Posts Tagged ‘50 States’

The marathon can humble you.
Bill Rodgers

Portland Marathon 2013 street banners

First and most important things first… HAPPY 40th BIRTHDAY, KRISTINA!  Please consider this blog post my present to you, in the form of another fun place to take the family.  Though with today being particularly busy, you should feel free to wait to read it until, say, 12:01am tomorrow…

Admittedly I‘m no connoisseur of marathon training programs, but I’d imagine very few recommend the following regimen for weeks 10-12 of a 16-week training cycle:

(From Bart Yasso’s race-tested intermediate marathon-training program, Runner’s World July ’09)

Unfortunately, thanks to a nasty ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon in August, this is exactly what my training Franken-program would look like leading up to the Portland Marathon last Sunday.  Yes, I was acutely aware that cramming in 50-mile weeks was a risky remedy for two weeks on the couch.  But I was equally determined not to go first-time marathoner, fizzling out at mile 20 and death-marching my way across the finish line.

After my first four races this year alternated among rain, snow, ice, extreme heat and darkness – along with a healthy dose of hillage – I was looking forward to my first legitimate opportunity of 2013 to get out and run.  And Portland would be just what this doctor ordered: a largely – though as I’d soon learn, not entirely – flat course under cool, sunny skies.  In fact, Portland would be the coolest running weather I’d experienced since moving to L.A. from the Bay Area in April.  So I was hoping that a summer’s worth of heat training would give me a literal leg up toward a new PR in the Pacific Northwest.  Turns out I really should pay attention to course maps before the race.

I chose Portland as my autumn road marathon for two reasons:  1) Katie and I hadn’t visited the Rose City in over a decade and were eager to return; and 2) Fellow running blogger (runnogger?) Dan, whose goal is to run a half marathon or farther in all 50 states, had chosen this year’s Portland Marathon as his Oregon race.  Dan and I first met after he found my Chicago Marathon post last October, and his blog quickly became a must-read thanks to its fluid style and narrative knack for making the reader feel like a strategic third eye in the middle of his forehead.  Though our physical paths had never crossed (not counting the 2011 Austin Half Marathon, where we apparently finished 72 seconds apart), over the past year I’d watched him morph from 3:30:00 wannabe into hardcore ultrarunner whose no-joke marathon PR of 3:23:12 I now find myself chasing from a distance.

Dan and his buddy Otter (whose self-deprecating blog chronicles his own entertaining path to ultrarunning enlightenment) would be tackling Portland as the back end of their own personal gut check: back-to-back marathons.  On consecutive days.  In neighboring states.  After running the Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon in Washington on Saturday, they would be driving five hours to knock out another 26.2 in Portland on Sunday.  Like me, Dan’s most recent race had been truncated by injury, so I was psyched when he texted me shortly after noon on Saturday to say “3:57 for the first one.  Tomorrow should be… interesting.”  How prophetic he was.

Hotel-room view of the Hawthorne Bridge over the Willamette River, with snow-capped Mt. Hood beyond

We arrived in Portland on Friday afternoon.  As we settled back for the 38-minute light rail ride from the airport to our downtown hotel, what struck me was the number of trees and the sheer amount of greenery (and autumn orangery, pinkery, and goldery) that lined our route.  Not your typical urban train ride.  A short time later, wheeling our luggage along city blocks that looked like they’d been washed down with a fire hose, my lungs filled with the crisp, newly scrubbed air that follows a good cry from Mother Nature.

Although Portlanders and Seattleites will argue over whose city gets more rain, Portland’s reputation as one of the soggier cities in the country is well-earned.  Case in point, the week before our arrival saw the city buffeted by the tail end of a Pacific Typhoon that led more than one local to tell us how lucky we were “not to be here last week”.  Portland is a very green city, and a beautiful place when the sun shines (as it would for us all weekend)… but with great greenery comes great precipitation.  Such is life in the Pacific Northwest.

Even if I’d had no race the next day, Saturday alone would almost have justified our trip.  The day began with a relaxed 3-mile run north along the western banks of the Willamette River (a friend now living in Portland reminded us that when in doubt of the river’s pronunciation, it’s the Willamette, damn it!).  As I passed the Portland Saturday Market, the spirited sounds of weekend gaiety and the smoky smells of char-grilling billowed from an eclectic collection of white tents.  The law of conservation of energy was on clear display in the sun-dappled park, with restless children chasing and giving chase while drowsy adults lay sprawled out on the grass in full repose.

After lunch we hit the bustling race expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton.  With its red velvet stanchions and awkwardly slanted floors, the venue felt like a low-budget amusement park ride.  Sponsor booths, which were confusedly distributed among two rooms and a hallway, featured the usual combination of high-profile brands and less established companies.  But the hands-down highlight was the opportunity to meet running legend Bill Rodgers.  The line at Rodgers’ table was surprisingly short, and we chatted for a couple of minutes before he signed my copy of his new memoir, Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World (based on the title, I’m halfway there!).  He also recommended former teammate Alberto Salazar’s own autobiography.

Mike Sohaskey with running legend Bill Rodgers

 With running legend Bill Rodgers… between us we’ve won 4 Boston Marathons, 4 New York City Marathons and 1 Limantour Half Marathon in Point Reyes, CA

The second highlight of the day would come that evening, as fellow Antarctica travelers Donn and Rod hosted us and several other guests at their beautiful floating home on the Willamette River.  Rod’s veggie lasagne was carbo-perfect, the camaraderie was excellent, and we spent much of the evening admiring the view of the river from their gently swaying deck.  Donn recounted their first morning in the house, when he’d glanced out the window to see a seal feasting on a salmon, followed by two bald eagles swooping in to scavenge the leftovers.  By the time he dropped us off at our hotel, I felt rested and ready to leave my non-carbon footprints all over this city.

Sunday morning’s alarm rudely interrupted our sixth hour of sleep.  Pulling back the curtains on a still-darkened and slumbering city, I dressed and prepared my standard pre-race meal, an easily digestible mush of granola, peanut butter and almond milk yogurt.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, my rapid metabolism compels me to eat no earlier than an hour before the starting gun, so I don’t burn through my glycogen stores by mile 10.  Legs feel good, feet feel good… race day adrenaline gradually kicked in as we made our way through the nascent twilight toward Lownsdale Square, where the start line awaited.

On this day Portland would be honoring those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings.  I was relieved, then, to see no overt indicators of beefed-up security as we made our way through the throngs toward corral A.  Kudos to the organizers for recognizing that you can’t police random acts of hatred without sacrificing a whole lot else.

It struck me how long it had been since I’d seen race-day weather like this: clear skies and a starting temperature in the low 40s.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need to reference the warning signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke listed on the back of my oversized race bib.

Mike Sohaskey at start line of Portland Marathon 2013

Who let the slow guy so close to the start line?

Finally 7:00a.m. arrived.  After a moment of silence in remembrance of Boston, the assembled runners joined together in an a capella singing of the national anthem, followed over the PA system by a few bars of “Sweet Caroline,” again in tribute to Boston (I’d be sporting my own “I Run For Boston” shirt).  Then my good buddy Bill Rodgers counted us down to zero, the crowd surged forward, and the streets of Portland beckoned.

