Posts Tagged ‘Boston Marathon’

Life (and running) is not all about time but about our experiences along the way.
Jen Rhines

Let me just say that 2016 was another bigly year in racing for me. I ran some really really great races, believe me. And I ran them with great people, tremendous people, some of the very best people. I mean, some of the people I ran with are unpresidented—though of course I won’t be saying that if they don’t compliment me on their own blogs. A lot of clowns didn’t run the races I ran this past year. Sad!

Yes, 2016 was off-key in some notable ways, while hitting all the right notes in others. As for my own year in racing, I’ve been told by many many friends who are excellent runners that it was a phenomenal year—I don’t know, but that’s what people are telling me. So clearly 2016 deserves a quick look back before we get on with the better business of looking forward—after all, nobody knows the past year better than me, which is why I alone can recap it. Trust me, this is going to be amazing:

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine post-LA Marathon 2016
February
brought one of the year’s “must see” sporting events—the Olympic Marathon Trials—to our hometown of Los Angeles. On a sweltering winter day in SoCal, Galen Rupp dominated the Trials field in his marathon debut, Meb qualified for his fourth and final Olympic Games, and Shalane Flanagan willed herself across the finish line in 3rd place thanks to the unwavering support of teammate and eventual winner Amy Cragg. The next day I opened my own 2016 race season and renewed my love-hate relationship with the Los Angeles Marathon. LA is a fantastic big-city course I’d recommend to any road runner, though the organizers at Conqur LA need to do a better job of attracting more runners and showcasing the city’s historic landmarks to the runners they already have.

Peace Love Run San Diego 2016 with Mike Sohaskey, Katie Ho, Alan Nawoj
March was the calm before the April storm, the latter of which led off with the low-key Peace Love Run Half Marathon in San Diego. This would be my final tuneup for Boston, and what a non-groovy tuneup it turned out to be—a 15.1-mile half marathon, thanks to my running an extra loop on the pleasant but poorly marked course. The silver lining was that I still managed to finish 4th in my age group. And in all honestly I probably could’ve run 20 miles with no worries, so strong was my anticipatory buzz. Because as promised, two weeks later I’d be lining up on the other side of the country to run…

Boston Marathon 2016 Mike Sohaskey post-finish family hug
… the 120th Boston Marathon. My Boston debut took place on a warm Patriots’ Day that saw me struggle mightily in the second half of the race. Somehow, approaching mile 16 in the Newton hills where my father grew up, my body suddenly lost all interest in running—right in the middle of the most prestigious marathon in the world, with nothing I could do to convince it otherwise. And THAT in a nutshell is running. Not that my finish time (which luckily still began with a “3”) mattered, since this was Boston… and if I were looking to name my firstborn I’d still consider “Right on Hereford, left on Boylston” Sohaskey. As the cherry on top of my victory sundae, Massachusetts would be state #11 on my 50 states quest. Wicked pissa!

Mike Sohaskey & Krishna Keelapatla at start of Big Sur Marathon 2016
Less than a week later, to close out April and as part of the bicoastal Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge, I came together with fellow B2B’er Krishna (above) and completed my second Big Sur International Marathon in winds that topped out at 40 mph. In the process I regained my running joie de vivre and and finished with a faster time than I had six days earlier. And I earned what (aside from Boston’s iconic blue-and-gold unicorn) stands as the hands-down coolest finisher medal in my collection, the clay Boston 2 Big Sur medallion. If/when I run Boston again, you can bet I’ll be lining up in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park the next week.

Ice Age Trail 50 finish shot - Mike Sohaskey, Dan Otto, Dan Solera
After an April featuring Boston and Big Sur, I could have been forgiven for thinking the rest of the year would be anticlimactic. Oh, how wrong I would have been. In May, thanks to some gently applied peer pressure, I joined Dans Otto and Solera in Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest for what would prove to be not only the most ambitious challenge of 2016 for each of us but, ironically, my most successful race day experience to date. On a chilly day that Disney couldn’t have scripted more perfectly, I knocked out my first 50-miler in less than ten hours at the verdant Ice Age Trail 50. Turns out Ice Age was an endorphin high that would keep me buzzing on cloud nine for quite some time. And it just so happened to be state #12 on my 50 states quest.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish selfie
With such a front-loaded 2016 schedule, I’d planned to take some time off after Ice Age to rest my legs. But that was before June fired a shot heard ’round the world. On hearing of Muhammad Ali’s passing, Katie and I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to fly to Kentucky to pay our respects at The Greatest’s memorial service in Louisville. Appropriate justification for this last-minute trip came in the form of my running the excellent (albeit sizzling) Hatfield McCoy Marathon across the state that same weekend. For me, it’s not the medals or the miles or any OCD desire to cross items off a bucket list, but rather once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like Kentucky that fuel my 50 states quest (state #13).

Omaha Marathon finish shot - Dan Solera & Mike Sohaskey

With the fall racing season shifting into gear, in September I joined fellow heartland lover Dan Solera at another start line, as together we triumphed over the “Anytown USA” ennui of the Omaha Marathon. The race start was delayed for an hour after someone started shooting at passing cars near the course—and on further review, that was probably the highlight of an otherwise nondescript event. At the end of the day, Nebraska would represent state #14 for me and state #45 for Dan on our 50 states mission.

Mike Sohaskey at Brazen Goonies with RaceRaves Lunatics
In October I excitedly returned from a 4-year hiatus to run with my favorite Bay Area race organizers at the Brazen Racing Goonies Half Marathon. I even managed a sub-7:00 mile on the downhill, hair-on-fire mile 12. As much as I enjoyed another top-notch Brazen experience, the race itself paled in comparison to the thrill of meeting friends old & new in Lagoon Valley Regional Park, many of them united in sporting their RaceRaves gear. If you’re ever looking to run some amazing (and challenging) trails in the Bay Area with equally amazing people, you can’t go wrong with Brazen.

