my painful play date with the sadistic Orb, and to catch up on lost sleep from the night before.  Gazing up at the ceiling, just visible in the soft electric glow outside our window, I anticipated the next morning’s zombie-like stiffness, and pondered the potentially cruel irony of running my second marathon of the weekend in a town called Mobile.

Mardi Gras mask at Mobile Carnival Museum

Mobile’s true claim to fame may be as the birthplace of Mardi Gras
(Mobile Carnival Museum)

The calm before the storm (start – mile 8)
It’s Sunday 6:00am, and my brain knows full well for whom the alarm bell tolls.  After 7+ hours of solid sleep (which in pre-race equivalents might as well be 20), it awakens ready to hit the ground running and ensure my body does the same.  Sympathetic signals fire along neural projections and hurdle busy synapses, poking and prodding my still-sleeping legs to assess their status for the 26.2-mile day ahead.  Sensing a minor muscular mutiny in progress, my brain sends another signal instructing both hands to attack the right iliotibial band with passion and prejudice.  Lazily I pass the directive along to Katie, whose own hands painfully (and a bit sadistically, I note) quell the mutiny before its message of dissension can spread to other impressionable muscle groups.

And with that, I’m ready to race.  Sliding out of bed, I felt surprisingly as though Saturday had never happened.  Legs? Strong.  Feet?  Rested.  Even the residual abdominal soreness from an ill-advised workout earlier in the week had faded.  Outside sunny skies beckoned, and on the street below randomly diffusing individuals were beginning to coalesce into something more deliberate.  So after a breakfast indistinguishable from (though slightly less frozen than) the day before, we descended 15 stories to join the start line festivities on the street corner outside our hotel.  Nothing beats lodging within easy walking distance of the start line, I highly recommend it.  And smaller races enable it.

Donning light gloves, I fist-bumped Katie and positioned myself among the brightly colored throngs as the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was ending.  A minister stepped forward to bless the race (a distinctly Southern touch), thereby ensuring that nothing could possibly go wrong for the next eight hours.  As runners of all shapes and sizes stood restlessly waiting… waiting… waiting… I wondered whether my imperceptible shivering was due to the early morning chill (owing to a start temperature of 37ºF) or to the butterflies in my stomach at the prospect of chasing down a second consecutive sub-3:45 finish.  Then the {CRACK} of the starter pistol sliced through my thoughts, the crowd pressed forward, and marathon #11 in state #7 was underway.

2014 First Light Marathon start line

The no-frills, stay-in-that-crosswalk-until-the-gun-goes-off start line

As the third largest town in Alabama, Mobile is slightly more populated than Jackson, where I’d been running 24 hours earlier.  But I could tell immediately that today’s race, like the previous night’s expo, would have a more small-town feel.  For one thing, there were no conspicuous pace groups.  And crossing a start line devoid of the usual blue and red timing mat, it hit me that I’d seen no evidence of a timing chip on either my bib or in my goodie bag.

Timing chips are worn to track a runner’s progress and assign an exact finish time based on when he/she crosses the start and finish lines.  Without a timing chip, every runner’s finish time is based solely on “gun time,” that is, how long it takes them to cross the finish line from the moment the starter pistol fires, no matter how long it takes them to cross the start line.  In that situation, all else being equal, those who line up nearer the start line have an inherent advantage over those who start farther back.  Timing chips eliminate the anxiety caused by the inevitable hurry-up-and-wait of the start line bottleneck.  But today in Mobile – sans timing chip – that anxiety was in full bloom, and by starting back in the pack I’d already relinquished a minute or so before I’d even crossed the start line.

Not that I was legitimately concerned… after all, I‘d just run a comfortable 3:43:36 in Jackson the day before.  And today’s cool weather was even more race-friendly.  But again, I was in uncharted territory here with my second marathon of the weekend, and it was still unclear how my body would respond to the challenge.  I’ve seen how quickly the wheels can fall off on race day for even the most prepared runners.

And I planned to be among the most prepared runners in Mobile.  In the past two months I’d logged two 70-mile weeks and two more 60-mile weeks.  November had been a 278-mile training month.  Over the holidays I’d run cold 19-milers on consecutive days through the mind-numbing monotony of suburban Dallas – a decidedly unappealing place to be a pedestrian, much less a runner.

Bottom line: my goal here in Mobile was to reach the finish line in less than 3 hours, 45 minutes.  And if, three hours from now, I found myself balled up in the fetal position beside the mile 20 aid station, gently cajoling my precious legs in my best Gollum voice, then so be it.

2014 First Light Marathon course map

That dirt-brown swath to the far right is the Mobile-Tensaw River emptying into Mobile Bay
(Google Earth; click on the image for a larger version)

It took only a hundred yards or so to convince myself that all muscle groups were not only present and accounted for, but were in fact feeling good, with no hint of fatigue.  And so I maintained a comfortably fast pace (8:00-8:10/mile) for the first few miles over uneven residential streets.  Although the organizers of the Mississippi Blues Marathon had warned us in advance about the iffy condition of their streets (“they’ve got some blues of their own”), I actually found the streets in Mobile to be more shady – in part because they were more shady.  Sparsely clad tree limbs filtered the morning sunlight, bathing the street in irregular patterns of light and shadow that made it tough to track my footing.  And so my attention early in the race focused on doing just that.

Nearby church bells resonated loudly, heralding the start of Sunday mass.  My own thoughts turned momentarily to my dad as we passed the Mobile National Cemetery late in mile 2.  He and I had actually stayed overnight in Mobile (my only previous visit to Alabama) in the early 80s, on an epic father-son road trip to Disney World.

In the context of Alabama vs. Mississippi, Mobile struck me as more glossy than Jackson, with fewer rough edges.  Then again, Katie and I hadn’t had a chance to show ourselves around before the race as we had in Jackson, so I was only privy to what the race organizers wanted us to see – namely middle- to upper-class neighborhoods, commercial stretches of small businesses and strip malls, highway overpasses, two universities (University of South Alabama and Springhill College), and the Azalea City Golf Course.

As the home of baseball greats Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige and Willey McCovey, Mobile also struck me as much whiter than I’d expected.  Although 2010 census numbers estimated the African-American population at just over 50% (compared to 79% in Jackson), the Mobile I saw presented a more homogenous ethnic profile.  Again, though, I tend to think that reflects the neighborhoods in which we ran and stayed.  In any case, the field of runners was definitely more monochromatic than it had been the day before in Mississippi.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 5 of 2014 First Light Marathon

In early pursuit of my blue-shirted friend at mile 5

Carbo-unloading (mile 8 – mile 21)
Approaching mile 8 at an 8:05/mile clip, my stomach began to feel like a bounce house hosting a birthday party.  Curious, I thought.  Only once before – during my first marathon, in Long Beach back in 2010 – had I ever made an in-race pitstop.  But today my gut left me no choice, and so I pulled up to two aid station porta-potties alongside another runner in a long-sleeve blue shirt.  As he and I waited, I stared impatiently at the red dots on the doors signaling both stand-alone plastic closets were in use.  Good thing I’m in no hurry today, I mused as 15, then 30, then 45 seconds ticked away.

After nearly a minute of wait time, I finally gained access and quickly rejoined the race with a more settled stomach, ramping up my pace to make up for lost time.  Soon I passed my companion in the blue long-sleeve shirt, and normalcy looked to have been restored.

But denial, to quote SNL’s Stuart Smalley, isn’t just a river in Egypt.  And apparently the other body parts had appointed the stomach their spokes-organ for the day, because whereas my muscles, tendons and ligaments all felt strong and responsive, my stomach would end up filing several more urgent grievances:

At mile 10.

And mile 12.

And mile 16.

And mile 21.

Thankfully this was only a marathon and not a long race.

“Enjoy the runs! 🙂 ” a friend on Facebook had exhorted me upon learning I’d be racing in Mississippi and Alabama on consecutive days.  I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what he’d had in mind.

Amazingly, despite three stops in the first twelve miles, I reached the halfway point at an 8:20/mile pace, well ahead of my 3:45 finish goal (8:35/mile) and nearly identical to my first-half split in Jackson.  If not for my gut’s capriciousness, I would actually have been enjoying my second marathon in 24 hours, and might even have entertained the thought of chasing a 3:35 finish.

Mike Sohaskey after 2014 First Light Marathon

No doubt the medical tent’s proximity to the food tent was purely coincidental

After each unscheduled stop, I hurried to catch up to the imaginary Back-to-the-Future me who wasn’t having GI issues.  My stomach may be captaining this ship, but damned if I was going to let it steer me on to the rocks.  And each time I’d pull up alongside my blue-shirted buddy (who quickly became my de facto pacer after each pitstop), he’d have a few light-hearted words for me:

At mile 10: “You have to stop again, brother?”  I explained that I’d raced in Mississippi the day before, and that my stomach was apparently confused at having to repeat the process today.

