Posts Tagged ‘Arkansas marathons’

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

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

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

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

But let me take a step back…

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

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

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

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

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

Katie all dressed up and 3 miles to go

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

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

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

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

U.S. and Arkansas flags

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at 2020 Little Rock Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotting Mike Sohaskey early on at the Little Rock Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey in front of Arkansas painting

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

2020 Little Rock Marathon medal in front of State Capitol

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

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

RaceRaves rating:

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

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

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

Sometimes, timing is everything.

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

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

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

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


Run 3B2G sign at LIttle Rock Airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Bridges Marathon course map

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

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

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

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

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

Two Rivers Park Bridge at dawn

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

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

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

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

Santa holding the American flag at 3 Bridges Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

Big Dam Bridge at mile 18 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 12 of 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 10 turnaround at the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

C’est la vie.

Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge viewed from the Clinton Presidential Center

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

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

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

Halfway arch at 3 Bridges Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

Running on Big Dam Bridge during 3 Bridges Marathon

Flags a-flyin’ on the Big Dam Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

Mile 22 on the Two Rivers Park Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

The home stretch on the Two Rivers Park Bridge

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

That had hurt — literally and figuratively.

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Santa Claus at the 3 Bridges Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote from President Clinton's 1993 inaugural address

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

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

Little Rock Central HIgh School

Little Rock Central High School

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

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

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

Finish line selfie at 3 Bridges Marathon

25 down, 25 to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


3 Bridges Marathon medal at LIttle Rock State Capitol

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

Updated 50 States Map:

Mike Sohaskey's 50 States map (Dec 2018)

RaceRaves rating:

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