Taking care not to fire out of the gate too quickly, I fell in with the 3:25:00 pace group and reached the mile 1 marker in a disappointing 8:16, already 33 seconds behind last year’s Chicago PR pace (an eventual 3:28:45 finish).  I resolved to stick with the 3:25 group for as long as possible – if I could stay between the 3:25 and 3:30 pacers (and preferably closer to 3:25) from start to finish, I’d be a happy running man.  This would be the first time I’d chosen to fall in with a pace group so early in a race.

Within the first mile, a female punk band supported on a platform over the street provided our first musical entertainment.  The next few miles along the waterfront then featured, in rapid succession, an amusingly diverse collection of incongruent acts:  a female singer/guitarist, solo harpist, honky-tonk bluegrass band, pan flutist and some sort of wind chimes which I thought might segue into “Silver Bells”.  Apparently unimpressed by this latter selection, the fellow next to me shouted “Play ‘Eye of the Tiger’!”  Ah, what highly trained creatures of habit we are.

Inspirational or not, the music in the first three miles distracted from the course’s steady uphill trajectory between miles 1 and 3.  I retreated into my own head for the early stages of the race, mentally ticking off each muscle group in turn to ensure we were all on the same page.  After that I focused on a game of “Name That Shoe,” as I tested my knowledge by guessing the brand – and in some cases the model – of shoe being worn by those around me: So those are the Brooks PureProject line, but PureFlow or PureCadence?  I think that color scheme is only offered for the PureFlow… and the Brooks logo on top of the upper tells me PureFlow 2, second generation.  The early “get-through-em” miles of a marathon can be kinda boring.

Portland Marathon 2013 elevation chart

That inexplicably sharp dip at mile 17 is, somehow, the St. John’s Bridge

After a 4-mile out-and-back hairpin loop through a typically urban mix of residential and commercial neighborhoods, we hugged the downtown waterfront for another mile before entering the least inspiring section of the course, another out-and-back through the train yards and industrial wasteland along Front Avenue.  But for me, Front Avenue turned out to be the most eventful section of the course.

First, it was along this stretch that Dan and I met, offering quick words of recognition and encouragement as we headed in opposite directions.  This was more challenging than it sounds, since the southeast-facing “back” segment I was running faced directly into a blinding sun.  As seen through sunglasses, runners approaching from the other direction were nebulous silhouettes, leading me to run with sunglasses in hand as I squinted into the steady stream of oncoming runners.  Fortunately Dan and I spotted each other around mile 10, as he looked to be well on his way to his second sub-4:00 marathon in 24 hours.  Nothing seemed more appropriate at that moment than two marathoners meeting for the first time mid-race and in mid-stride.

I kept an eye out for Otter as well, but not knowing his pace or what he was wearing, I’d have to wait to meet him at the finish.  Shortly after seeing Dan, we passed a loudspeaker blasting REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which despite being a catchy song did little for my motivation with its plaintive refrain of “Trying to keep, up, with you… and I don’t know if I can do it….”

But my gold star for “Worst Premeditated Idea” goes to the idiots in the pirate costumes, who apparently decided – with Boston still fresh on everyone’s mind – that firing off a cannon was a totally awesome way to show their support for the runners.  As the blast exploded, runners around me momentarily broke stride before seeing the setup ahead and angrily realizing what had happened.  Too bad we had no plank handy for those pirates to walk.

“HEY EVERYBODY, WHAT’S THE HURRY?”

Thanks to the train tracks that regularly cross the course along Front Avenue, I found myself flashing back to my recent ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon and monitoring my footing closely.  On the bright side, any distraction (other than warring pirates) along this stretch of industrial nothingness was much appreciated.

Just before the mile 11 turnoff on to NW 17th Avenue, we passed one of Portland’s many (or so I hear) gentlemen’s clubs.  Some useful trivia for those looking to plan a bachelor party for a hippie buddy: With its “live and let live” attitude and sketchy past, Portland boasts more strip clubs per capita than Las Vegas.  And if I hadn’t been glancing around trying to distract myself at that moment, I probably would’ve missed the amusing sign advertising “hardwood” on the building next door to the strip club.  If we weren’t all adults here, I’d compliment Portland on its sly sense of humor.

Still feeling strong and with the Front Avenue out-and-back now thankfully out of the way, I scored a momentary burst of adrenaline upon seeing Katie for (already) the third time at mile 11.5.  We passed the midway point at mile 13.1 without fanfare and transitioned on to the spectator-free shoulder of busy NW St. Helens Road, where Smart cars, hybrids and a smattering of fossil fuel guzzlers zoomed by on our right.  Three miles later I paused at the mile 15.5 aid station to spill a cup of Ultima Replenisher on myself (about half made it into my mouth) before setting off again in pursuit of the 3:25 pace group, which was slowly creeping ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 11.5 of Portland Marathon 2013

All smiles at mile 12 – clearly we are having an awful lot of fun

The course then veered left past a “Checkpoint Charlie” overseen by marines in uniform.  Here began the toughest and most noticeable ascent of the day, a slow ½-mile burn up to the St. John’s Bridge.  Pushing uphill as hard as I dared without risking a flame-out, I reached the roadbed of the St. John’s Bridge with the 3:25 pacers still in my sights about 25 yards ahead.  The bridge provided a much-needed respite as my hill-addled legs tried to recover from the brief but taxing climb.  And there I was able to appreciate the highlight of the course, a stunning panoramic view of Mt. Hood in the distance.

Unfortunately, the damage had been done.  Although I wouldn’t realize it until after the race, the hills had taken enough out of my legs that mile 16 (at 7:52/mile) would be my final sub-8:00 mile of the day.  Not coincidentally, as we reached the eastern (opposite) side of the St. John’s Bridge, I glanced up to see the 3:25 pace group gradually… pulling… away.  In that moment, I felt strong enough to convince myself that as long as I maintained my current pace, I might still be able to gain back some ground in mile 23 or 24.  And even if I didn’t catch them (a more likely scenario), I’d still set myself up for a 3:27-ish finish, which would send me home from Portland with a nice PR.

As we descended from the bridge on to Willamette Blvd, we re-entered the spectator zone where onlookers were once again vocalizing their much-appreciated support.  And though I paid little attention to the signage along the course, the crowds at Portland left a lasting impression for one reason: their unfailing ability to pronounce my last name correctly.  With my last name printed on my bib, I heard it included in shouts of support at least a half-dozen times.  It really is easy to pronounce – So-has-key – but newcomers almost always insist on throwing a “z” or “j” into the mix.  Yet with just a fleeting glance at my bib, the Portland literati nailed it time and time again.  At one point I trailed a runner with “Mike” printed on his bib, so I’d hear frequent cries of “Yeah, Mike!”, “Go Mike!” and “Looking good, Mike!” along with the sporadic cheer of “Go Sohaskey!”  These people love me! I hallucinated.  It was like I’d brought my own cheering section… which I had, except she was now waiting at the finish line.

St. John's Bridge

On the St. John’s Bridge (image and clouds courtesy of Google Maps)

The 6.5 miles after the bridge began with more tree-lined neighborhoods and led us down the eastern side of the Willamette, with occasional glimpses of the Portland skyline (unobscured by clouds!) visible across the river.