At mile 12: “Wow, how fast did you run that race yesterday?”, probably thinking I must’ve run like my hair was on fire to warrant such persistent complications.

At mile 16: “I’d hate to see how fast you’d run this thing without stopping!”  You and me both, friend-o.  At that point he told me he was shooting for a 3:40-3:45 finish, so I felt good about my chances as long as I stayed ahead of him.  And whenever I’d pull ahead of him, I was able to chart his progress and proximity by the timbre of the “War Eagle!” with which he enthusiastically greeted any spectator sporting Auburn University apparel.

By mile 21, though, I was sadly on my own, having pulled far enough ahead that not even one last carbo-unloading session on my part would allow my affable 3:45 pacer to overtake me.  Now if I could just maintain my pace for five more miles.

Five long miles.  Five very long miles.  Five of the most joyless miles I’d ever run.

Mike Sohaskey finishing 2014 First Light Marathon

Based on that street sign in the upper left, euphoria begins at the moment of Conception

Finishing strong not weak (mile 21 – finish)
The realization dawned on me that with each successive pitstop, it wasn’t time I was losing so much as it was more and more of my race-day hydration and nutrition.  The cumulative effect being that by mile 17, traversing the Azalea City Golf Course with the sun now shining down from a cloudless sky, I felt exhaustion setting in.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t simply refuel with the Clif Shot Bloks I carried in my pocket, because any attempt to either eat or drink – even water – sent my stomach careening into another downward spiral.  With a sense of admirvation (admiration + aggravation), I marveled at how the marathon can morph into a beast of so many different heads.

The first 11 and last five miles of the course were flat enough to make a spirit level proud.  The intervening ten miles through the Country Club of Mobile, the University of South Alabama, the Azalea City Golf Course and Municipal (Langan) Park offered a series of wicked uphill jags, several of which were short-lived but deceptively steep.

Mike Sohaskey sporting medals from 2014 Mississippi Blues & First Light marathons

More apropos than the side-by-side medals may be the side-by-side porta-potties in the background

Luckily the final four miles or so were a straight shot down Dauphin Street, so I was able to keep my head down and focus all remaining energy on maintaining my ~8:30/mile pace.  Just run.  I reassured both mind and body I wasn’t tired, although a momentary energy lull swept over me at mile 24, with the realization that I’d just logged my 50th mile of the weekend.  And any vocal spectator I passed (even Katie) in the last eight miles or so received little more than a thumbs-up and a weak smile for their support.

Through it all my mercurial stomach lay dormant, like a restless volcano primed to erupt.  One more eruption and my goal of a sub-3:45 finish would be up in smoke.  Though with little to no control over my gut’s comings and goings, I tried not to dwell on this fact.  Now, I considered, would be a pretty good time to have back that first minute wasted behind the start line.

Was the feeling that flooded my synapses more joy or relief at seeing the finish line straight ahead of me on Dauphin Street?  I honestly can’t recall.  But in the end, aside from the near-constant discomfort, my five pitstops mattered not a whit as I crossed the finish line in a gun time of 3:44:12.  Gratefully accepting my handmade finisher’s medallion from a smiling member of L’Arche Mobile, I embraced Katie and hobbled out of the finish chute as two blisters – apparently indignant at all the attention afforded my stomach – staged vehement protests of their own.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho selfie at 2014 First Light Marathon finish line

Reunited and it feels so good

The First Light of understanding
Based on Garmin data, my total elapsed time was 7 minutes, 13 seconds longer than my total moving time, meaning that – since I hadn’t stopped to eat or drink – I’d squandered over seven minutes just babysitting my stomach.  Not to mention the time spent trying to talk it down between pitstops.  Perhaps more telling, my average pace (including stops) of 8:29/mile contrasted sharply with my average moving pace of 8:13/mile.  So at least I was running when my innards weren’t.

And Katie, upbeat ever-supportive Katie… every time she saw me (at miles 5, 10, 15 and 20), I felt like I was in an awkward hurry to get past her and to the next aid station.  As usual she seemed to teleport around the course, covering more ground than some of the city’s cracked streets.  She was a one-woman spectating army in both Jackson and Mobile (and the reason all my blog images don’t have “PROOF” splashed across them), and I’m lucky she enjoys the process as much as she does – even when it takes us to the Heart of Dixie.

Tentatively, I joined the festive post-race party already in progress in sun-dappled Bienville Square.  In the center of the grassy plaza, under a white tent surrounded by live oak trees and a multi-tiered cast iron fountain, friendly volunteers served BBQ sandwiches with red beans and rice.  Solid food at that moment sounded as appealing as a Chris Christie foot massage, so I was content to sip at the chocolate milk generously provided in a large drink dispenser.  Meanwhile my stomach, starved only for more attention, refused to relinquish its moment in the sun just yet.  Fortunately, we were able to stick around the post-race festivities long enough to enjoy Mobile’s own Excelsior Band:

I assumed, throughout the race and in its immediate aftermath, that my “runner’s trots” had been my body’s exaggerated response to running two hard marathons in two days.  And maybe that was true – after all, stranger things have happened.  In any case, I was ready to file the incident under “Lessons learned” and “Just one of those things”… until I received this email from the race organizers three days later:

We have learned that a number of runners who participated in the Marathon had complaints of stomach problems.  We have been in touch with the Mobile County Board of Health about this and we want to assist them in investigating this issue.

Please respond to the survey [from the Alabama Department of Public Health] that can be reached through the link below.

Then followed a series of questions about my symptoms, and what I had and had not eaten at the pre-race pasta buffer.  So in retrospect, maybe the race organizers should have commissioned an exorcist rather than a minister for the start line blessing.

On Monday I awoke with a stable stomach and greater-than-expected elasticity in my quads and IT bands.  With a steady rain falling outside, we elected to spend our remaining time in the Deep South at the Mobile Carnival Museum, a small but impressively stocked attraction that chronicles Mobile’s history as “the true birthplace of Mardi Gras” dating back to 1703.  The museum’s extensive collection of robes, costumes, masks, relics, photographs and a gently rocking parade float capture much of the pomp and pageantry (and Moon Pies) of Mardi Gras, all for the bargain admission price of $5 per person.  Plus, the sweet and attentive older lady working the front desk sounded like a female Jimmy Carter with her soft Southern drawl.  Rain or shine, the MCM is a highly recommended way to spend a couple of hours getting to know Mobile.

In the final analysis, I’d rate our whirlwind weekend in Mississippabama (Alabamassippi?) an unqualified success, having accomplished my goal of running two sub-3:45 marathons, while gaining a glimmer of appreciation for two states whose self-inflicted legacies do them no favors.  Boarding our return flight from L.A. (Lower Alabama) to L.A. (Los Angeles), I had to smile as the instrumental piano version of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” softly filled the cabin, just as it had four days earlier to begin our journey.

And with that, our weekend in the Deep South had come full circle… and not a moment too soon.  Two marathons in two states in two days – particularly given the singular circumstances of round two – had taken a lot out of me.

Truth be told, I was pooped.

2014 First Light Marathon medallion

The finisher’s medallion from the front (left) and back (right)

BOTTOM LINE: Maybe this is the endorphins talking – but allowing for the fact that the organizers may have inadvertently poisoned their customers, I appreciated my 26.2-mile tour of Mobile.  I always welcome the chance to support smaller races, particularly when they benefit as worthwhile a cause as L’Arche Mobile, whose members played a significant role in both the preparation and execution of the race.  And as the second half of a geographically convenient back-to-back, the First Light Marathon will always hold a special place in the hearts and pocketbooks of Marathon Maniacs, Half Fanatics and 50 States runners.

PRODUCTION: First Light is a low-frills yet well-organized race.  The course profile is unusual for a road marathon, in having a surprisingly hilly middle section (miles 12-21) flanked by perfectly flat stretches at the start and finish.  Most important on this day was the abundance of aid stations along the course.  Normally 19 aid stations would be about 18 more than I’d need, but on Sunday I found myself wishing – in the uneasy gap between stations – that there were actually more.  On the bright side, I feel qualified to vouch for the cleanliness (if not the godliness) of the First Light porta-potties.

Potential dysentery notwithstanding, the pre-race pasta buffet hit the spot and was included with race registration (additional tickets were $10).  And if I were running First Light next year, I’d feel confident the organizers would be extra-diligent in ensuring the Alabama Dept. of Public Health doesn’t get involved.

The First Light race shirt is a highly wearable long-sleeve black tech shirt with “MARATHON” printed along the sleeve.  And as referenced above, back-to-back (Mississippi Blues Marathon/First Light Marathon) runners received their own long-sleeve white tech shirt with both race logos on the front and a “BACK 2 BACK” design on the back, as well as a commemorative plaque hand-painted by a community member of L’Arche Mobile.  Nothing notable to report from the race goodie bag except the bag itself, which was both reusable and neon orange.