Mike Sohaskey at Ragnar Napa and Golden Gate Half finish lines

Ragnar finish line in Napa (left) and Golden Gate Half finish line in the SF Marina (right)

November led off with a reason to be thankful: an epic three-day running weekend, starting with 22 miles in 26-ish hours at Ragnar Napa Valley and concluding with another 13.1 miles of quintessential San Francisco at the Golden Gate Half. Two races with two groups of running friends (plus Katie) in one of the world’s most beautiful locales—weekends don’t get no better than that. And I’m never one to turn down a chance to run across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mike and Chuck Sohaskey at finish of Toughest 10K in the USA
Last but not least, no better way to round out another memorable year than by convincing my brother Chuck to join me in December for the Toughest 10K in the USA, a tour-de-force of steep hills in nearby Newbury Park. And yes, the Toughest 10K would boldly live up to its name, with only the winner managing to finish in under an hour (barely). I even managed to max out my heart rate at 183 bpm. One ignominious asterisk to my final effort of 2016: having never run a timed 10K in my 76 career races, my 1:22:22 (13:17/mile) finish time now stands as my 10K personal best, less than 12 minutes short of my half marathon PB {yikes}.

So there you have it! While I don’t have the time or interest to blog about every race I run, my RaceRaves reviews fill in the gaps nicely. And now, with 2016 in the rearview mirror, I can happily look forward to 2017 and what’s already shaping up to be another amazing year. Not that I’ve mapped out my schedule in gory detail—in fact I’ve only committed to three races so far this year, with the first coming up next weekend in state #15.

No, the reason I have such high hopes is that the sun around which my 2017 training revolves is a race which once looked like a distant star—a celestial impossibility gazed at longingly by a boy through his bedroom window. Not many foot races could legitimately lay claim to the title of the “Ultimate Human Race”. But this one does, and rightfully so. And it’s a race that will require me to run stronger and more strategically than any I’ve run so far.

comrades-logo
This June will see Katie and me strive to add continent #4 to the racing résumé as I tackle the celebrated Comrades Marathon in South Africa, where I’ll have exactly 12 hours (and not a second more) to run 56 hilly miles at the world’s largest ultramarathon. It’s an awesome challenge that already has every neuron in my body crackling with anticipation. And it’s one I slot in difficulty above all but the toughest 100-milers, since the strict 12-hour cutoff means that—after factoring in aid station breaks—a runner can’t walk or even power-hike an appreciable distance and still have any hope to finish. Because at Comrades, to borrow a line from noted non-ultrarunner Ben Franklin, if you fail to plan you are planning to fail.

Now that is a race.

To help prepare my quads for the hills of South Africa, in March I’ll be joining Bay Area friends at one of the most popular and scenic ultramarathons in this country, the Way Too Cool 50K. There I hope to improve on another of my questionable personal bests, a 6:33:45 at the scorching hot 2013 Harding Hustle 50K. Not to mention the real reason I’m running WTC—their signature frog cupcakes!

Thanks so much for following along on my (mis)adventures here, in 2016 and always—the fact you take the time to do so (especially if you’re not related to me) is the ultimate compliment. My wish for 2017 is that you live strong, be healthy, run well, inspire others, laugh freely and celebrate often. I look forward to sharing my own revolution around the sun.

Trust me, it’s going to be YUGE.

Mike Sohaskey beachside motivation_bch
Other 2016 blog posts worth a read:

Through the (crack’d) looking glass: post-election thoughts on the state of America
Child’s Play: our silly sport as seen through a child’s eyes

Looking for the best races around the world? RaceRaves.com makes it easy to find, track & review races you’ve run or want to run, and connect with other runners—you can also follow RaceRaves on Facebook and Instagram, though honestly the website is much more fun than social media.

And as you plan your 2017 race schedule, check out our RaceRaves spotlight featuring “7 quick picks for 2017”.

FINAL STATS for 2016:
2020.5 in 211 days (and on the 366th day he rested), 9.6 miles/day average
0 days lost to injury
248.5 racing miles
11 races (one 200-mile relay, one 50-miler, 5 marathons, 3 half marathons, one 10K) in 5 states (CA, MA, WI, KY, NE)
Overall race percentile: 72.2 (down 22 from 2015, excludes the Peace Love Run Half and Ragnar Relay) → 15,763/56,786 total finishers
Fastest race pace: 7:21/mile (Peace Love Run Half, despite running two miles too far)
Slowest race pace: 13:17/mile (Toughest 10K in the USA)
8 blog posts & 9 RaceRaves original articles written
My Staging Area (profile page) on RaceRaves

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Start line

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey in start corral for Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

Holding a steady 1:35 pace in the start corral

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

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational course map

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational elevation profile

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey racing in Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

(Free race photo courtesy of Runner Buzz Media)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free banana sign at Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

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

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

And on we ran.

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

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

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

Start of mile 7 at the Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational Finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red, white and through with the Inaugural USA Half

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

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

But where’s the fun in perfect…?

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational medal

RaceRaves rating:

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational RaceRaves summary

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

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

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

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

Overall, count me in for next year!

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

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

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

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

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

Inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational finisher's jacket

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

Clearly my legs were happy to get off the hills

I’m feeling very positive about my negative splits

It’s a global sport; this isn’t a little sport anymore.
– Bill Rodgers at the Boston Marathon, 21 April 2014

Meb & Shalane

(source: boston.com)

John Skipper
President, ESPN Inc. and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks
Bristol, CT 06010

Dear Mr. Skipper,

Did you see THAT?