Throughout the race I kept reminding myself to smile, stay positive and do whatever I could to reduce my all-important perceived effort.  And I kept returning to one simple mantra: Just run.  Time to tackle another uphill?  Just run.  Hit an energy lull at mile 15?  Just run.  3:25 pacer fading in the distance?  Just run.  Boneheads in pirate gear firing off a cannon in my ear?  Freak out momentarily… then just run.  This mantra proved particularly helpful in the last six miles, as the world around me began to look more and more like a casting call for The Walking Dead.  Runners in front of me suddenly stopped running and started walking.  Several more pulled over to the side of the road to nurse cramps.  And still others trudged along wearily at a non-quite-running/not-quite-walking pace, eyes cast downward as though burdened with a lead brick around their neck.

Just run rhymes with Just fun.

Sometime around mile 20, when I could have used a raucous blast of three-chord distorted guitar, what I got instead was a lounge-style smooth jazz ensemble that made me want to curl up and take a nap.  I half-expected a cocktail waitress in Sauconys to pull up alongside me and offer me a martini.  As much as I appreciate a good saxophone solo in the right place and at the right time, this was neither.  Nearly three hours after I’d scoffed at the same request, this was “Eye of the Tiger” time.

"It's Almost Over" sign near finish of Portland Marathon 2013

Although my nutritional reserves weren’t noticeably dwindling, I paused at the mile 21 aid station to force down some Ultima and an Accel Gel, my first solid fuel of the race.  As my legs and hips slowly ossified, I wanted to ensure I’d have enough energy to maintain – if not increase – my pace over the last five miles.

And the last five miles felt surprisingly good.  Like a trip down memory lane, miles 23 and 24 led us through one last industrial stretch alongside one last series of train tracks.  We then looped around and crossed back over the Willamette River on the Broadway Bridge, which looked to have been constructed from a Paul Bunyan-sized Erector Set.  Returning the way we’d come along the waterfront, I barely registered the final aid station as I turned away from the river, waved to Katie one last time and fired down those final 385 yards to the finish line.  My stride still felt stable, and despite not having seen the 3:25 pacer in nearly 8 miles, I felt confident a PR was within reach…

… until I made one final left turn on to 3rd Avenue.  “3:30:17” read the finish line clock matter-of-factly as I entered the home stretch.  Crossing the blue and red finish line mat, I heard my name announced over the PA system (another perfect pronunciation!) and glanced down at my Garmin for the first time.  3:30:28.  Dumbly accepting my medal from one of the day’s many fantastic volunteers, my mind was already grinding away in search of answers.  How had I finished more than five minutes behind the 3:25 pace group?  And more stupefying than that, how had I finished behind a 3:30 pace group which I was almost certain had never passed me??

Mike Sohaskey in final stretch of Portland Marathon 2013

Officer, that speedy man just ran a red light!

Absent-mindedly I accepted a white rose and mylar heat sheet from two cheerful volunteers, before turning back toward the finish in search of the 3:30 pace group.  Sure enough, moments later I saw the “3:30” red lizard sign (all pace groups carried red lizard placards showing their target finish times) enter the finish chute.

Son of a @%*$#!

True, I had no way of knowing how far ahead the 3:25 pacer had finished.  But I’m accustomed to pacers finishing a minute or two ahead of their projected time, to ensure that all runners in their group meet their individual time goals.  And based on where I positioned myself in corral A, I don’t see how I could have crossed the start line that far ahead of Team 3:30.

So as I chugged a pint of chocolate milk and gnawed away at an orange slice, I was a bit dazed and a lot disap-pointed.  Not only hadn’t I scored a PR, I hadn’t broken 3:30.  Apparently I should revise my mantra to Just run faster.

But life – and more to the point, traffic in the finish chute – goes on, and riding the wave of triumphantly exhausted runners, I turned my attention to finding Katie.  Before I could reach her though, volunteers handed me 1) two small velvet pouches containing a finisher’s coin and mini-me pendant version of the finisher’s medal; 2) an eye-catching long sleeve baby blue and gold finisher’s shirt; and 3) a tree seedling I politely declined, having left my third hand back in the hotel room.  I wondered how much of Portland’s verdure had been planted by zealous marathon finishers.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho after Portland Marathon 2013

I know, kinda rude of me to jump in front of Katie’s selfie

As I hobbled through the finish chute, one of the friendly volunteer florists obliged my request for a red rose, which I shared with my all-in-one support crew/cheering section/race photographer.  As always, Katie the Ubiquitous had seen me off at the start, beaten me to the finish and cheered me on at several points in between…. all while capturing some pretty sweet shots of the action.  In fact, she took several impressive photos of Dan at mile 11.5… before she’d ever met him.  And as I wearily admired the deep red petals perched atop a long supple stem, it occurred to me that not every rose has its thorn.

After reuniting with Katie, we circled back to watch Dan complete his second sub-4:00 marathon of the weekend and check off Oregon as state 34 on his 50-states running tour (compared to the fifth state on my own less strategic tour).  With Otter still en route, the three of us convened at Portland Brewery’s “26.3 Mile Gathering Place,” a grassy street corner nearby.  There we relaxed on the grass, the late-morning sun warming us as we happily sipped local brews and compared notes.

With so many people now wearing their blue and gold finisher’s shirt, the area looked like a convention of Boston Marathon wannabes, myself included.  Otter was all smiles when he joined us, and though his second marathon of the weekend had hit a few more rough patches than Dan’s, he’d earned his medal like everyone else.  And his ills were nothing an IPA or two couldn’t smooth over.

Otter, Dan Solera and Mike Sohaskey... celebrating completion of Portland Marathon 2013

Otter, Dan and me… nobody told me to bring my own box to stand on

After following Dan’s Marathon for the past year and Otter’s I Drank For Miles in recent months, and after seeing so many photos from so many places, I got a kick out of finally matching voices to faces and personalities to blog posts.  And at 6’0”, it was one of the few times I’ve ever felt legitimately short.  Congrats to both of them on an amazing athletic feat… on amazing athletic feet.  I do relish the mind games of running, and theirs is an accomplishment that’s just crazy enough to have set my own mental gears in motion.

That evening we continued the celebration over a satisfying dinner at Deschutes Brewery & Public House in the Pearl District of Portland.  Both conversation and drinks flowed easily, as though among old friends who simply hadn’t seen each other in a while.  The discussion centered around all things running, but it didn’t stop there, and I was reminded that runners are some of the most genuine and sociable people you’d ever want to meet.  My head hit the pillow that night wishing I’d had more time to get to know these guys.  Hopefully I’ll have that chance – and in the meantime, I’ll keep reading to see what crazy shit they talk each other into next.

Once I’d had a chance to ice my legs and clear my mind, I had to admit – the weekend had come up roses.  Portland lived up to its reputation as a clean, green progressive machine.  The city had admirably hosted a marathon that, while not exactly scenic, provided a solid urban challenge.  And despite a two-week training hiatus, I’d run my second-fastest marathon on a relatively hilly course, and learned a valuable lesson about relying on pacers (i.e. don’t do it).