On-course entertainment was limited to the running commentary and frequent cries of “War Eagle!” from my blue-hued colleague.  Spectators were sparse but supportive, though not as supportive as in Jackson, where everyone happily thanked us for coming.  The enthusiastic orange-clad sentries stationed along the course in Jackson were replaced in Mobile by purposeful police officers whose job it was to keep both foot and motor traffic flowing smoothly.

FINAL STATS:
January 12, 2014
26.41 miles in Mobile, AL (state 7 of 50)
Finish time & pace (Official): 3:44:12 (first time running the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon), 8:34/mile average pace
Finish time & pace (Unofficial, moving): 3:36:59, 8:13/mile moving pace
Finish place: 69/533 overall, 16/52 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 39°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 650ft ascent, 649ft descent

First Light splits

Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors.  
Try to be better than yourself.
– William Faulkner

US and Mississippi state flags in Jackson
“The world needs more Kardashians.”

“Kale or fries?  Kale, please.”
“Fanny packs are so sexy.”
“Oh boy, another Geico ad!”
“I’ve gotta get to Mississippi.”

There are certain five-word combinations most Americans will never hear or say.  And yet last Thursday, seated aboard our flight awaiting takeoff while an unapologetically Muzak version of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons wafted through the cabin, I reflected on that evening’s destination, one I’d chosen of sound mind and which Katie had failed to veto: Jackson, Mississippi.

But why – I’d coaxed her – why stop in the Deep South when we could venture into the even Deeper South?  Either she’d misunderstood the question or the sheer idiocy of it had caught her off-guard, because our ultimate (meaning last, not best) weekend destination, after a two-day stopover in Jackson, would be the God-fearing town of Mobile in Alabama, Mississippi’s next-door neighbor to the east.

If you’re thinking “Alabamassippi? Mississippabama?”, you’re not alone.  I’d guess most Americans, particularly those who don’t follow college football, treat the two interchangeably and with a level of apathy normally reserved for Kansas and Nebraska.  And yes, I was treated to my share of raised eyebrows and “Wait, you’re serious?” double-takes from friends and family upon divulging my travel plans.  One non-runner buddy put it best when he texted, “You are checking off two states I plan on never setting foot in.”

City of Jackson, MS seal

But I’m not a stamp collector, I’m a runner, and therein lies the method to my madness.  Because overpowering any sense of Mississip-pathy was a new challenge I couldn’t resist to start my 2014 running season: the Mississippi Blues Marathon, held in Jackson on Saturday, and the Servis1st Bank First Light Marathon, held in Mobile the next day, would be my first opportunity to race marathons on consecutive days.  Two marathons, two states, two days.  Luckily, at this point in my running fetish, even Mom’s protests of “That can’t be good for you” come much fewer and farther between.

And yes, this trip would strategically allow me to “check off” two more states on my list of marathoning destinations.  Because as much as I look forward to eventually running in every state, I couldn’t easily rationalize – financially or psychologically – separate trips to Mississippi and Alabama.  And the race organizers must sense this sentiment among runners, because both registration forms touted the commemorative “back-to-back” t-shirt and award that awaited runners of both races.  So this struck me as the ideal time to kill two birds with one stone… just as long as I didn’t kill one boy with two races.

And so several hours later, as our plane made its moth-like descent into the industrial electric flame of Jackson, Mississippi, I reflected on what little I knew about the two states we’d be visiting.  I knew from glancing at a U.S. map that the two states were virtual mirror images of each other, as if born from the same Confederate womb some 200 years ago.  I knew we wouldn’t be lacking for vowels during our stay, since Alabama has more a’s and Mississippi more i’s than any other state in the Union.  And as a child growing up in Texas, much of what I’d learned about the Deep South had come from watching Yosemite Sam zealously defend the “Masee-Dixee” Line against Bugs Bunny’s Yankee intrusion.

Unfortunately, most of the content in my mental Wiki wasn’t particularly flattering, as both states have a long and sordid history of racial inequality that remains evident to this day.  For instance, Mississippi’s flag remains the only state flag to display the Confederate battle flag’s saltire.  And Alabama may be best known for its antagonist role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  So I was eager to experience two states that tend to share not the nebbish reputation of a Kansas or Nebraska, but the less forgiveable reputation earned by actively crusading on the wrong side of history.

Standard Life building at night in Jackson, MS

The Standard Life Building dominates the night landscape in Jackson

Shallow impressions of the Deep South
On Friday, under gray skies and with storm clouds on the horizon, we got out and about in Jackson.  My first impression of Mississippi, based on its capital and largest city, was of a state in disrepair.  Like concrete chameleons in the gloomy weather, the drab coloration of the downtown architectural landscape – dominated by the 18-story Standard Life Building – suggested an indelible layer (or layers) of age-old soot.

Around downtown Jackson near our hotel, much of what I observed on my morning run and afternoon drive could only be described as urban blight: vacant lots filled with piles of dirt and construction debris, rusted-out dumpsters and freight train cars, collapsed chain link fences, low-slung cinder block walls, and ribbons of yellow “Caution” tape snaking along badly neglected streets lined with accumulated trash.  On the front lawn of one rickety wooden house, a disinterested dog lay with brow furrowed alongside a pile of discarded aluminum cans.  And on many overgrown lots stood burned-out structures at drunken angles, presumably homes at one time but now gutted wooden skeletons looking poised to collapse at the slightest provocation.

As it turned out, this was the Jackson we wouldn’t be seeing during Saturday’s race.

Dilapidated home around downtown Jackson, MS

This may be an extreme example, but dilapidated homes are common around downtown Jackson

Luckily beauty is only skin deep, and what Jackson lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in amiability.  Readers of Condé Nast Traveler recently voted Jackson the 7th most friendly city in the country, and coming from self-satisfied California it’s easy to see why.  When even airport workers greet you with a smile and “Have a nice day!”, you know you’ve hit the friendliness jackpot.

Case in point Rob, our healthily bearded and tattooed waiter at the High Noon Café, an excellent vegetarian lunch spot in the local (and only) organic grocery store.  Rob welcomed us, shared a bit of the city’s history – did you know Jackson is the only capital city in the world built on a volcano? – and told us very matter-of-factly that Jackson is “one of those places you get stuck”.  He also admitted he likes to “Robsess” (“Cuz my name’s Rob”) about life path numbers and sacred numerology.  Very warm and genuine guy, and in that sense Rob fits in well in Jackson.

After lunch we visited the home of former NAACP Field Officer and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, who in June 1963 was assassinated in his driveway by a member of the White Citizens’ Council (in true Mississippi tradition, his assassin lived as a free man before being convicted of the murder 31 years later, in 1994).  We then stopped by the Medgar Evers Statue to pay our respects, before heading over to the marathon expo.

Held in the Jackson Convention Center, the expo was small and easily navigated, though I think running icon Bill Rodgers may be stalking me because there he was again, sitting at a table signing autographs just like in Portland.  The highlight of my expo-rience was that for once, when a helpful volunteer urged me to “Have a great race tomorrow!”, I managed to catch myself before blurting out a reflexive “You too!”  Then it was time for the pre-race pasta gorge at a local Italian restaurant, before our West Coast circadian rhythms settled in for an extended nap ahead of a 5:30am (3:30am PDT) wakeup call.

Medgar Wiley Evers library statue in Jackson, MS

Action, Jackson! (start – mile 13.1)
Saturday morning greeted us unexpectedly with crunchy yogurt and frozen smoothies, courtesy of an overzealous hotel room fridge.  Fortunately that would be the only frosty surprise of this rain-washed morning, as stepping outside we were treated to sparsely cloudy skies and temperatures in the low 60s.  Strolling the four blocks from our hotel to the start line, we arrived with five whole minutes to spare.

Although a first for me, by hardcore running standards my “double” would be nothing newsworthy.  Ultramarathons routinely require their victims participants to cover 50 or 100 miles or more, often over brutally hilly terrain and with minimal support.  Nor would my own back-to-back effort elevate me much above couch-potato status compared to running automaton Dean Karnazes, whose 2008 national tour saw him run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, with his final marathon in New York City being his fastest.  And more recently, I’d met up with Chicago running hetero-lifemates Dan and Otter in Portland, where they successfully completed their own back-to-back marathons after running in Washington state the day before.  So although a cut above standard weekend warrior fare, doubling up on marathons wouldn’t exactly get me on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But my objective here in the Deep South wouldn’t just be to finish two marathons, but to do so in less than 3 hours, 45 minutes each.  This ambition – which seemed reasonable given my PR of 3:28:45 – I deliberately kept to myself, while assuring Katie that I’d only push myself hard enough to break four hours.  And so, excusing and pardoning my way in among the start line crowd, I settled in next to the 3:45:00 pacer in time to hear a bluesy rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner performed with much vibrato on a surf-green Fender Stratocaster.  Then, as the last well-held note dispersed on the warm morning breeze, the 7th annual Mississippi Blues Marathon was underway.