Did you step out of your thrice-daily NFL draft meetings in time to catch the Boston Marathon on Monday?  Did you see one of our country’s all-time great marathoners, Meb Keflezighi, not only keep the race close near the end but actually win it, the first time an American has captured Boston since 1983?  And did you see him show more heart in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds than my rudder-less Dallas Cowboys team has shown in the past 15 seasons?

Did you happen to catch Shalane Flanagan’s act on the women’s side?  The rhythmic bouncing of her blonde ponytail gracefully leading the pack for the first 18+ miles?  And did you watch as she made it clear from the opening gun that she was in it to win it, fearlessly setting a blistering early pace that would ultimately betray her, before having to settle for a heart-breaking seventh-place finish?  Never mind that her personal-best finish of 2:22:02 was the fastest time ever for an American woman in Boston, and would have won the race in 12 of the past 13 years.

To say that emotions were running high out on the course on Monday would be like saying that the sinking of the Titanic was peculiar.

True, I like to jab at ESPN now and again here on the blog for your unapologetic disinterest in the sport of running. Despite your network’s claim-in-the-name to being an Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, I certainly don’t come to you for my marathon updates on race day.  On the other hand, I know I can always count on you for timely updates on NASCAR, golf, soccer, boxing, poker, lacrosse, mixed martial arts, the Bassmaster Classic and even the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  Marathoning, though?  Not so much.  Last year on Patriots’ Day, for example, WNBA draft coverage on ESPN.com trumped the Boston Marathon, before two horrifying explosions forced you to confront both Boston and the running community in a way you never could have imagined.

But now, on the heels of your coverage of last year’s bombings and Monday’s defiant resurgence, you have the opportunity and the resources to change all that.  If you haven’t noticed, our country is in the midst of another running boom that makes that of the Bill Rodgers/Frank Shorter era look like the Geico lizard walking next to Godzilla.  According to Running USA, in 2012 alone over 15.5 million runners crossed the finish line in a U.S. running event, including 487,000 marathoners.  Since 2000 the number of race finishers in the U.S.has increased by 80%, and female representation has increased from 42% to an all-time high of 56% in 2012.  Simply put, people like to run.

Running USA's chart of running event finishers 1990-2012

(source: Running USA)

Granted, people also like to sit and watch enormously gifted talents like Lebron James, Peyton Manning and a steroid-infused Barry Bonds perform acts of freakish athletic prowess.  But anywhere there are athletes wearing team jerseys and brandishing over-the-top contracts, there also exists a fan base with an inevitable sense of detachment fueled by the sobering recognition that I could never in a million lifetimes do what they’re doing.  I may – and in fact I do – love watching David Ortiz hit a baseball.  But once I reached junior high and my Mr. Magoo-like eyesight and unexceptional hand-eye coordination kicked in, my own career as a baseball player was effectively over.

Running, though, is different.  Imagine stepping up to the plate in the World Series.  Or sinking a clutch three-pointer in the NBA Finals.  Or throwing a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.  Chances are, unless you win either the genetic lottery or a role in a Bud Light commercial, ain’t none of these ever going to happen for you.

But imagine running on the same course, and at the same time, as some of the greatest and most highly trained athletes in the world.  And now stop imagining, because not only is this a possibility, it’s a given.  Because that’s what the Boston Marathon and the other World Marathon Majors (Berlin, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo) are all about.

With its singular qualifying standards, Boston in particular is the Super Bowl, World Series and World Cup of running all rolled into one – an event where decidedly non-elite competitors can run with (though not quite alongside) elite athletes like Meb and Shalane, whose huge hearts reflect more than just their cardiovascular fitness.

I’m guessing more people would rather tune in to your network to hear 50K American record holder Josh Cox break down the elite field for Boston, than spend two minutes trying to decipher Barry Melrose‘s hockey talk and figure out what he has growing out of his skull.  Admittedly I’m a hockey fan, and few sporting events rival the Stanley Cup playoffs for sheer drama, but Barry showing up on my TV is the mute button’s immediate cue to do its thing.

You can do this, ESPN!  It’s not like you have a shortage of time and space to fill, with your ridiculously extended family of networks – including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Films, ESPNews, ESPNU, ESPN Brazil, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Plus, the Longhorn Network and the SEC Network.  ESPN2’s current five-year contract to broadcast the New York City Marathon is a step in the right direction, but it’s only one step.  And I understand that NBC currently televises four of the other five world marathon majors on their obscure affiliate Universal Sports Network – but they seem unwilling to give endurance running the exposure it deserves, to promote it front and center rather than book-ending each marathon telecast by true fringe sports like cycling and rugby.  Remind me again, how many Americans competed in a rugby match last year?

Not only that, but ESPN’s budget would allow the network the luxury of buying video equipment that won’t glitch right in the middle of the marathon action (thanks Universal, for that decidedly below-average feed of the women’s race on Monday).

Maybe you’ll argue that running isn’t enough of an American sport, since we don’t restrict participation to North America-based teams while still labeling the championship a “World” Series.  But geographical borders in professional sports are now more perception than reality anyway – just look to the wealth of Latin American and Asian talent on Major League Baseball rosters, or to the influx of European players in the National Basketball Association.  Even the born-and-bred-here National Football League has kicked around the idea of putting a team in London.

Hockey, golf, tennis, even that spelling bee I mentioned – sporting competitions are increasingly global events played out on international stages.  And with 90 countries represented at Monday’s Boston Marathon (compared to 32 in this year’s FIFA World Cup), the marathon embraces the international stage like no other sport.