When I wasn’t running, we’d reunited with old friends and rendezvoused with new ones.  I’d met a bigger-than-life yet decidedly down-to-earth icon whose name is synonymous with American distance running.  And in a town maybe best known for its persistent precipitation, we hadn’t once opened our umbrella.

All told, I’d call it a pretty successful weekend along the Willamette, damn it.

Powell’s Books is the de facto center of Portland’s cultural universe

BOTTOM LINE:  Portland is a beautiful city when the sun is shining.  And while October isn’t the driest month in the Pacific Northwest, Les Smith claimed in his October Newsletter and Pre-Event Instructions that only once in his 33 years as Race Director had it rained on race day.  So chances are good you’ll get as lucky as we did.  I’d like to run every race Oregon has to offer, since much of the state is a trail runner’s paradise… but if road running is more your forte, I’d recommend Portland as a worthwhile urban footrace.  And I’d recommend you not underestimate those harmless-looking hills on the course map.

PRODUCTION:  Overall, the Portland Marathon was well organized and well executed.  For the most part, I enjoyed marathon weekend and my 3 hour 30 minute tour of the city.  The race medal is stylish (see below) in a “military service medal” sort of way, and the inclusion of two race shirts – one for registrants and another for finishers, both attractive, high-quality offerings from Leslie Jordan – was a very nice touch.  That said, I’d suggest a few changes to make the weekend even better:

First, the out-and-back through the train yards along NW Front Avenue is an uninspiring eyesore, a reaction I heard from several runners after the race.  In a city as green and picturesque as Portland, it’s unclear (aside from convenience) why the organizers settled on this 4½-mile stretch of industrial badlands.

Second, the aid stations in Portland featured gummy bears as their primary source of carbs.  Yes, gummy bears – a great choice if my 5-year-old nephew is running your race.  Unfortunately, it’s not like you can pop a gummy bear in your mouth and let it dissolve over the next ½ mile.  It’s hard enough for many runners to stomach energy gels, let alone a tiny pencil eraser.  And the last thing anyone needs at mile 20 of a marathon is a snack food that fights back.  So please Portland, talk to the folks at Gu, or Clif, or PowerBar, or Accel Gel, or Stinger, or any of a hundred honey companies before next year’s race.

One last on-course item: this isn’t a big deal for me since I always judge mileage by the twitter (not Twitter) of my Garmin, but the mileage markers were consistently short for most of the course.  One surprised runner asked, as we passed the mile 1 marker, “How far is this marathon?”  Only in the last five miles or so did the markers more or less sync with my Garmin.

Swag-wise, the two t-shirts and finisher’s medal are nice keepsakes, but I’m less sold on the finisher’s coin and mini-me medal.  While I appreciate the sentiment, I certainly don’t need more stuff, and I’m quite sure I’ll never again open those velvet pouches.

And finally the expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton, was organized (or disorganized, as it were) in a convoluted maze of rooms that made the whole thing difficult to negotiate.  I was never quite sure which aisles I’d already strolled and which booths I’d already passed.  In the end though (or was it the beginning?), the circuitous route was worth navigating for the chance to meet Bill Rodgers.

2013 Portland Marathon Medal

FINAL STATS:
October 6, 2013
26.3 miles in Portland, OR (State 5 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:30:27 (first time running the Portland Marathon), 8:02/mile
Finish place: 610/6958 overall, 77/524 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 39°F), with an intermittent breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 728ft ascent, 742ft descent (compared to 121ft, 119ft at Chicago)

Portland splits

With the marathon, even if you’re hurting, it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve come all this way.  Unless there’s a bone poking out, I might as well finish.’
– Al Roker, cohost of The Today Show

ET logo 2013

Clearly they see it too, because the voices now are impossible to ignore.  Once a barely perceptible pinpoint in the distance, the dazzling and ever-expanding glow that beckons on the horizon now threatens – no, promises – to vanquish the seemingly infinite darkness of the Nevada desert.  And the voices heed its call, compelling me onward like a single-minded moth toward a seductive flame.  Move forward, into the Light, the all-knowing all-seeing all-caring Light… release your tension, confront your pain, let Its radiance guide you, yes that’s it! feel Its warmth sustain you, Its compassion embrace you, Its omnipotence protect you….  I cross the threshold from dark into light, wholly surrendering both mind and body to the indescribable relief that floods every synapse.  Squinting into the soft resplendence, my gaze is met by an unblinking pair of impassive black eyes set in a featureless green, unside-down teardrop of a face.  Certainly the face isn’t human, nor had I expected it to be.  Yet fear, like darkness, has no place here.  The wide, expressionless eyes gaze silently up at me while the soothing voices in my head continue to reassure me – Welcome home, your long journey’s over, it’s time to heal.  My outstretched hand gently caresses the other-worldly face in an awkward mix of exhaustion and wonderment.  I step forward unsteadily, into the light and beyond.

Little green men in the Silver State
I’m no fan of Las Vegas, but I understand its allure… who isn’t instinctively attracted to bright and shiny?  And if bright and shiny appeals to you, then no place rivals the neon-powered spectacle of The Strip at night.  If tackled with the right group of friends, Vegas can be a genuinely fun place… but then, even the DMV can be a fun place with the right group of friends.  With each successive visit, Sin City feels more and more like a high-mileage, weather-beaten Volvo that’s spent the past 20 years parked along the curb, collecting layer upon gradual layer of dirt, pollen and neglect.  Throw in some spinning rims and purple neon undercarriage lighting, and that’s how I view Vegas.  Or in snacking terms, Las Vegas to me is that second donut, with the electric thrill of anticipation quickly mutating into the sickening aftershock of reality.

Behold! the spectacle of Seizure City (photo credit TakeTours)

Hey brainiac, here’s a novel concept: stay away.  And gladly I would, but where gambling outsiders like me hit the jackpot is in the city’s proximity – to Hoover Dam, to Red Rocks Canyon, to several National Parks, and to the barely-there town of Rachel, NV, site of last weekend’s E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon, organized by the folks at Calico Racing.

Why the E.T. Marathon?  And why now?  For two reasons: first, Chuck and Laura had run the race back in 2008 and highly recommended it.  And second, given that my 2013 racing schedule had already morphed somehow into my own personal X Games – sub-freezing temperatures and icy conditions in my first two races, record-high temperatures in my next – I figured what better place to continue the “extreme” theme than in the midnight darkness of the Nevada desert. With one slight caveat: since the race each year is scheduled to coincide with the full moon (hence the name), we wouldn’t be running in total blackness.

I’ve never been what I’d call an alien aficionado.  I find the subject of little green men more amusing than anything, although the presumption that we’re alone in the universe strikes me as naïve hubris.  During graduate school, I discovered and watched every episode from the first seven seasons of The X-Files, with its spooky (at the time) taglines of “Trust No One” and “The Truth Is Out There.”  Over time, though, my dedication to the show grew in spite of rather than because of its alien conspiracy storyline, which eventually took on an absurd life of its own.  In any case, to this running aficionado the prospect of running under a canopy of stars and by the light of the full moon while dodging alien tractor beams promised a compelling and one-of-its-kind race experience.  Not to mention a pretty cool medal.