Mississippi Blues Marathon start 2013

For many of the nearly 2,500 runners (1/3 marathoners, 2/3 half marathoners) thundering down Pascagoula St., a rusted old freight train on a nearby overpass provided a stark first impression of Jackson.  Glancing to my left I saw Bill Rodgers cruising along the sidewalk by himself, and with measured acceleration I sped up to pass him as though the 1978 Boston Marathon were on the line.

I’m a sucker for a good college campus, and this course featured several, including Jackson State University (JSU), Mississippi College and Belhaven University.  The JSU band and pep squad greeted us loudly as we passed through their campus and circled back toward downtown in the direction we’d come.  And just as my legs were warming up, I was pleasantly surprised by my first Katie sighting of the day at mile 3.  Three more would follow at miles 10, 15 and 20.

Mike Sohaskey past mile 3 of Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

Hangin’ steady with Pacer Bob and the 3:45 group at mile 3

Around mile 7, past the University of Mississippi Medical Center, we entered our first residential neighborhood featuring nicely kept ranch-style homes, a clear step up the socioeconomic ladder from what we’d seen on our self-guided tour the day before.  Tree-lined streets offered plenty of shade, a welcome motif that would repeat itself throughout the day as direct sunlight rarely became an issue.  The remainder of the course would alternate among residential neighborhoods, small strip malls and highway frontage roads.

Though I seldom ran with the chatty pack of five to ten 3:45 runners, I stayed within striking distance throughout.  Wary of another Portland-style pacing fiasco, I kept a close eye on my Garmin and was pleased when our group hit the halfway point at 8:20/mile, which I quickly estimated as a projected finish time of under 3:40.  Sure this was faster than I’d planned to run, but I also knew that “banking” time in the first half would leave us more wiggle room (which we’d undoubtedly use) in the second half.  So it was all good.

Google Earth rendering of Mississippi Blues Marathon course 2013

Come on Google Earth, I’m counting on you to make this course look compelling! (Click to enlarge)

This IS my race pace (mile 13.1 – finish)
On occasion I’d run close enough to the 3:45 pack to hear Pacer Bob entertaining and encouraging his charges with his running commentary, e.g. “This isn’t a hill, it’s a side incline,” or on one extended uphill, “These reverse downhills are tiring.”  At other times I’d zone out and lose myself in my own thoughts, as I enjoyed the simple pleasure of running a relatively leisurely marathon at a comfortable pace.  Thanks to the rolling course profile (it’s a slightly hillier course than Portland), my legs were always engaged and never bored.

Usually I do my darnedest to avoid aid stations, but though I never grabbed more than a couple of sips of water at any one station, I must have slowed at no fewer than eight aid stations in Jackson.  It was a novel experience, and I kept expecting someone to call me out or a sour-faced volunteer to pull back a cup of water and ask, “Haven’t you had enough?”

Not that there was a single sour-faced volunteer on the entire course, because the Mississippi Blues Marathon featured some of the nicest volunteers and spectators you’ll ever encounter.  Although sparse (which I never mind, I’m always flattered when people show up to cheer on runners), spectators along the course were unfailingly supportive.  Both the spectators and the familiar orange-clad volunteers cheered us along the course with cries of “Thanks for coming!”  Wait a minute, I thought, shouldn’t that be my line?  The only stolid faces I saw along the entire course belonged to two police officers directing traffic early in the race.  And here I’d like to apologize profusely to the poor volunteer fellow picking up discarded cups, to whom I tossed my half-full water cup.  I’m such an idiot, I thought as the cup hit his open palm and splashed everywhere.

Mike Sohaskey playing the blues at Mississippi Blues Marathon Expo 2013

Playing the blues is all about the right facial expressions

Passing the mile 17 marker we entered Jackson’s land of milk and honey.  Here home and lot size increased dramatically, with opulent multi-level homes showcasing ornately sculpted columns, fenced-in porches and painstakingly manicured lawns that resembled golf course fairways.  Whereas “home security” around downtown Jackson had meant a sleepy-looking dog tethered to a tree and a fear of tetanus, several homes in this neighborhood were set back from the street behind wrought-iron security gates.  “All the kids here go to Hogwarts,” joked Pacer Bob.

Like many American urban centers, Jackson poses a striking dichotomy in terms of socioeconomic and racial stratification.  As a white guy coming from California, I can’t claim to fathom – after 36 hours in Jackson – the depth of racial tension that outsiders identify with Mississippi.  Hopefully, though, as Rob from the High Noon Café had told us the day before, the city continues to push forward in an earnest attempt to rise above its segregationist history.

Although we’d been told there’d be various musical acts along the course, music didn’t figure prominently in my race experience.  I noticed only one performer before mile 10, and then every five miles or so after that, though none were particularly loud.  The most memorable performer was the fellow at mile 20 (Scott Albert Johnson, according to the race guide) – I passed his riser just in time to catch a lyric about how we’d all be “partying until the Second Comin’ ”.  Katie’s own recollection of the Scott Albert Johnson experience was the partial lyric “and all it got him was nailed to the cross.”  SAJ was well placed at mile 20, where runners typically begin to hit The Wall, and where any pick-me-up that distracts from the mounting fatigue is much appreciated.

Mike Sohaskey looking good at mile 20 of Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

Still smiling with Scott Albert Johnson behind me, Katie ahead of me, and a mile 20 zombie in hot pursuit

To supplement my frequent water intake and because I had them unwrapped in my pocket, I started popping Clif Shot Bloks at mile 19.  With roughly the caloric equivalent of one gel, three Bloks are less messy and much easier to deal with during a race.  Plus again, they’re a great way to distract the mind during those final few miles.

Sometime after mile 20 and my fourth (!) Katie sighting of the day, Pacer Bob made his second brief porta-potty stop and took his handheld pace sign with him.  Amazingly, without their leader his close-knit group of five to ten runners – who had been clustered around him for most of the race – quickly dispersed, like ducklings who had lost their mama. Once he returned to reestablish his position, and with the other 3:45ers fighting to push through The Wall, he and I alone made up the 3:45 pace group.  “Does this happen much at the end when you’re pacing?” I asked.  “It’s happened a few times,” was his reply.

Mile 25 saw us pass the small-scale Belhaven University spirit zone, as well as the house where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty lived and wrote for 76 years, until her death in 2001.  It’s too bad the marathon course didn’t also pass by Medgar Evers’ home, though admittedly that would require significant re-routing of the course.

One final right turn brought the finish line into view.  With a thumbs-up to Katie, I ended my morning run along a stretch of Lamar St. lined with the flags of all 50 states, an appropriate and well conceived touch on this day when all 50 states were represented at a Mississippi sporting event for the first time ever.  Very cool to count myself as part of an historic sports moment.

Mike Sohaskey finishing strong at Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

All thumbs are up on the flag-lined homestretch of Lamar Street

Race, recover, repeat
I heard my name and hometown announced over the PA as I crossed the finish line, thereby dotting all the i’s in Mississippi in a time of 3:43:36.  After accepting my medal I shook hands with Pacer Bob and congratulated a tired-but-beaming runner who’d bested her PR after sticking right with the 3:45 pace group until the last couple of miles.  Pacer Bob did a terrific job throughout the race, and hopefully he and all the pacers realize how much their efforts are appreciated.  Thanks, Bob!

A few words about the medal (see photo below): with roughly 60 race medals in my collection now, the Mississippi Blues Marathon medal is easily a top-fiver.  Not only does it exemplify race bling in its size, heft and glittery blueness, but it’s forged in the shape of a guitar – a classic B.B. King Lucille-style model with a metal body and headstock and a ribbon fretboard.  And the coup de grâce is the dangling guitar pick inscribed with race logo and year that was included only with the marathon medal (sorry, halfers!).  Testifying to the medal’s imposing size, the TSA agent at the airport had to remove the medal from my backpack for separate security screening after it attracted attention as a large, indistinct blob on the X-ray scanner.  It took me a minute to realize what it was he was searching for.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho selfie at finish line of Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

Sure there are Chinese people in Mississippi, but I much prefer to bring my own

The post-race spread consisted primarily of bananas, pizza, cookies, chocolate milk and soft drinks.  Immediately upon exiting the finishers chute I began my post-race recovery and pre-race Alabama prep, following in part the recent suggestions of Marathon Running magazine.  These included:

1)  drinking water, chocolate milk (for the protein) and Dr. Pepper (for the sugar), before munching on some trail mix we’d brought and grabbing lunch a short time later;
2)  getting off my feet, which I did by settling into a chair in the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Art Garden.  There I monitored the post-race festivities and watched enviously as the male and female marathon winners each accepted their prize of a Cort guitar;
3)  soaking my legs and feet for 12 minutes in our do-it-yourself hotel ice bath – start with the coldest water possible, then after acclimating to the temperature add a bucket of ice;
4)  taking two Advil… normally a bad idea since inflammation is key to repairing post-race muscle damage; unfortunately, it’s also key to increasing post-race soreness.  I’d have plenty of time after noon on Sunday for my frazzled muscles to repair themselves;
5)  treated an angry blister and, with the help of Katie and my sadistic Orb, massaged hamstrings, IT bands and quads before hitting the road for Alabama.