Maybe, too, you’ll point to the recent dominance of the sport by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, in which case you’d be absolutely right – before Monday, East Africans had won every Boston Marathon since 1991.  But Meb’s victory shows that America can still compete on running’s biggest stages, as does the inclusion of two other American men – Nicholas Arciniaga and Jeffrey Eggleston – among this year’s top ten finishers.  Likewise, Jason Hartmann finished fourth here in each of the past two years.  And let’s not forget that American Desi Linden (née Davila), the Boston 2011 women’s runner-up, lost that race by two seconds.

Top American men

Jason Hartmann runs to a fourth-place finish at last year’s Boston Marathon (left); Nicholas Arciniaga celebrates a win at the 2013 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon (center); Jeffrey Eggleston breaks the tape at the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon (right)

So then given our nation’s wealth of athletic talent and resources, coupled with ESPN’s clout and ability to educate a vast and impressionable audience from a young age, there’s no reason to think the future of endurance running in this country can’t be dazzlingly bright.

Plus, as parental and scientific concerns about concussions continue to escalate, we’ll soon need somewhere to divert all the talented young’uns who might otherwise turn their attention to football.

Your network’s capacity to reach and inspire new generations of endurance athletes would be just the beginning.  At the same time, you’d be motivating the average couch potato/weekend warrior to open their mind to self-improvement, and to try their hand feet at a sport for which the necessary equipment is genetically provided (with the exception of shoes and hopefully shorts), the obstacles to participation are minimal, and the venue lies right outside their door. Tuning into the Boston or Chicago or London Marathon and watching thousands of runners, some with physiques not unlike their own, compete in the same arena as the elites may get them thinking that maybe, just maybe, running isn’t as bad for their knees and other joints as they’ve been led to believe.

And unlike team sports, running knows no age limits.  Just ask Fauja Singh, the 103-year-old “Turbaned Tornado” who lives in Britain and who ran his first marathon at age 89 before retiring from the sport at age 102.  Wikipedia lists Singh’s occupation as “Marathon runner”.  “The first 20 miles are not difficult,” Singh says of the marathon.  “As for last six miles, I run while talking to God.”

Even my Mom, who hasn’t run a day in her life, found herself tuning back into the Universal Sports Network yesterday to catch a re-broadcast of last weekend’s Rotterdam Marathon.  Nothing reinforces for me the awesome power of running more than reading an email from Mom with the name “Kipchoge” spelled and used correctly.

Taking my argument for ESPN’s involvement in the sport a step further, I envision Meb and Shalane as the “Tiger Woods(es) of running” – minus the surly personality, overturned SUV and sensationalized divorce.  What Tiger did (however unintentionally) in attracting a whole new generation to the sport of golf, they could very well do for running.  And in the ongoing battle against childhood obesity, I’d wager that reaching that target audience through a couple of world-class athletes on a high-profile sports network would nicely complement the First Lady’s own “Just say no to fat kids” campaign.

If it’s sponsorships and advertising revenue you’re worried about, I can promise you that runners love their gear, apparel, fitness gadgets and nutritional supplements like no other demographic.  Running USA’s “State of the Sport” report from June 2013 concluded that the running industry is thriving despite a still-sluggish economy.  And since marathoners don’t wear team uniforms during races (the Olympics being a notable exception), the potential advertising opportunities for elites to run with their sponsor’s logo(s) emblazoned across their chest is a no-brainer.

Plus, with your network placing a premium on the “cool” factor of the one-name superstar (Lebron, Kobe, Papi), humble and articulate athletes like Meb and Shalane should integrate seamlessly into the ESPN marketing machine.

Dopey Challenge

There’s nothing dopier or more challenging than trying to run 48.6 miles in a green frock and floppy purple hat (source: rundisney.com)

As a Disney subsidiary, you’ve experienced first-hand the enormous growth of your parent company’s own running events in recent years.  Every new race event offered by the geniuses at Disney, despite increasingly exorbitant price tags, reaches capacity before you can say “Steamboat Willie”.  One of Disney’s most popular events, for example, the Dopey Challenge, allows participants to run a 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon through the Disney World theme parks in the span of four days, along the way collecting six different medals at the seemingly goofy price of $10.90 PER MILE (thanks to Dan for crunching these numbers and providing this perspective).

Now then, can I interest you in a series of ESPN-produced running events?  The timing couldn’t be better, particularly in light of the explosive popularity of adventure racing in this country.

So then Mr. Skipper, it’s time for your network to step up and ride the Meb wave – after all, it’s a strategy that’s certainly working for Skechers.  Clearly ESPN and the sport of running have a lot to offer each other.  I’d be happy to lend my expertise and consulting services to an ESPN race series, or to help a fledgling ESPN Running network get off the ground, starting with my recommendations for compelling programming opportunities.  If you’re interested, feel free to reach me through the Comments section of the blog.

In the meantime, since I have your attention, can we please talk about Barry Melrose’s hair…?

Best regards,

Mike Sohaskey, PhD
Boston Marathon hopeful

The race has become my theater for heroism, and of all the races, there is no better stage for heroism than a marathon.
– George Sheehan

Runner's World July 2013 cover

(photo credit Runner’s World)

I can’t believe it’s been a year.

It’s no exaggeration to say next week’s 118th Boston Marathon will be the most significant marathon in American history.  From an historical, cultural and psychological perspective, Monday will stand alone.  That’s a mind-boggling thought for the world’s oldest annual marathon, and one that’s witnessed its share of memorable moments through the years including:

  • 1966, when Bobbi Gibb became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon.
  • 1967, when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to race (and finish) with a bib number.
  • 1996, the Marathon’s Centennial celebration; with a field of 38,708 entrants it was the largest marathon ever at the time, and remains the largest Boston field to date.
  • 2011, the Year of the Great Tailwind (15-20 mph), when Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya set the current (unofficial) marathon world record in 2:03:02, with Ryan Hall setting the American record in 2:04:58.