So it was that Katie and I found ourselves – after narrowly escaping the crush of Friday afternoon L.A. traffic – cruising northeast along I-15N, through the no-man’s-land of unincorporated California and on the boundary of the Mojave National Preserve.  Like most interstates, I-15N doubles as a steel-belted graveyard, and out here the mangled roadkill of blown tires littered the highway like neglected rubber corpses.  As the temperature outside the car hovered near 110°F, I was surprised by the lack of heat haze rising up from the pavement, a constant from so many childhood summers spent driving under the blistering sun of hot and humid Texas.

The world’s tallest non-functioning digital thermometer in Baker, CA

We’d broken up the drive with a pitstop for gas in Baker, CA, home of the world’s tallest thermometer, an uninspiring and nonfunctional 134-foot-tall landmark built to commemorate the nation’s record-high temperature of 134°F, set in Death Valley in 1913.  As if to apologize for such a lame tourist attraction, Baker paid for half our tank of gas when Katie found an orphaned $20 bill on the floor of the gas station convenience store.  Returning to the car, and anticipating our upcoming arrival in the Silver State, I brought up a playlist from Sin City’s own house band, The Killers.  We then hopped back on the highway and 45 minutes later crossed the border into Primm, NV, where the first of many oversized neon casino signs offered a garish reminder of what awaited us on a much larger scale in Vegas.

Thirty minutes later, we exited the highway and rolled onto the Vegas Strip, center stage in America’s own Theatre of the Absurd.  Thanks to the generosity of Katie’s parents, our base of operations would be centrally located Caesar’s Palace.  After arriving too late to meet several members of our Antarctica contingent for dinner, we carbo-loaded on our own and then wandered among the urban gristle of the Strip before heading up to our room for the night.  “Absurd” is trying to exercise self-discipline and conserve energy in Las Vegas.  In August.  Welcome to the No Fun Zone.

On Saturday, anticipating the day to come, we made ourselves stay in bed until nearly 1:00pm, then ate a quick lunch and headed over to the race expo at the Hard Rock Hotel.  I use the word “expo” because that’s how it was billed, though the entirety consisted of several folding tables on which were stacked registration materials, goodie bags and exterrestrial merchandise/souvenirs.  At a smaller table next to the door sat a fellow selling high density foam rollers.  Even factoring in the time required for mandatory alien photos, we were in and out of the expo in ten minutes, and were again disappointed not to encounter any of our Antarctica colleagues.  From there we returned to our hotel room, where we packed and repacked, checked and double-checked everything we’d need for the long night ahead.  After a quick pasta dinner (carbo-loading session #2), we joined our compression-clad kindred spirits outside the Hard Rock Hotel, as boarding of the buses began for a 2.5-hour ride into the heart of darkness.

Leaving Las Vegas
An hour later, Katie and I sat side by side and lost in thought at the back of a dark and quiet bus bound for the outskirts of Rachel NV, population 54.  Despite its small size, Rachel has large street cred among extraterrestrial hunters as the township closest to Area 51, the mecca for UFO aficionados.  And the timing for this race would be perfect – with the U.S. Government officially acknowledging the existence of Area 51 earlier in the week, I figured UFO sightings in the skies above Rachel would be plentiful, as extraterrestrials staged their own long-awaited “coming out” party.  Adding to my anticipation was the recent experience of NBA player Baron Davis, who insisted just last month that he’d been “actually abducted by aliens” while driving alone from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.  All’s well that ends well, though, since apparently Baron was able to calm his nerves at In-N-Out Burger after his gracious hosts dropped him back to Earth in Montebello, CA.

Admittedly, my real fear about running through Area 51 was that I’d end up like Cartman:

Once on the highway we’d quickly left behind the billboard advertisements for vasectomies, hangover cures and pole-dancing classes, and had transitioned into darkness interrupted only by the occasional pair of oncoming headlights, the Christmas tree-like incandescence of the sporadic refinery, or the distant bolt of lightning greeting arid desert terrain.  I’d momentarily regretted boarding one of the “chatty” (vs. “quiet”) buses when the two fellows in the seat behind us began to discuss loudly and in graphic detail the plot progression of Breaking Bad.  Admittedly it’s my fault I’m five seasons behind and have yet to watch a single episode, but I do intend to watch the entire series at some point, and so I quickly jammed in my iPod earbuds to stem the tide of plot spoilers.

As our bus hummed smoothly along through the desert darkness, round overhead lights spaced at regular intervals bathed the upholstered seats in a soft green glow and cast each passenger in a Hulk-ish sheen.  Enhancing this effect was the neon green compression wear sported by many of our fellow passengers.  Though I myself wouldn’t be decked out in full alien regalia, I’d be tipping my LED-equipped cap to our otherworldly homies by running the (Area) 51K rather than the shorter marathon distance.  This only seemed right… if the race had been held around San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, I would’ve chosen to run the 49K.

Approaching our destination on Nevada Highway 375 – rebranded as the “Exterrestrial Highway” in 1996 – our human driver kept the crowded vehicle well below the unofficial speed limit of Warp 7.  At last the bus slowed to a halt, signaling an end to this leg of the journey and the start of the next.  Both literal and figurative electricity filled the suddenly lively bus, as anxious and excited runners decked out in blinking, flashing multihued running apparel stretched their legs, gathered their belongings, and prepared for what promised to be, one way or another, an out-of-this-world race.

Mike Sohaskey at start of E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Countdown to midnight: All dressed up and nowhere to glow

We deboarded just before 11:30pm.  Diffusing away from the glare of bus headlights and into the shadows, I made my way toward the very manageable lines forming in front of the eight porta-potties.  After that mandatory stop I triple-checked my gear and nutrition, reminding myself where I’d stashed everything in the UltrAspire Alpha hydration pack I’d purchased two days earlier.  I’d decided to leave the bladder reservoir in the hotel room and use the pack strictly to carry bottles and gels, since the Alpha allows easy access to its front pockets without having to physically remove the pack.

I’d be carrying two bottles, one filled with Skratch Labs hydration mix and the other with Skratch Labs powder sans water, which I planned to fill once I emptied the first.  Normally one bottle would be plenty, particularly for a road race, but on this night my nemesis and leading sponsor Hammer Labs would be stocking all aid stations with their unpalatable HEED drink.  I assume they chose a midnight race so that runners wouldn’t see what they were drinking; in any case, I decided to play it safe and carry my own concoction.

Two water bottles?  check.  Headlamp?  check.  Blinking red light to give those behind me something to chase? check.  Garmin on and satellites found?  check.  Green glow bracelet? check.  And iPod just in case those last few miles got really lonely and I needed a musical pick-me-up?  check.  I was ready-ish.  With that, Katie and I wished each other luck, and she boarded the 11:45pm bus that would transport her to the finish line, where her 10K race – an out-and-back course that would double as the last 6.2 miles of the marathon – was scheduled to begin at 1:00am.

