Posts Tagged ‘back-to-back marathons’

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

Downtown Mobile skyline at sunset - 2014 First Light Marathon

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

Downtown Mobile skyline at dusk - 2014 First Light Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southern belles at 2014 First Light Marathon expo

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

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

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

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

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

Mardi Gras mask at Mobile Carnival Museum

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

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

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

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

2014 First Light Marathon start line

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 First Light Marathon course map

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at mile 5 of 2014 First Light Marathon

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

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

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

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

At mile 10.

And mile 12.

And mile 16.

And mile 21.

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey after 2014 First Light Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing 2014 First Light Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reunited and it feels so good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth be told, I was pooped.

2014 First Light Marathon medallion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Light splits

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

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

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

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

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

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

City of Jackson, MS seal

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

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

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

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

Standard Life building at night in Jackson, MS

The Standard Life Building dominates the night landscape in Jackson

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

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

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

Dilapidated home around downtown Jackson, MS

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

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

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

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

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

Medgar Wiley Evers library statue in Jackson, MS

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

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

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

Mississippi Blues Marathon start 2013

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

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

Mike Sohaskey past mile 3 of Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

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

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

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

Google Earth rendering of Mississippi Blues Marathon course 2013

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey playing the blues at Mississippi Blues Marathon Expo 2013

Playing the blues is all about the right facial expressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey finishing strong at Mississippi Blues Marathon 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mississippi Blues Marathon medal 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

MS Blues splits