Last year, of course, changed everything.  If you doubt this for a second, do a Google Images search for “Boston Marathon” and – if you can stomach the results – count how many of the first 100 photos show the race itself.

I still pause whenever I hear someone refer to those “affected” by the bombings, because I don’t know a single runner who wasn’t affected.  Physically I sat a continent removed from Boston, and yet I felt an indelible nexus with every person in Copley Square that day.  I knew several people who ran the race – some finished, some didn’t, though luckily all escaped physical injury.  And in the immediate aftermath, as reality gradually superseded surreality, I couldn’t help feeling as though I passed through all seven stages of grief, my brain periodically regressing to step one to start the process all over again.

So then as all eyes again turn toward the Mecca (check that, Mecc-er) of marathoning, you can bet I’m looking forward to next week’s Boston Marathon for a whole lot of reasons:

I look forward to what may be the most patriotic Patriots’ Day since the Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Boston is a proud city on a normal day, and a 26.2-mile urban party on a “typical” Patriots’ Day.  So I can only imagine the cathartic high that awaits the city on Monday.  As Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel proudly described his amp’s unconventional volume knobs, “These go to 11.”  On Monday, I expect Boston to go to 11.

I look forward to the suffocating media coverage.  As much as I’d love to be sporting a Boston Athletic Association bib number on Monday, I’ll instead enjoy chasing the unicorn in spirit, and in solidarity with each of the nearly 36,000 runners who earned their coveted spot.

At the same time, I’ll stand ready here in California to join in on the national anthem, or the city’s adopted civic anthem (“I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys), or wherever my vocal stylings may be needed.  Or more importantly not needed, as during the pre-race moment of silence to honor the victims and survivors of April 15.

I look forward to reading first-hand accounts of the day – at least those that don’t succumb to the writing equivalent of hyperventilation before the race even begins (OMG OMG OMG, BOSTON!!!!!!  Here are ten selfies in my blue and yellow gear I bought at the expo!!!).  I can’t wait to ride the day’s whirlwind of emotions, on social media and through the eyes of my fellow bloggers – from charged anticipation, to irrepressible anxiety, to overwhelming love and respect for the bent-but-not-broken resolve of a city and running community that so easily and eagerly embrace each other.

I look forward to tales from seasoned runners – Boston veterans among them – who find themselves faced with legitimate pre-race butterflies for the first time in years.  And I look forward to feeling my own vicarious shot of race-day adrenaline and sharing their start-line goosebumps from 3,000 miles away.

I look forward to mentally wallpapering over the smoke-filled chaos and carnage of 2013, in favor of scenes from the real Marathon – the adrenaline-fueled stampede out of Hopkinton; the unconditional support of raucous and oft-inebriated spectators; the deafening screams of the Wellesley College Scream Tunnel; the quiet confidence of medical personnel treating nothing more than muscle cramps and exhaustion; the exquisite triumph of mylar-wrapped finishers embracing friends and family.  Boston 2014 promises to be everything that Boston 2013 could not.

Of course I look forward to the actual race.  Although the men’s field reads like a “who’s who” of American distance running (including all-time great Meb Keflezighi), I have no delusions that an American will win on either the men’s or women’s side.  Still, I’ll be watching:

  • as Jason Hartmann and Shalane Flanagan strive for the podium after each finishing fourth last year (for Hartmann his second consecutive fourth-place finish);
  • as Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who ran a course-record 2:03:45 in Chicago last year, chases Geoffrey Mutai’s Boston record of 2:03:02 (weather and tailwind willing)
  • as Ryan Hall – who holds the American marathon record (2:04:58) but who hasn’t raced competitively since DNF’ing at the 2012 London Olympics due to injury – runs to regain his status as America’s premier marathoner, and to prove his days as a sponsor-savvy “golden boy” aren’t behind him.

Meanwhile, over at Fenway Park and with the marathon as their traditional backdrop, I look forward to the World Series Champs channeling the emotions of the day into a hometown drubbing of the Baltimore Orioles.

I look forward to Race Director Dave McGillivray renewing his personal tradition of being the very last finisher in his own race.  McGillivray has run every Boston Marathon since 1973, and this year he’ll be running to raise funds for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation.

And I look forward to the last official runner – the one just before RD McGillivray – crossing the freshly painted finish line on Boylston that welcomes each Boston Qualifier into the hallowed ranks of Boston Finisher.  As newly anointed finishers sport their BAA swag, flaunt their unicorn medals and raise their pints of Sam Adams Boston 26.2 Brew, that {whoosh} you hear will be an entire nation letting out its collective breath – relief tinged with sadness steeped in defiance.  From sea to shining sea.

I doubt I’ve read more on any single topic in the past year than on the bombings.  Even so, and despite the flood of media attention being rightly directed toward Monday, I’m admittedly looking beyond.

Under the glare of the world’s spotlight, and with cameras documenting the city’s every breath, Monday will be all about moving – moving tributes, moving reminders, moving mountains and of course, moving 26.2 miles.  Tuesday, though, is about moving on.  For many Bostonians and many others “affected” by the all-too-real nightmare of April 15, Tuesday is about closure.

For the families and loved ones of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi and Sean Collier, closure will always be that distant point on the horizon that, no matter how far and how fast they run toward it, never seems to get any closer.  For others, the notion of closure won’t change a future of constant pain and mounting medical bills.  And no matter what happens in that Massachusetts court room in November, closure will never reprise the heroic role of first responder to those who lost limbs, or innocence, or something far less reparable in Copley Square that day.  The truth is, time doesn’t heal all wounds.

For many others, though, closure means a much-needed shot at normalcy, a chance to restart lives and press play on a documentary that’s been stuck in slow-motion – or worse, on pause – for a year.  A chance to trade in the tears for weak smiles, the weak smiles for guarded laughter, and to move forward with renewed confidence knowing the world is filled with heroes we just haven’t met yet.