Black Mailbox at start of E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Do not adjust your monitor: this is the Black Mailbox that stands at the marathon/51K start line

I spent the remaining few minutes before midnight wandering through the sporadically lit start area, searching in vain for the five members of our Antarctica expedition who I knew to be running the marathon.  How could finding five people in a crowd of less than 200 – even in these dimly lit conditions – be so difficult?  That failure behind me, I mulled over my race goals one last time.  By simply finishing I’d shatter my previous 50K PR, a sun-baked 6:33:45 set at the Harding Hustle 50K in June.  That, barring an alien abduction, was more or less a given.  But my unspoken (mainly because no one had asked) goal-that-must-not-be-named was an ambitious yet realistic five hours, a 9:27/mile pace.  It was a goal I wanted, and even in the lingering heat and nearly mile-high elevation, one I should be able to attain.

My glow bracelet popped off my wrist as race director Joyce gathered us around for her prerace announcements, the highlight of which was her congratulating one runner on this being her 200th marathon (cue well-deserved applause).  Then without further ado Joyce wished us luck, counted down the seconds… and as the calendar flipped over to Sunday, the 7th annual E.T. Marathon was underway!

The dark night rises
All race distances would overlap and run similar courses along the Extraterrestrial Highway.  With no turns other than the 51K turnaround at mile 26, the course would be among the straightest (and most straightforward) I’d ever run.  Or so I thought until, less than 100 yards from the start line, my iPod bounced out of the front pocket of my shorts and clattered to the pavement.  Quickly reversing course, I swept it up and jammed it in my calf compression sleeve before the oncoming stampede of runners could bear down on me.  So much for that genius idea… mental note: never again with the iPod.

Almost immediately I could feel the dryness of our surroundings in my parched throat, and by the first mile marker I could already feel myself sweating more than usual courtesy of the 88°F desert heat.  Luckily a cool intermittent headwind kept the night pleasant and my mind focused.  As I ran hugging the shoulder on the left side of the highway, my shadow ran alongside me in the left lane thanks to the full moon, which sat low on the western horizon.  As appealing as the idea of running by moonlight might sound, the idea of treading on an unseen rattlesnake sounded significantly less appealing, and ‘twas the latter concern that kept me running diligently in the arc of light created by my headlamp.  Under the faint glow of the moon, and with nothing but time to let your mind run wild, every tar snake on the highway might as well be the real thing.

Other than the occasional wafting odor of cow manure, I’d encounter no sign of non-human animalia, alive or dead, along the course.  And for natural scenery, the rolling hills silhouetted against the moonlight on either side of the highway would have to do.  Apart from the blinking, glowing and flashing of other runners, this would (not surprisingly) be one of the less visually satisfying races on record.

I reminded myself to blink frequently and not fixate on the arc of my headlamp.  During the Davis (CA) Moo-nlight Half Marathon three years earlier, I’d become so entranced by the beam of light directed at my feet that my left contact lens had dried up and popped out of my eye, forcing me to run the last ½ mile or so with my desiccated contact stuck to the eyelashes of my lower eyelid.  Battling a left eye that in its uncorrected state is only slightly more functional than a marble, I’d accelerated along the final darkened straightaway in a half-blind haze, as if someone had covered my world in a thin layer of Vaseline.  Amazingly, after crossing the finish line I’d recovered the contact which had remained stuck to my eyelid, and popped it back in without further incident.  “I was wondering why you made such a wide and wobbly arc coming around that last turn,” Katie later admitted.

Elevation profile for E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Back to the Nevada desert, and after five miles of what felt like comfortably strong pacing on a slight uphill, the highway began a more pronounced ascent that seemed to steepen once I passed the mile 11 marker.  I knew from the course profile that this ascent – a climb from 4,523ft at the start to just over 5,600ft climb at mile 12.8 – would be the “gut check” miles, after which the course would change trajectory and carry us back downhill to mile 20 (and for half marathoners, the finish line).

Somewhere near mile 9, I began to pass the brightly lit and colorfully costumed back-of-the-pack half marathoners, a welcome distraction from the dark and quiet sameness of the first eight miles.  I allowed myself a celebratory moment as I passed the double-digit mark at mile 10, and continued to maintain a solid pace as I chugged up the hill, the density of half marathoners increasing as I neared the summit.

As I reached the peak at Coyote Summit, the course changed trajectory, and my downhill muscle groups gradually awakened to the joys of eccentric loading.  Two other runners flew by me on the right and were quickly engulfed by darkness.  At the same time I struggled to pull back on the reins and control my downward momentum after 13 miles of uphill running.  Somewhere along the way I made my second aid station pitstop of the night for water, thanked the faceless volunteers, and before I knew it the mile 16 marker was bathed in the harsh glow of my headlamp.  Halfway home!  Despite the 13-mile ascent in my rearview mirror, I knew the second half of this 51K would be the toughest, as carbohydrate stores ran low and muscle fatigue set in.

I had no way of knowing that a mile later, I’d be longing for the simple discomforts of lactic acid buildup and carbohydrate depletion.

Katie after finishing E.T. Full Moon 10k

Triumphant 10K’er and alien bounty hunter Katie flashes her latest prey

Where ankles fear to tread (Down but not out)
Soon I crossed the first of two cattle guards, the left edge of which was covered with a slender wooden plank to allow runners across.  I consider cattle guards a necessary evil… several can be found along the Nimitz Way trail in Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park, and they’re the single biggest downside to trail running in Tilden.  I’d hoped never to run across another cattle guard after leaving Berkeley – and now I remember why.

The second cattle guard appeared in the vicinity of mile 17.  A reflective sign just before the guard warned of its existence, and I prepared to cross the wooden board in the same place as the first guard.  Except the board wasn’t there, and my brain momentarily hiccuped as it registered that the board – roughly the same rust color as the guard – was displaced a couple of feet to the right relative to the first guard.  I planted my left foot and cut sharply to my right in order to access the board and negotiate the guard.

And that was when my ankle – as well as my race – took a literal turn for the worst.

I’m no stranger to sprained ankles.  Indeed, the sprained left ankle has been the bane of my running existence since high school basketball, and I’m well versed in the pain and shock that follow a tweaked ankle.  I am, literally and figuratively, a loyal alum of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) University (go Owls!).  But it had been at least two years since I’d last sprained an ankle, and I’d hoped that all my ankle strengthening exercises had signaled an end to the familiar treatment regimen that had become almost second nature.

The Little A'Le'Inn, a Rachel NV landmark, served as finish line for E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon

The Little A’Le’Inn, a Rachel landmark, awaits runners on the other side of the finish line

Given my history of ankle injuries, I knew I was in trouble even before I hit the ground on the opposite side of the cattle guard.  But for the sake of both race and psyche my pride kicked in, and I immediately transitioned into denial mode, telling myself to “rub some dirt on it!” (coach speak) while at the same time trying to convince myself that 15 more miles was eminently do-able.  As much as I wanted to hop over to the side of the road and collapse in a bitter heap, I knew from experience what the consequences of that decision would be – if I were to stop running even momentarily, the ankle would rapidly swell, I’d be unable to put any weight on it, and…

Through the rapidly descending fog of swirling emotions – pain wrapped in anger, swathed in disgust and shrouded in uncertainty – the decision was an easy one.  I hadn’t driven over five hours by car, ridden another 2.5 hours by bus and completed 17 miles including 13 uphill, just so I could go home with my first-ever DNF (Did Not Finish).  Truth be told, I still cringe at the thought of my tendinitis-induced DNS (Did Not Start) at Leadville last summer.  No, I’d come to run.  And barring the ankle coming detached from my leg and rolling off into the sagebrush, I planned to run across that finish line under my own power.