Then, to quote another Southern gentleman, we were on the road again, headed 200 scenery-free highway miles southeast to Mobile, with a brief stop to stretch in Hattiesburg.  After my first marathon of the weekend, the scorecard stood at one blister, zero cramps and zero heaves.  I’d accomplished my low-stress goal of a sub-3:45 finish, and in the process had discovered a laid-back marathon with all the fixins, in a place most people would never bother to look.

But as much as I’d enjoyed day one of my Southern Fried running experiment, day two – and the real challenge of the weekend – lay ahead.  And if I knew then what awaited me in Alabama, you can bet I would’ve been singin’ the blues.

Mississippi Blues Marathon medal 2013

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a 50 States runner or are simply looking for a low-key, well organized road marathon that appreciates its runners, then you’ve gotta get to the Magnolia State for the Mississippi Blues Marathon.  With its frequent turns and rolling profile the course isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, but it does offer an unrivaled opportunity to see Mississippi’s capital city up close and personal.  Climate-wise, the state is tough to beat as a winter running destination.  And if you’re a musician, the medal alone is almost worth the trip.

PRODUCTION: Aside from eating crunchy yogurt for breakfast on Saturday (through no fault of the organizers), my race weekend in Jackson went off without a hitch.  Communication leading up to race weekend was minimal but sufficient, and the pre-race expo was small with just a handful of vendors.  The post-race party in the Art Garden was similarly low-key; food choices could have been more diverse, but I was perfectly happy snacking on bananas and chocolate milk to supplement the trail mix we’d brought with us.

Race volunteers are typically among the most patient and friendly people you’ll meet anywhere.  But the volunteers in Mississippi were a cut above in terms of friendliness, seemingly always smiling and taking every chance to thank the runners for coming to Jackson.

Other than the people, thoughtful race swag set this race apart.  In addition to the eye-catching, core-strengthening finishers medal, each race goodie bag contained a Hohner harmonica and a “Made in Mississippi” CD featuring music of the Mississippi Blues Marathon (including the appropriately titled track, “Done Got Tired of Tryin’ ”).  And rather than a race t-shirt, all runners received a long-sleeve black microfleece with the race logo emblazoned on the left lapel, and with a zipper that quickly broke.  [UPDATE (Jan. 31): A huge thumbs-up for Race Director John Noblin – all Mississippi Blues runners today received an email saying he’d heard our feedback and would be replacing “all of the shirts that have bad zippers”.  As a runner, you can’t ask for a more committed and responsive RD than that… thanks, John!]

One suggestion for next year’s race would be to have MUCH larger labels for each handheld pace group sign.  Pacer Bob did a great job, but whenever he got more than about fifteen feet ahead of me, I needed binoculars to read the time on his pace group sign.

FINAL STATS:
January 11, 2014
26.34 miles in Jackson, MS (state 6 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:43:36 (first time running the Mississippi Blues Marathon), 8:30/mile
Finish place: 107/830 overall, 17/82 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 830 marathon, 1606 half marathon
Race weather: sunny and warm (starting temp 61°F), with an intermittent breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 832ft ascent, 840ft descent

MS Blues splits

Darling I don’t know why I go to extremes.
– Billy Joel

[Happy birthday, Sandy! To the best sister genetics can buy… even if you do misguidedly tout your climbing addiction over my running fetish.]

Mike Sohaskey "Sohaskey-nicking" after 2013 Portland Marathon


If 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick can kiss his right biceps after scoring a TD, this seems an appropriate way to celebrate a running year like 2013

My 2013 was dramatically different than anything I anticipated at the end of 2012.  From day one the year evolved not so much from one month to the next or one race to the next, as from one extreme to the next.  It was, for example, the first year I’d race nothing shorter than a 25K (15.5 miles).  If you’re interested in numbers, you’ll find them at the end of this post.  But it’s largely by its outlier nature that I’ll remember my 2013 year in running:

Snowiest race ever:  Nestled all snug up next to Canada in the corner of the country, January’s Orcas Island 25K was the archetypal Pacific Northwest trail race, with a generous helping of brumal fury thrown in to keep things interesting.  The race started in cold rain and ascended into colder snowfall before descending to an even soggier finish line.  The pristine whiteness of snow-covered Summit Lake was an unforgettable highlight.  Even without the excellent company of Katie and three wonderful Washington wunning fwiends, this race would have stuck with me as the first time I’d ever raced in snow, falling or otherwise.  Yet despite the wintry conditions, this wouldn’t qualify as my coldest race of the year.  Because that singular distinction belonged to…

Coldest race ever:  Antarctica.  In March, Katie and I – along with nearly 100 other (insert appropriate adjective here) runners – set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina bound for Antarctica.  As you might imagine, this trip was all about extremes:
– The opportunity was extremely unexpected, given that we were plucked off the waiting list at the last minute, three weeks before our flight would depart for Argentina.
– Our fellow travelers were an extremely diverse group, and an amazing cast of some of the most motivated and inspirational characters you could ever hope to meet.  Among them were the former chief of security for Nelson Mandela, and a 14-year-old who went on to become the youngest person to run a marathon on all seven continents.  The trip truly opened my eyes to what it means to be part of the worldwide running community.
– And the continent itself is extremely, well, extreme: unless you’re an astronaut working on the space station, there’s very little in life to prepare you for what awaits on the coldest, highest, darkest, driest and windiest continent on Earth.

As it turned out, race day was less extreme than we’d feared.  In fact, I’d rather run in the conditions we did (temperatures in the low 20s with little wind) than on an average winter day in Buffalo.  Besides, Buffalo is fairly lacking in penguins and glaciers.

My two blog posts on the Antarctica Marathon were picked up by Reddit and Metafilter, and “surreal” is what happens when you find yourself reading comments about your blog posted on another site’s re-blog.  An abridged version of my narrative also appeared last month in the inaugural issue of Marathon Running, an online magazine available as a free subscription in the iTunes Store.  Though I’m clearly biased, I recognize the need for a good interactive running magazine, and I’d recommend Marathon Running based on its eye-catching debut.  Plus it’s free!  Cheap at thrice the price, so I hope you’ll check it out.  I’m eager to see what the publishers have in store for the future.

Metafilter comment


This was my favorite comment on Metafilter re: my blog posts… sorry about that, otter lady!

As it turns out, not everyone was so enthralled by our Antarctica adventure.  Our recent holiday card featured two photos of me and Katie, one under the Antarctica Marathon banner and the other in front of the Hollywood sign.  While visiting my childhood pal and his family back in Texas, their 9-year-old son asked us: “I saw your Christmas card [and here his eyes widened]… did you really go to HOLLYWOOD?”

And one last footnote on the Last Continent: on Thursday all 52 passengers aboard another Russian ship, which had been trapped in ice off the coast of Antarctica since Christmas Eve, were airlifted to safety by a Chinese helicopter.  Most amusing was the ship’s name, which was coincidentally (almost) perfect for a floundering research vessel that found itself relying on Chinese competence: the Akademik Shokalskiy.

Most shocking race moment:  April 15, 2:49pm EDT, Boylston Street, finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Bombs exploded, chaos reigned, lives were lost, lives were saved, runners united, Bostonians rallied and the world rallied around them.  I shared my thoughts the day after and the week after, with the solidarity of runners everywhere on display like never before.

Hottest race ever:  Curiously, my next race after Antarctica would be much closer to home, though no less extreme.  Held in the Cleveland National Forest on the hottest weekend of the year, the Harding Hustle 50K saw 40 runners toe the start line amidst predictions of record high temperatures up and down the West Coast, and the potential for a new planetary high temperature not too far from us in Death Valley.  And the day didn’t disappoint.  As my body struggled to cool itself over the last 20 miles, temperatures reached a reported 107°F on Santiago Peak, the pinnacle of the course.  By the time I shuffled across the finish line over 6-1/2 hours after I’d started, the mercury had plummeted to a relatively temperate 98°F.