For the city itself, it means showing the world that “Boston Strong” isn’t a catchy mantra for a difficult time – it’s a way of life.  For runners everywhere, it means doubling down on the blood-, sweat- and tear-soaked training regimens required to qualify for the greatest foot race in the world.  For Red Sox and Yankees fans, it means getting back to the knuckleheaded comfort of hating each other, in the sporting-est sense of the word.  And for ESPN, it means getting back to the business of barely acknowledging Boston (or any marathon for that matter), since how much of a sport can it really be if America doesn’t dominate its biggest stages?

So even more than the tremendous emotional release that awaits on Monday, I look forward to Tuesday.  And the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after that.  I look forward to looking back, to remind ourselves not how much we’ve lost, but how far we’ve come.

Most of all, I look forward to looking forward.

For a compelling first-hand account of the 2013 Boston Marathon from someone who was there (and who ran a PR of 2:44:35 before the day fell apart), check out Scott Dunlap’s post on A Trail Runner’s Blog.

For more thoughts on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, see my posts “Boston on my Mind” and “Boston F@&#ing Strong”.

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
– Mark Twain

Dad & Mom (1958)


Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Nope, it’s Dad and Mom in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico (1958)

Today would have been Dad’s 82nd birthday.

Dad was never a runner per se, though that’s hardly surprising – he grew up in an era when few people identified themselves as “runners”.  Running was a means to an end – how else to steal a base, score a touchdown or start a fast break? – rather than an end in itself.  For most of society running was a fringe activity, certainly not a legitimate sport and something that really only happened (much less mattered) once every four years under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee.

So Dad didn’t run.  But he was definitely athletic.  At different stages in his life he tackled baseball, racquetball, handball and golf.  His two (or was it three?) career holes-in-one testified to his skill and comfort with a 7-iron, and though he might feign modesty, he’d be happy to share the details if you asked.  Likewise he married Mom and tackled the rugged terrain of fatherhood, that most contact of all sports.  In this arena his three children – an older daughter and two younger sons – testified to his skill, if not always his comfort, with being a father.  Here too, though, he’d gladly share the details when asked.

Even after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and another 3+ decades in suburban Texas, Dad’s distinctive accent remained as thick as New England clam chowder.  Service to his country may have taken the boy out of Boston, but no one was taking Boston out of the boy.  Accordingly, Dad was a firm adherent to what we wannabe linguists termed the “Law of Conservation of R’s” – any “r” that vanished inexplicably from the end of one word would soon reappear at the tail of another.  We rarely passed up an opportunity to offer up our best Dad impression, parading around the house wondering out loud where we’d pahked the cah or asking Mom whether she’d be making tuner fish casserole for dinnah.

Needless to say we cracked ourselves up.  Even better, Dad never understood what was so funny – we sounded perfectly normal to his New England-trained ear.

We teased Dad too for being (in his own words) a “cheapskate.”  Granted his post-military career as an auditor for the Department of Defense, together with a mortgage and three kids, wasn’t the most lucrative lifestyle.  But he took great pride in his cheapskatedness, regularly extolling the virtues of Sam’s Club and purchasing most of his wardrobe from the Air Force Exchange Service, the headquarters for which was conveniently located in nearby Dallas.  And true to form, when faced with a nerve-wracking diagnosis of prostate cancer, Dad scheduled his surgery at the military base hospital to take advantage of the veterans discount.

Despite his 20 years in the military, Dad wasn’t much of a disciplinarian.  Any vestige of draconian rule had been vanquished by my older siblings by the time I entered the picture, 8½ years after Chuck and nearly 10 years after Sandy.  Though neither parent ruled with an iron fist, hearing the words “Wait until your father gets home” was enough to scare me straight for a couple of hours.  At the top of their parenting game, he and Mom made a formidable tag team.

Dad_golf champ


I suspect Dad (left) may have joined the Air Force just to win golf tournaments

In school I was the kid who always looked forward to bringing home his report card… to unfolding it noisily in front of the parents, laying it out with great pomp and circumstance on the kitchen table, and hearing Dad say – after several seconds spent appraising its value as a jeweler would a diamond – “Can’t do any bettah than that.”  More often than not he was right.  Though never a stickler for details anyway (Santa’s handwriting, for example, always looked so familiar), Dad recognized early on that any external motivation on his part wouldn’t compare to the pressure I put on myself.

My early success at reading, writing and arithmetic evolved into high school success evolved into graduating summa cum laude from Rice University evolved into earning my PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford University.  Each step of the way, even if he wasn’t always sure what I was studying or why I was studying it, Dad would smile and offer up his own fatherly appraisal: “Can’t do any bettah than that.”

There were times when Dad could live up to his name and be brutally Frank.  When I’d say or do something that didn’t pass muster, he’d counter by taking the name of my alma mater in vain – “For someone who went to Rice, you sure are dumb.”  After I finished my PhD, that jab evolved to incorporate Stanford as well.  Though not so much in the moment, eventually I grew to appreciate his willingness to call me out, and his honest assessment still echoes in my brain whenever – well, let’s just say I hear it a lot.

But Dad could also be incredibly generous.  With the launch of every holiday season he and Sandy would head straight to the shopping mall, where they’d buy Christmas presents for underprivileged children whose names adorned the Salvation Army Angel Tree.  Some years, undoubtedly, they were the only gifts those kids received, and hearing him talk about his young charges (whom he never actually met) was a far better start to the holidays than Black Friday.  He took his annual responsibility to the Angel Tree very seriously.  Mom and Sandy still do.