At the same time, I did intend to run – I had no interest in watching slower runners pass me by as I ambled along in “race-saver” mode and eventually finished well off my prerace goal of five hours.  So as I fought my way forward, I focused all my remaining energy on maintaining my ~9:00/mile pace.

I rationalized my decision to continue by telling myself that I couldn’t very well stop running and just lie on the side of the road, staring at the stars and elevating my ankle until someone found me and drove me to the finish line.  But as I concentrated on my footfall one uncomfortable step at a time, the conflicted voices in my head each argued its case, until finally my self-preservationist side struck a deal with my competitive side: I’d run the race, and I’d finish the race, but the race I’d run and finish would be the marathon, not the 51K.  The marathon, to my mind, seemed a perfectly reasonable endpoint and the ideal compromise.  And admittedly, I shed not a single tear at the realization that I wouldn’t have to run an extra 5.5 mind-numbing asphalt miles in the dark.

Hangin' with the locals at the Little A'Le'Inn in Rachel, NV

Hangin’ with the locals at the Little A’Le’Inn

In any case, this would be a different sort of challenge than any I’d faced before.  And from the moment I staggered to my feet on the far side of that cattle guard, the tiresome distraction of running along a desert highway under a full moon gave way to a single-minded determination to keep going, to maintain pace, and to avoid another glitch.  I had no idea how stable my ankle was or how long it would allow me to continue this charade.  Worst case scenario would be the ankle calling it quits far from the finish, thereby ensuring a DNF and leaving me an easy target for an alien tractor beam.  At the same time, I tried to find and focus on this cloud’s silver lining: Sure every step is painful… but at least it’s a consistent, reliable pain.  Ok, so maybe more of a lead lining?

The unanticipated shock to my system also sent my in-race nutritional strategy out the window.  My stomach was now in such upheaval that it was all I could do to stomach the occasional swallow from my bottle… and I knew I wouldn’t be needing any of the gels I’d brought along.

Reaching the brightly lit mile 20 marker, where the half marathoners turned in to the finish line, my headlamp momentarily blinded Katie, who was waiting on the side of the road to cheer me along.  Being careful to let neither face nor gait betray my discomfort, I quickly informed her I’d decided to drop down to the marathon distance.  She nodded in perplexed agreement, wished me good luck and off I went, one painful 10K out-and-back standing between me and rapture – as well as the blowback from one very pissed-off appendage.

Those final 6.2 miles were a hardcore lesson in perseverance, and I would have sworn that a sandbag now hung from my left knee.  But as the field thinned out and the blackness of my surroundings became more complete, I was able to admire and appreciate the stunning celestial landscape that filled the canvas of the eastern sky.  At last, here was the argument to be made for running in Rachel.  The last 6 miles of a marathon is a difficult time to focus on anything, let alone our place in the universe, but only in Southern Utah and Yosemite National Park could I ever recall my naked eye wielding such power over the night sky.  Keep going, the questionably supportive voices implored.  You’re almost there.

Slowly, in what felt like the running equivalent of water torture, each successive mile ticked by (did those mile markers keep moving back?), as the heaviness in my ankle diffused up my leg and into my entire body.  This was a very different “wall” than I’d hit in any previous race, but even so it was a wall… my brain knew it, my body knew it, and only a finish line at this point would shut them both up.  And then it’s there, in the distance, undeniable and unwavering, a life-affirming beacon that draws closer with every edema-inducing step – my wish being granted.

Mike Sohaskey with his hard-earned medal after finishing E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon 2013

Ow my ankle ow my ankle – oh, is it picture time? No problem!

Clearly they see it too, because the voices now are impossible to ignore.  Once a barely perceptible pinpoint in the distance, the dazzling and ever-expanding glow that beckons on the horizon now threatens – no, promises – to vanquish the seemingly infinite darkness of the Nevada desert.  And the voices heed its call, compelling me onward like a single-minded moth toward a seductive flame.  Move forward, into the Light, the all-knowing all-seeing all-caring Light….

As the eventual 51K winner glides by me looking very much the gazelle that he is, I momentarily entertain the thought of chasing down the marathoner roughly 20 yards ahead of me.  Stupid thought, I decide… what if he or she wants to race me to the finish?  A shredded ankle and public humiliation, in one fell swoop!  I must have sprained my brain on that cattle guard, too.

Release your tension, confront your pain, let Its radiance guide you, yes that’s it! feel Its warmth sustain you, Its compassion embrace you, Its omnipotence protect you….  Gingerly I make the right turn off the Extraterrestrial Highway, and 20 yards later I’m crossing the blue finish line mat, that symbolic threshold from dark into light.  At the same time, I’m wholly surrendering both mind and body to the indescribable relief that floods every synapse.  “3:56:40,” silently announces the impassive red-numbered clock timer above the finish line, in agreement with my Garmin.  So at least I’ve avoided any “missing time” from a UFO encounter or alien abduction.

Squinting into the soft resplendence of finish-line lighting, my gaze is met by an unblinking pair of impassive black eyes set in a featureless green, unside-down teardrop of a face.  Certainly the face isn’t human, nor had I expected it to be.  Yet fear, like darkness, has no place here.  Gratefully I accept the alien-head medal presented to me, and surrender the timing chip on my shoe to a second volunteer.  The wide, expressionless eyes on the medal gaze silently up at me while the soothing voices in my head continue to reassure me – Welcome home, your long journey’s over, it’s time to heal.  My outstretched hand gently caresses the otherworldly face in an awkward mix of exhaustion and wonderment.  Was it worth it? I ask myself in that same moment, though I have no doubt it was.  I step forward unsteadily, into the light and beyond.

Nothing could be finer than to see the finish line-a in the morning
(with a tip of the cap to Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson)

What happens in Rachel…
As usual, Katie’s smiling face and boisterous cheers greeted me as I crossed the finish line.  She’d had a strong race of her own, running the entire 10K and surpassing her goal of 80 minutes with a finish time of 1:16:51.  Given the darkness, the warm conditions and the fact that she hadn’t run as much as four miles since 2011, it was an impressive performance.  And she admitted to being glad she’d run, rather than riding the bus as a spectator or even staying behind in Vegas.

She couldn’t have been as glad as I was.  Because I knew that for my crippled ankle, what happened in Rachel would not stay in Rachel.  After letting the official timer know I’d dropped from the 51K to the marathon, I confessed my predicament to Katie and hobbled over to the folding tables set up in the finish area just outside the Little A’Le’Inn (say it aloud), a three-room motel, souvenir shop and restaurant that serves as the hub of Rachel’s tourist traffic.  And there I collapsed in a chair, where highly competent EMTs mobilized by Katie wrapped my foot and ankle in a large ice pack held awkwardly in place by several iterations of tape.  The human body, it occurred to me as they worked, isn’t conveniently built for icing.  Thanks again, fellas!  Much appreciated.