And as long as we’re talking extremes: six months earlier, during a training run on that same course, I’d run (literally) into a driving snowstorm that had forced me to retreat back down the mountain.  A snowstorm… in Orange County.  Have you ever felt like you were living in a video game?

Most mature first-time runner:  I met 87-year-old Claire during an otherwise routine training run around the local marina.  She appreciated my form, I appreciated her moxie.  Our five minutes together stands as one of my most endearing memories of 2013.

Darkest race ever:  August saw Katie and I hop in the car and road trip to Las Vegas for the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon.  The race is run (as its name suggests) under the full moon in Rachel, NV, 2-1/2 hours outside Las Vegas in the heart of Area 51.  Although E.T. wouldn’t be my first nighttime race, it would be my longest.  Unfortunately the novelty of moonlit solitude would quickly wear off, as my darkest race ever morphed into my…

Most painful race ever:  Because on an otherwise pleasant (if sensorily underwhelming) evening, I misjudged a cattle guard crossing at mile 17 and felt my left ankle try to unscrew itself from my leg.  But as nauseating as the throbbing in my ankle was, my brain throbbed even worse at the idea of a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name.  And so, before common sense could rear its ugly head, I ran nine more painstaking miles to finish in under four hours and earn second place in my age group.  Most importantly, I secured a sweet glow-in-the-dark medal of a stoic alien face that seemed to look at me like, “So? Was I really worth it?”

Running is all about managing fatigue… overcoming mental and physical exhaustion is the name of the game.  But this was the first time I’d ever had to confront acute pain during a race – normally that’s a clear cue to stop running.  And although I’d recommend many things about my 2013, running with the sensation of having a sandbag strapped to one ankle wouldn’t be one of them.  Did I mention the medal glows in the dark?

The take-home lesson from my E.T. experience was that Las Vegas, with its vast human mazes winding circuitously through monolithic casinos, is the absolute worst city in the country to have a sprained ankle.  If you think it’s an obstacle course on two good feet, try navigating it on crutches.  Throw in the relentless electronic mating call of the slot machines, and again it’s like being in a bad video game, minus the extra lives.

Best race ever:  “Best” is a wholly subjective term to be sure, but The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNFEC) Championship Marathon in December was a serious contender.  Certainly it wasn’t the fastest marathon I’ve run – the 4,700 feet of elevation gain and loss saw to that – but it may have been my most consistent and rewarding effort ever from start to finish.  In my first TNFEC marathon (and first TNFEC race since 2009), I managed a sub-10:00/mile performance and third-place age group finish.  I chalk up my successful day to a healthy dose of Karno karma, and to the unbearable lightness of being in the Marin Headlands.

Mike Sohaskey - 2013 race collage

Surprisingly, the only statistic I (still) really care about – my overall race percentile – held steady at 91 this year, as I crossed the finish line 706th out of 7,633 total finishers.  Meaning that once again, after all was said and run, I finished in the top 9% of all losers.  That’s a status quo I’m happy to maintain.

Clearly these races and race moments testify to an unforgettable 2013.  And yet the hands-down highlight of the year would have to be my good fortune in meeting and getting to know so many passionate runners – and excellent people – from across the globe, while continuing to live and run every day in one of the most consistently beautiful places on Earth.  California may get singled out for its high cost of living and heathen mindset, but the rest of the country (to adapt the rant of Colonel Nathan R. Jessup) wants us on that seawall, it needs us on that seawall.  And since moving here 20 years ago, I have yet to run a single mile on a treadmill.

Certainly extreme is in the eye of the beholder, and the potential exists for more extreme opportunities going forward, including longer distances, higher altitudes and faster finish times.  In fact, my first test of 2014 will be one that even many runners would call extreme (or just plain dumb)… but to me it’s simply another new wrinkle in the fabric of a sport that never lacks for compelling challenges.

Like every year, 2014 will feature its fair share of personal goals and running subplots, and I’ll continue to hit them all hard.  But as a disciple of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) school of running, I’ll always defer to what for me has become Running Strategery 101: Just run.  Sometimes too fast, sometimes too slow, sometimes just right.  On hard pavement, in soft dirt, over the river and through the woods.  No matter if my brain is melting or the rest of me is freezing.  Just run, and the rest will take care of itself.  And if we happen to cross paths on the road or trail, don’t be surprised if you see me smiling.

Looking ahead, my 2014 race schedule at this point resembles an EKG… long stretches of quiet interspersed with abrupt spikes of activity.  The schedule will continue to evolve as new spikes are added.  But for now the BC&H world tour will take us down to the Deep South next week and up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur in the spring, as well as across the country to New York City and across the Atlantic to Berlin.  I’m especially psyched by the prospect of running two world marathon majors in less than two months.  But the most exciting part of my year may well fall in the space between races, and I look forward to sharing all the details of our new project when the time comes.

So stay tuned!  Hopefully you’ll continue to follow along… after all, more than a few BC&H readers set personal records in 2013, and I can’t help but think that’s not coincidence.  And for you non-running types, you never know – I may just convince you that a 30-mile run up and down hills really is the best possible way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

And so, with apologies to Billy Joel, actually I do know why I go to extremes – because they’re sure not coming to me.

Hope you hit all your goals in 2014!

Mike Sohaskey running at sunset along beach

FINAL STATS of 2013:
2,326 miles run in 235 days (9.9 miles/day average)
17 days lost to injury (sore psoas muscle after the Orcas Island 25K; sprained ankle at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon)
157.6 miles raced (including the Women’s Health RUN 10 FEED 10 L.A. fun run in September)
6 races (one 50K, four marathons, one 25K) in four states (CA, NV, OR, WA) and on two continents (North America, Antarctica)
Overall race percentile: 91 (same as 2012!) = 706/7,633 total finishers
3 age-group podium finishes (1/10 at the Antarctica Marathon; 2/20 at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon; 3/13 at The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship Marathon)
Fastest race pace: 8:02/mile (Portland Marathon)
Slowest race pace: 12:30/mile (Harding Hustle 50K)
20 blog posts written

A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky.
Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse Monument Oct 2011

The devil, we’re told, is in the details.  In which case some readers may deem me a practicing Satanist.  In an effort to document the races I run for myself and like-minded runners, I prefer to err on the side of ample detail.  Creating and writing this blog hasn’t necessarily changed how I observe and absorb the world around me, but it has given my brain a more compelling reason to do so.  I now appreciate the importance not just of seeing but of noticing – noteworthy facts, amusing details, poignant behaviors.  The stuff that makes every race – and even the most ho-hum training run – unique from every other.

BC&H was born after my near-literal meltdown on Mt. Diablo in April 2012.  More recently, though, in considering the 44 races of varying distances (including four marathons) that I logged prior to Diablo, it struck me that I really should have begun the blog six months earlier.  I should have begun with a race that still ranks among my favorite running experiences, and whose blow-by-blow details remain remarkably vivid in my mind two years later.  I should have begun with the 2011 Run Crazy Horse Marathon.

And so, with the help of Garmin, Google Maps and Katie’s own memory and record-keeping, I’ve decided to put my pre-blog perspicacity to the test, and right this wrong before it gets any wronger.  Besides, I’d hate to look back years from now, once I’ve hopefully medaled in all 50 states and on all 7 continents, and end up kicking myself because I’m left with only vague, surreal memories of an extraordinary weekend in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Here then is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (as I remember it) about marathon #2 in state #2 – inspired by a single-minded sculptor who was every bit as crazy as the legend he sought to immortalize.

The Motive
I live in a scenic warm-weather state full of amazing races.  Why, then, for my second marathon would I travel to the middle of the country to run in a state that most Americans think of (if they think of it at all) as Flyover Land?  A state that too often gets grouped with its northern counterpart under the collective heading of “The Dakotas”?

I’d visited South Dakota nearly a decade earlier, with buddies Pete and Matt on a road trip through several of the less populated states.  Realizing Katie would get a similar charge out of its natural beauty and majestic monuments, I resolved to bring her back with me on a future visit.  Nine years later, while training for the 2011 California International Marathon, I remembered hearing of an October marathon in South Dakota that allowed runners to start from either of the state’s two deftly chiseled mountains, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial or the Crazy Horse Memorial.  That was all I needed to know, to know I’d found my next race.

My interwebs research quickly revealed that the “Monument Challenge” Marathon had been discontinued two years earlier, in 2009.  Fortunately, it had been reborn the following year as the inaugural Run Crazy Horse Marathon.  More importantly, what hadn’t changed was that the two memorials still sat nestled in the Black Hills, only 16 miles apart.