Sometimes it seemed those kids were the only residents of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex Dad didn’t know.  In a family of textbook introverts – including a younger son who was perfectly happy reading his comic books, or practicing the guitar, or shooting baskets in an empty gym – Dad stood out like a zebra with spots.  One summer evening, en route to a little league baseball game I was scheduled to umpire, we found ourselves lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood.  Pulling over to ask a random pedestrian for directions, Dad leaned out the window and called to her, “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to – hey, Linder!  How ya been?  Haven’t seen you in a while!”  By the time he and long-lost Linda concluded their chat, we barely made it to the baseball field in time for first pitch.

Me & Dad (1971)


Dad worked the night shift while I held down the morning shift in our home veterinary clinic (1971)

Dad and I enjoyed several father-son road trips/vacations over the years – my first visit to Boston and Fenway Pahk in 1987; New Orleans for the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair; Washington D.C. the summer before that; and an early 80s road trip from Dallas to Orlando FL, over 1,000 miles of driving in each direction and all in the name of – what else? – Mickey Mouse.  We got around, me and Dad.

But father-son (or in this case father-sons) bonding was nevah bettah than in 1998.  That April, Dad flew the three of us out to the East Coast to watch Chuck run in the Boston Marathon.  At that point I was still a basketball player for whom “off-court running” generally meant sprinting through airports.  And the only races I had under my belt wing were a couple of turkey trots in which I’d taken the “trot” label to heart, and where I’d functioned mainly as a human drop bag for Chuck’s street clothes while he ran.

But whether you’re running, trotting, walking or crawling, the ‘wow’ factor of Boston on Patriots Day can’t be denied.  Dad himself seemed stunned by the sheer magnitude of an event he hadn’t witnessed in nearly 50 years, this formerly provincial footrace of fewer than 200 runners that passed within a strong snowball’s throw of his childhood home in Newton Lower Falls.

He and I jockeyed for position with the hordes of fervent spectators near mile 12, until I hopped in to join Chuck for the next five miles.  My timing was no coincidence.  Those five miles were without question the LOUDEST stretch I’ve ever run, courtesy of Wellesley’s tireless spectators and especially the celebrated Wellesley College Scream Tunnel (though I left the hard-earned kisses to the real runners).  Even without a medal to show for my effort, those remain five of the most memorable miles of my running life.  So technically I have run in the Boston Marathon, all thanks to Dad the non-runner.  And to Chuck for being fast enough to qualify in the first place.

Dad also used that weekend to don his tour guide hat.  As if in homage to his city’s iconic Dunkin’ Donuts, Dad’s childhood memories of Boston were dipped in nostalgia and sprinkled with absurdity.  He shared (tall?) tales of sneaking over the chain-link fence around Fenway Park to watch Ted Williams play.  He introduced us the house where he, together with his Polish immigrant parents, sister and four brothers, hunkered down to escape the ruthless Northeast winters.  And he showed us the spot near his home where he and his reckless buddies would dive into the Charles River: “Jimmy cracked his head open down theah” he said matter-of-factly, indicating the concrete embankment sloping down to the river.  Seeing the horrified looks on our faces, he followed up with a dismissive wave and an assurance of “Ah, he was fine.”  Hazarding one last downward glance to check for faded blood spatter, I wondered whether Jimmy would be so quick to agree.

Dad on the golf course


Dad’s sense of humor could rise to the occasion… that’s him hitting balls into an apparent construction site

As I transitioned into adulthood, chinks appeared in his impenetrable Dad armor.  Successful prostate cancer surgery was followed by in situ carcinoma of the bladder, and by the usual spectrum of age-related maladies.  Not that he’d ever complain, at least not in front of us kids – he was solidly of the “Rub some dirt on it” era.  In fact, Chuck and I later learned that during our visits home to Texas, Dad would sneak off to the oncologist’s office for radiation therapy without a word to either of us.  Why bother your own kids with something as trivial as cancer treatments?  Never mind that one of those kids had his graduate degree in Cancer Biology.

But as tough as a man must be to endure 20 Boston winters, 20 years in the military and two cancer diagnoses, Father Time will always be tougher.  As the years accelerated, so too did the aging process.  Not that he’d ever complain, at least not in front of us kids.

But frailty and weakness are never so jarring as when they appear somewhere you’ve never seen them.  Most striking was the weight loss, which he would dismiss in typical Dad fashion – I began to feel like an NFL linebacker standing next to him.  Then came more time spent “resting his eyes” in front of the television and, when we’d walk together, increasingly frequent respites to catch his breath.  Finally and most alarmingly, he stopped playing golf altogether, although that decision he attributed more to the arthritis that had robbed his knee of its flexibility.  After he retired in 1993, Dad eschewing a round of golf would have been like a Kardashian eschewing the spotlight.  It just didn’t happen.  So his sudden lack of interest in the sport was troubling.  And telling.

In October 2009 came the phone call I’d been dreading silently for years: Dad had suffered a heart attack and been rushed to the hospital.  Fortunately Sandy had been with him at the time – nobody took better care of Dad than Sandy, and nobody took better care of Sandy than Dad.  But this second “episode” (doctor’s words) in seven months had been more severe than the first.  And over the next three months, as doctors fought to prove otherwise, his heart made it gut-wrenchingly clear it was no longer in the game.  With Dad in the hospital and Katie, Chuck and I staggering our trips home to help Mom and Sandy as much as possible, 2009 quickly became a very un-merry Christmas.

Dad with Katie's parents


Breaking bread with Katie’s parents at our wedding rehearsal dinner in Kaua’i (2004)

One month after his 78th birthday, in January 2010, Dad passed away from congestive heart failure.  He’d been married to Mom for 51 years, served his country for 20 more, fathered three (by my estimate) beautiful kids, and tallied two (or was it three?) aces on the golf course.  He’d outlived the Great Depression, a World War, five siblings, two bouts with cancer and – unlike many of his contemporaries – 86 years of Red Sox futility.  By all accounts, for a self-professed “knucklehead” from Newton, it had been one hell of a ride.