After 20 minutes I removed the ice pack and, in an effort to increase my comfort level, lay flat on my back on the graveled concrete with my ankle propped up on a chair.  The ankle was now throbbing aggressively – even the most short-lived comfort was illusory, and I being to shiver violently in a brutal mix of residual chill from the ice pack, and shock at the damage I’d knowingly inflicted on myself.  Now the voices in my head, once encouraging, began to abandon their sinking ship.  WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? they demanded.  They had a right to know, though unfortunately I had no good answer.

As I lay on the ground listening to the sounds of finish line celebrations and reunions all around me, Katie brought me Gatorade and took pictures, and I discovered two pieces of uplifting news on an otherwise dark and emotionally stormy night.  First, the pain and swelling in my ankle were largely confined to the lateral (outer) rather than the usual medial (inner) side, meaning my diligently strengthened ankle hadn’t simply betrayed me to the same injury I’d suffered so many times before.  No, the “good” news was that I’d injured the ankle in a whole new way!  And second, I’d managed to maintain a respectable 9:23/mile pace after spraining the ankle (8:54/mile before), enabling me to finish 12th overall and second in the men’s 40-49 age group.

You had to know this picture was coming

You had to know this picture was coming

Despite Katie’s positive review, my bitterly uncooperative stomach wanted nothing to do with the Little A’Le’Inn’s postrace breakfast buffet.  Even more telling, on the bus ride back to Vegas it would take me 15 minutes to finish a single banana, in contrast to my usual 15 seconds.  Clearly postrace nutrition was going to be an issue.  Fortunately I’d done a solid job of prerace carbo loading, which very likely carried me through those final miles as I tried to find my happy place.

From my vantage point on my back, I heard Joyce announce fellow Antarctica traveller Rich Ehrlich as the winner of the men’s 60-69 age group in 5:07:35.  Congrats, Rich!  And then it was time to board the bus for Vegas.  Awkwardly pulling myself up off the ground, and now unable to put any weight on the ankle, I relied first on Katie and then on a benevolent volunteer to help me over to and up the steps of the bus.

Thus began the long and sleepy-eyed ride back to Vegas, the calico hills now peacefully rendered in the first golden rays of the rising sun.  While many passengers quickly assumed the “eyes closed, mouth open” position, I spent the better part of the ride trying to elevate my ankle and alleviate discomfort, which required monopolizing my personal space and (with her permission) most of Katie’s.

We entered the Las Vegas city limits just before 8:00am, though even at that early hour suffocating heat already blanketed the city.  The combination of stifling heat, mounting fatigue and still-throbbing ankle sent waves of exhaustion washing over me… or maybe that was just my body’s reaction to being back in Vegas.

Luckily we were able, on our second try, to find an open CVS that stocked crutches, enabling me to regain mobility for the rest of the day.  Sort of.  Because I was quickly reminded of another Vegas exclusive: with everything spaced so far apart, it takes forever for an individual with two healthy ankles to get from their hotel room, through the smoke-filled casino and to their destination.  This maze-like arrangement makes Vegas a decidedly subpar place to be handicapped.

We were treated to quite an electrical storm on our drive home

And so, after a clumsy but long-overdue shower, a visit to the Caesar’s Palace brunch buffet (itself nearly a mile long) and a five-hour nap, we decided to take advantage of our bewildered circadian rhythms, plus the lack of heat and traffic, and make the drive back to Los Angeles under cover of darkness.  Four hours and several impressive lightning storms later, we pulled into our garage in Marina del Rey.  Crutching my way slowly up the steps of our multi-level townhouse, I collapsed in our bed with my ankle supported by three pillows.  As consciousness faded, the Nevada desert and Area 51 suddenly seemed light-years away.

As I write this ten days later, the swelling in my ankle has subsided and the remaining soreness is gradually fading.  The foot and ankle feel stable, and I have no trouble balancing on them for two minutes at a time.  I plan to try running again next week.  In the final analysis, I guess all’s well that ends swell.

I’m proud that I was able to grit my teeth and gut out my toughest marathon yet, while still finishing in under four hours and placing well within the top 10% of finishers, including second in my age group.  And I’m satisfied with knowing I gave everything I had to give, and left it all out in the Nevada desert.  Would I have broken five hours if I’d had the chance to finish the 51K healthy?  And would I have run a faster marathon if I’d been pacing accordingly for the entire race?  “Likely” and “probably” would be my answers, although the frustration of not knowing will forever gnaw at the back of my mind.

After all, the truth is still out there.

Trust us, all those stories about extraterrestrials in Area 51 are just silly mythology.

PRODUCTION:  Joyce and her Calico crew did a terrific job of bringing together and pulling off what has to be a very difficult-to-organize race.  Coordinating the bus schedule alone would have addled my brain, and yet to my knowledge, all four races went off without a hitch.  Calico’s blend of detail-oriented professionalism and low-key vibe lent the race a much-appreciated “trail running” feel.  The t-shirts (from Greenlayer Sports) fit nicely, and the eye-catching, glow-in-the-dark medal is definitely a collector’s item.  As far as food, Katie gave the postrace buffet at the Little A’Le’Inn a thumbs-up.

Not surprisingly, my main recommendation for future races would be to COMPLETELY cover each cattle guard to ensure safe footing.  This shouldn’t be difficult, and if it spares even one runner’s ankle will be well worth the effort.  My only other disappointment – and even that may be too strong a word – would be in the choice of Hammer as the lead sponsor.  But much better Hammer than no sponsor at all, and my aversion to their products (particularly HEED) is simply personal preference.  Unfortunately my limited postrace mobility prevented me from properly thanking Joyce and all her superb volunteers, but I’ll do so here (thanks, Joyce! thanks, volunteers!) and look forward to running with the Calico crew again soon.  Even if it does mean another stopover in beautiful Las Vegas.

BOTTOM LINE:  Chuck summed it up best in his postrace text: I had a swell time at the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon.  I have to admit that even with a healthy ankle, running on asphalt for several hours in uninterrupted darkness before and after a 2.5-hour bus ride isn’t my ideal racing scenario.  But I’m glad I ran in Rachel, for the novelty as well as the opportunity to run with Calico Racing.  If you’re intrigued by the prospect of running by moonlight, I can’t imagine a better place to do so than Area 51, or a better crew to do it with than Calico.

For an inspiring perspective on running through injury, or if you tend toward schadenfreude, check out Dan’s recent experience at the North Country Run 50-Miler.

E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon medal (glow-in-the-dark)

The E.T. medal moonlights as a night-light

FINAL STATS:
August 18, 2013
26.09 miles (the final 9+ miles on a sprained left ankle) in Rachel, NV (State 4 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:56:40 (first time running the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon), 9:04/mile
Finish place: 12/141 overall, 2/20 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: clear, dry and warm (starting temp 88°F), with an intermittent cool breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 1,129ft ascent, 843ft descent (starting elevation 4,523ft)


I credit my speedy mile 21 to the adrenaline spike from a Katie sighting

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

“I predict sub 3 30.”

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

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

Mike Sohaskey after running 2012 Chicago Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at halfway point of 2012 Chicago Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey just past mile 20 of 2012 Chicago Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 26  the happiest mile of them all

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey with Chicago hosts at 2012 Chicago Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was absolutely right.

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

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