Mt Rushmore - day and night view

The difference between these two is like night and day

So it was that Katie and I found ourselves on Friday flying into South Dakota over the dark, tree-covered terrain that earned the region its Lakota designation – Paha Sapa, or “hills that are black”.  Our flight touched down in Rapid City, which lies in the southwest corner of the state and is its second most populous city after Sioux Falls.  Luckily for us, the timing of race weekend happened to coincide with the final evening lighting ceremony of the year at Mount Rushmore, which was scheduled to start 90 minutes after our plane landed.  So we hit the ground renting (a car, that is) and made the 45-minute drive in time for Katie to witness Mount Rushmore as few visitors do their first time – with the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln slowly emerging out of the Black Hills darkness and into (artificial) light.

Mount Rushmore is one of the few national icons that every American recognizes.  In fact, its façade is so ubiquitous in American culture that you could be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that the real thing couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.  But you’d be wrong.  Seeing those four intricately carved faces gazing like silent sentries from atop the mountain is breathtaking even in broad daylight, against the typical backdrop of visitor traffic and vocal toddlers.  But at night, under dramatic lighting and with life’s usual exhortations muted, the majesty of Mount Rushmore speaks softly and carries a very big stick.

City of Presidents

Rapid City’s “City of Presidents” includes (clockwise from upper left) Franklin Pierce,
James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt
(It’s unclear whether the real Buchanan had a rhino-like horn on his head)

After bidding Mount Rushmore goodbye, we headed back to Rapid City, where we enjoyed a late dinner at Wine Cellar, a local restaurant with the look and feel (if not quite the food) of a Napa Valley bistro.  Our waiter welcomed us with the news that we’d arrived in the midst of an unseasonal heat wave (my 8th grade English teacher would call this foreshadowing).  He also shared his story of how, the previous summer, Guns N’ Roses had dropped by the restaurant for dinner prior to playing the nearby Sturgis Monkey Rock USA Festival, their first U.S. show in four years – and how, in typical Axl Rose fashion, their time to hit the stage had come and gone while the band’s members sat in the restaurant.  I had to smile at the comforting thought that – nearly 20 years after I’d twice experienced that same G N’ R volatility as a college kid in Houston – the more Axl changed, the more he stayed the same.

Saturday began with a short morning run along the Mickelson Trail near our hotel in Hill City (my 8th grade English teacher might point to the town’s name as a second example of foreshadowing).  We then grabbed lunch on Main Street, site of the next day’s finish line.  I would say Hill City looks like a land that time forgot, except I’m not sure the town cares to be remembered.  With business names like the Bumpin Buffalo Bar & Grill, the Mangy Moose Saloon and Broken Arrow Trading Company, Hill City gives the impression of a dusty one- or two-horse town that embraces its Wild West ethos.  Amidst the quaint local shops that line Main Street, the town’s Harley-Davidson dealership offers a nod to the pervasive and freewheeling biker (i.e. motorcycle) culture that puts this region on the national map for one week a year in August.

After lunch we made the quarter-mile walk across town to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Black Hills, where the low-key race expo was housed in one modestly sized room.  We quickly negotiated the 5-10 sponsor booths, with the exception of one booth where a chatty older woman selling alkalinized water bent our ear for several minutes, seemingly delighted to have someone to talk to.

Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011 elevation profile

The elevation profile agrees: the high point of the course was the monument at mile 2

Katie studied the posted list of registered runners and commented on how few out-of-towners would be running the marathon.  Meanwhile, glancing at the course map, I was taken aback to discover a key variable I’d completely overlooked in my twitterpated zeal to revisit the Black Hills: elevation.  Turns out the marathon would begin at 5,919 ft of elevation before reaching its zenith at 6,083 ft (foreshadowing hat trick complete).  But at just over a mile high, I tried to reassure myself, how much of an impact could altitude really have?  After all, I’d gained 7,815 vertical feet to finish the Pikes Peak Ascent at 14,115ft the previous summer – a ludicrous comparison that did absolutely nothing for my confidence.

With race bib and newfound trepidation in hand, we made the 30-minute drive back to Rapid City, where we strolled its impressive downtown “City of Presidents” display of life-size bronze statues honoring all 43 former U.S. Presidents (with Barack Obama in the works).  Collectively, the statues elevate Rapid City from “sleepy town near Mount Rushmore” to “sleepy town with cool historical diversion near Mount Rushmore”.

Feeling like participants in a South Dakota scavenger hunt, we hopped back in the car and returned to Mount Rushmore, where we were able to appreciate the monument in full daylight and from all possible ground angles, via a walking path that leads around the base of the mountain.  At last, the time came to bid Rushmore adieu for the second and final time – Crazy Horse beckoned, and who were we to keep a legend waiting?

Mount Rushmore as framed through a one-lane tunnel on U.S. Route 16A

The Monument
The sprawling horizon was reeling in a rose-hued sun as we pulled into the parking lot of the Crazy Horse Memorial.  Despite being the final listing under the heading of “National Parks and Monuments” on South Dakota’s Wiki page, Crazy Horse is an astonishing testament to one man’s vision, tireless resolve and get-‘er-done-itude.  Except that sadly, it isn’t done… and in fact it’s nowhere close.

The Memorial began life as the passion project of Korczak Ziolkowski, a Boston-born sculptor of Polish descent.  After assisting fellow sculptor Gutzon Borglum in the creation of Mount Rushmore, Korczak returned to the Black Hills in 1947 at age 38 at the invitation of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, who shared his idea for a similar mountain tribute to honor Native Americans.  “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too,” wrote Standing Bear.  Work began and the Crazy Horse Memorial was dedicated on June 3, 1948.

The sheer size and scope of Korczak’s project is mind-boggling.  The sculptor designed his carving of Lakota war leader Crazy Horse, pointing with outstretched arm astride his steed, to be the largest sculpture in the world: upon completion, it would measure 563ft high by 641ft long.  All four heads of Mount Rushmore would easily fit inside Crazy Horse’s own 87½-foot-high head.

Crazy Horse 1/34-size scale model

Sculptor Korczak’s 1/34-size scale model of the finished monument (with the real thing in the background)

Unfortunately, due to Korczak’s insistence that the project subsist entirely on charitable donations and private funding, work on the monument has proceeded at a lugubrious pace, and only the Lakota Chief’s face has so far been completed.  According to the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, Korczak twice refused federal grants of ten million dollars because he wanted his Memorial to be a “humanitarian project built by the interested public and not the taxpayer.”

Korczak’s master plan extends beyond the monument itself, envisioning an entire campus that includes an Indian Museum of North America and the American Indian University and Medical Training Center.  After his death in 1982, Korczak’s wife Ruth along with seven of their ten children took up the mantle and continue to oversee work on the project to this day.  If and when the Memorial might be completed, however, remains anyone’s guess.

So I was happy to support Korczak’s grand vision, and my support began with a pre-race pasta dinner at the Memorial’s Laughing Water Restaurant, followed by a laser light show projected on the monument itself.  Whereas the meal was excellent in its simplicity, the light show was well-meaning but surreal, thanks in part to its ’70s musical choreography.  In particular, “Music Box Dancer” is a discomforting instrumental that would – as bad music is wont to do – spend the rest of the weekend pirouetting its way through my impressionable brain.  Ouch.

Laser light show

The laser light show was projected on the monument itself

The Marathon
On Sunday morning we made the return drive from Hill City to Crazy Horse for the 8:00a.m. marathon start.  With the awakening sun stretching out over the Black Hills and the start area still swathed in shade, the already warm weather brought to mind our waiter’s words from two nights earlier: unseasonal heat wave.  I was wearing the most lightweight tech shirt I owned, carrying a bottle of my usual Cytomax/GU concoction, and hoping most of the course would be adequately shaded.  I might just as well have hoped for Pegasus to swoop down and carry me across the finish line.

I have vague recollections of Native American drum beats playing to start the race and send 700 eager runners on our way toward Hill City.  Beginning from the Memorial Visitors Center, the first 3.5 miles of the course would be run on Memorial grounds.  After initially leading runners away from the monument, the course looped back past the “BLASTING AREA CLOSED TO PUBLIC” sign and to a turnaround point just below the mountain.  Glancing upward yielded an awesome view of Crazy Horse’s meticulously chiseled face.  Then the monument was behind us once again, and the paved course headed downhill and out of the complex to meet up with the region’s famed George S. Mickelson Trail.

Mike Sohaskey running Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

If the mountain won’t run to Muhammad…

The next ten miles, cruising along the crushed limestone and gravel surface of the Mickelson Trail adjacent to U.S. Route 16, infused me with a Bob Marley-like confidence that Every little thing, gonna be all right!  Verdant pines and golden autumn foliage threw wispy shadows across the sun-dappled trail, which periodically traversed a converted railroad bridge.  Adding to my confidence was the trail’s persistent downward trajectory, which enabled me to pass several runners and string together ten relatively easy 8-minute miles.  I resolved to bank time by running comfortably fast on this first-half descent, though not so fast that I risked flaming out before the more demanding second half.

As we approached the midway point of the race, the course transitioned from the comfy packed gravel of the Mickelson Trail onto the asphalt Main Street of downtown Hill City.  Here, across from the Bumpin Buffalo, the inflatable black-and-blue (coincidence?) finisher’s arch greeted joyful half marathoners while spurning the rest of us.  This struck me as the ultimate mind game, forcing the 26.2ers to pass within inches of the finish line while watching our fellow 13.1ers collect their medal and revel in their accomplishment.  The race organizers clearly have a sadistic streak, and even at the time I had to nod my approval.

Mike Sohaskey on Mickelson Trail during Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

Nearing mile 19 on the Mickelson Trail (left), where shetland ponies look on in bemusement (right)

If the first half of the race was the charming Dr. Jekyll, the second half morphed gruesomely into Mr. Hyde.  A hilly 13-mile out-and-back awaited, and the sun’s onslaught intensified as if seizing its opportunity to do some damage along this shade-free stretch.  Katie was waiting as always with a smile and encouragement as the course left Main Street, circled Major Lake and began its punishing ascent toward a reunion with the Mickelson Trail.

Returning to the smooth dirt surface of the Mickelson Trail, my pace gradually slowed.  I was already fighting the twin trials of escalating 80-degree heat and mile-high elevation, and strike three would come in the form of a steady uphill out to the turnaround point at mile 19.6.  The blunt-force reality of the situation hit me along that out-and-back stretch, when I looked up to see the leader and eventual winner – who was headed back in the opposite direction – stopped in his tracks and standing bent over with hands on knees.  That’s not something you want to see at any point in a race, much less before you’ve even reached the turnaround.

Katie had driven to the aid station where Deerfield Rd intersected with the Mickelson Trail, and was waiting to cheer me on just after mile 18.  We traded a few words as I walked through the aid station in an attempt to cool down and rehydrate.  Unfortunately the aid station doubled as a transfer point for the marathon relay – and as annoyances go, there’s little to rival the bouncy, fresh-faced relay runner who starts their race at mile 20 and clearly expects your dragging ass to yield the right-of-way to them as they fly by.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie at finish line of Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

Katie would be front and center on the Mount Rushmore of support crews

By the time I returned to that same aid station 3½ miles later, I was feeling light-headed from the combination of elevation and sun exposure, and also embarrassed that Katie was still there to see me slowly shuffle by like an overheated mule.  Four painfully long miles lay ahead, and as Katie cheered me on with promises to meet at the finish, I reflected bitterly on the FAQ section of the race website:

Will I be affected by the altitude, especially if I am flying from a place at or near sea level?
The short answer is “no,” you won’t be affected.  The slightly longer answer is that any minimal affect from the altitude is offset by the perfect running conditions, cool and dry.

All I want, I told myself more than once, is to finish this race… Crazy Horse ain’t got nothin’ on this insanity.  Suddenly, the Bumpin Buffalo and Mangy Moose felt very far away.  And I couldn’t imagine how the few runners I’d passed must be feeling.  I walked my oxygen-deprived muscles through yet another aid station, dousing myself with water in a futile attempt to revive myself.  By this time my pace had crept up into consistent 10-minute/mile territory (mile 24 even crawled above 11 minutes), and I entered the runner-populated town of Bonk City – a city devoid of homes, offices or even roads, but with only one impassably high Wall encircling the entire city.  And struggle as I might, there was no way I’d be scaling The Wall in my overheated state.

Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011 finish line approach

The shortest distance between two points is NOT this convoluted path to the finish (Google Earth)

I had heat-induced visions of the race organizers surreptitiously extending what now seemed a never-ending stretch of trail.  Damn thing has to end eventually.  And at long long last it did, transitioning back on to now-blessed asphalt.  Wearily I took a few deep breaths as I shuffled my way down that final incline, not daring to look at my Garmin for fear I’d already blown past the four-hour mark.  I reached Main Street and approached the finisher’s arch from the opposite direction.  And whether I was thinking of myself or the finish line, the only two words my sun-addled brain could register were dead ahead.  This time the finish line couldn’t turn me away…

Except it did.  Roughly 50 yards from the finish, we were unexpectedly detoured by a right turn, followed by a quick left that led us down one last 0.1-mile stretch of alleyway parallel to Main Street.  And I’d thought the race organizers were sadistic at mile 13.1.  With that final blow to my psyche, I honestly felt I might collapse in that alleyway, propped up against a fence and unable to stand after running 26.1 miles.  I felt none of the home-stretch euphoria that’s typified every other marathon I’ve run – only a grinding, full-body exhaustion.  But stay upright I did, long enough to make two more quick left turns that led me back to Main Street and across the finish line in a surprisingly triumphant time of 3:55:22.  Turns out my strong first half had more than covered for my shaky second half.

Mike Sohaskey approaching finish of Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

Desperado may be Lakota for “desperate to finish this race before it kills me”

The Aftermath
Crossing that finish line might have elicited more emotion if my equilibrium hadn’t been in such turmoil.  Gratefully I accepted my ceramic finisher’s medal from a smiling volunteer and, after eschewing (because there’d be no chewing) solid food in favor of a few sips of Powerade, I sprawled out awkwardly on my back on a knee-high brick wall.  The rough brick was only slightly more forgiving than lying on stairs, but at that moment I needed to lie down somewhere I wouldn’t be underfoot.

Fortunately I was able to avoid making any gastric sacrifices to the running gods, but suffice it to say I’ll always have naus-talgic memories of Crazy Horse.

As I lay there trying to regain some sense of normalcy, Katie checked the results and discovered that my sub-four finish had earned me third place in my age group.  For my effort I received a very cool dreamcatcher, which remains the most distinctive award (age group or otherwise) I’ve received to date.

Although my pose – flat on my back with sunglasses shielding my eyes – couldn’t have looked too inviting, another fellow stopped alongside me to ask “Hey how do you like those compression socks do you wear them for all your marathons I tried to wear mine for a 50K a while back but they really messed up my Achilles so now I can’t wear them anymore but I was just wondering how you like ‘em I mean do they give you any problems ‘cuz like I said mine rub my Achilles and…”  Still queasy and getting queasier by the word, I croaked out a weak “They’ve been great.”  This seemed to either satisfy his curiosity or clue him into my plight, because he continued on his way without another word.

Devils Tower photo taken by Mike Sohaskey

Devils Tower was our first national monument (1906), and still is one of many good reasons to visit Wyoming

Eventually I stumbled to my feet and we returned to our nearby hotel, where I collapsed on the bed for another few minutes before dragging myself into the shower.  After checking out we settled on Subway as a safe and familiar lunch option to appease my disgruntled GI tract.  Then it was time to put South Dakota in our rearview mirror, and we were able to admire the not-quite-autumnal textures of the Black Hills one last time as we crossed the border on Interstate 90 into rugged Wyoming.  That evening and the next morning we hiked around Devils Tower, the nation’s first national monument and another awe-inspiring testament to the power and beauty of Flyover Land.

The American philospher George Santayana warned us that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Hopefully one day, in the case of one memorable weekend in the Black Hills, those who can remember it will have that same chance.

Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011 finishers & age group medals

BOTTOM LINE: The race’s official name says it all – Run Crazy Horse.  The Marathon offers a wicked combination of picturesque beauty, historical context and a challenging course you’ll both love and hate in a span of five miles.  As such, Crazy Horse is a no-brainer for any runner looking to get out, explore a less ballyhooed region of the country and spice up their race catalog.  I appreciate the argument against desecrating nature, but at the same time if you’re going to vandalize a mountain, you’d better have a Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse to show for it.

PRODUCTION: Sadistic though they may be, the organizers of the Run Crazy Horse weekend did a terrific job from start (expo and pre-race dinner) to finish (medals).  The Marathon had the comforting feel of a low-key trail race, yet without any wrong turns or logistical glitches.  Though I carried my own bottle and the details of the aid stations escape me, I recall them being there when I needed water to dump on my head.  As swag goes, the race shirt was a serviceable red short-sleeve tech tee.  But the stars of the show, other than the Memorial itself, were the ceramic finisher’s medal and age-group dreamcatcher, both of which will always evoke the spirit of Crazy Horse and the dedication of those who have toiled to keep his memory alive.

For another perspective, I’d recommend Dan’s eerily similar experience at the 2012 Run Crazy Horse Marathon.

FINAL STATS:
October 2, 2011
26.19 miles from the Crazy Horse Memorial to Hill City, SD (State 2 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:55:22 (first time running the Run Crazy Horse Marathon), 8:59/mile
Finish place: 21/119 overall, 3/9 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: Sunny and unseasonally hot (temperatures reached the low 80s)
Elevation: 5,919ft at the start, 6083ft max

Crazy Horse splits