Admittedly I’ve forgotten the exact date he left us… who wants to remember the worst day of their life?  I’d rather remember today, and the decades worth of todays our family celebrated together.  In reading other blogs, I see jubilant finish-line photos of runners posing with their own dads; my favorite photos show both generations sporting a bib number and running shoes.  I don’t write this blog to dish out advice, but my advice to other runners would be to snap that photo, whenever you can.

And though I know it’s not really him, I do still make it a point when I’m home to visit Dad at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, where he is appropriately honored alongside his fellow veterans.  Why I visit him there, I’m not quite sure – maybe to assure him we’re all taking good care of Mom (though we don’t have the 51 years of practice he had).  Or to share the news that whereas the Celtics now suck, the Red Sox have suddenly become a baseball dynasty. Or maybe, in a regrettably selfish moment, to chastise him for not listening to others and taking better care of himself.  Death is such a high price to pay for living.

Then again, standing in respectful silence among the granite and marble headstones, I realize exactly why I visit – to let him know he’s not alone.  To let him know I still hear him, I’m still listening, and that his legacy is in part my own determination to take care of those close to me, and those who can’t take care of themselves.  He is, after all, the reason I donate every year on this day to The American Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (NAFC), whose mission is to broaden access to affordable health care for the nation’s medically underserved.

I’ve yet to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  But one Patriots Day soon, when I’m lining up among the compression-clad masses in Hopkinton, or maybe when I’m struggling through the hills in his hometown Newton late in the race, I’ll hear Dad’s voice slice loud and clear through the controlled chaos all around me.  Not for its volume, or its intensity, or even its strict adherence to the law of conservation of R’s… but for its simple and well-timed message, a six-word anthem from father to son:

Can’t do any bettah than that.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Dad_headstone

This is our fucking city.  And nobody is going to dictate our freedom.  Stay strong.
– David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Boston Red Sox designated hitter

And with that, standing 15 miles and 238 years removed from the original, David Ortiz fired his own shot heard ’round the world.

Ortiz and his Red Sox teammates are icons of Boston sports culture.  But in his pregame address before the team took the field against Kansas City on Saturday, Ortiz was talking to a far wider audience than the 35,152 battle-tested fans in attendance at Fenway Park.

Because this past week, Boston truly was our city.  Boston was San Francisco’s city.  Boston was Chicago’s city.  Boston was Denver’s city, Miami’s city and New Orleans’ city.  Boston was even New York City’s city, as proclaimed by the “United We Stand” banner sporting dual Yankees and Red Sox logos that hung outside Yankee Stadium on Tuesday.

Over the course of a 102-hour period from Monday afternoon to Friday evening, we were barraged by thousands of graphic images of real-time chaos, tragedy and implausible strength.  We were warned to avert our eyes from some images, while being asked to look very carefully at others.  Thousands of pictures worth millions of words, as news agencies – including CNN with its bumbling, stumbling impression of a rabid dog chasing its tail – hustled to force-feed us those words and many more.  Meanwhile, those of us in the running community struggled to make sense of and assign words to our own swirling emotions.

Yet two words quickly rose above the turmoil: Boston Strong.  Two words worth a thousand pictures.  Two words to drive home the point that, as we approach our 237th birthday, each new terrorist threat to these States of America only serves to reaffirm and reinforce the fact that the U. remains an inextricable partner of the S.A.

With that in mind, and before this blog moves in a different direction, I wanted to share 10 unforgettable images and stories from a week that, to me, showcased and immortalized what it means to be Boston Strong:

Four we won’t forget
Krystle Campbell (29), Martin Richard (8) and Lu Lingzi (23) were killed in Monday’s bombings.  MIT campus patrol officer Sean Collier (26) was shot and killed in the line of duty by the Tsarnaev brothers on Thursday.  Donations can be made to the Krystle M. Campbell Memorial Fund, the Richard Family Fund, the Lu Lingzi Scholarship Fund at Boston University, and under Officer Collier’s name to The Jimmy Fund:

KrystleCampbell_MartinRichard_LingziLu_SeanCollier

In addition, The One Fund Boston, Inc. has been established by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino to provide financial support for all those directly affected by the week’s tragic events.

Bill Iffrig and the bombing of Boylston Street (Monday)
Bill Iffrig (circled at top, and in orange tanktop at bottom) was seconds from finishing his third Boston Marathon when shock waves from the first explosion knocked him to the ground.  After being helped to his feet by a race official, the 78-year-old Washington resident finished the marathon under his own power.  Iffrig’s story has come to symbolize the city of Boston’s endurance and resolve in the aftermath of Monday’s madness:

Finish line_MS

© 2013 The New York Times Company

Bill Iffrig-Boston Globe

(AP Photo/The Boston Globe, John Tlumacki)

Jeff Bauman, hero (Monday)
Jeff Bauman was standing at the marathon finish line to cheer on his girlfriend when Tamerlan Tsarnaev dropped a backpack containing a bomb at his feet.  Despite losing both legs in the explosion and waking up in the hospital heavily drugged, Bauman (shown here being rushed from the scene by a paramedic and two volunteers, including Carlos Arredondo in the cowboy hat) immediately asked for a pen and paper on which he wrote, “bag, saw the guy, looked right at me.”  His subsequent identification of Tsarnaev was the breakthrough FBI investigators needed to finger Tsarnaev and his brother Dzhokhar as prime suspects:

Jeff Bauman

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Man comforts bombing victim (Monday)
I don’t know whether they knew each other before Monday or whether this is their first meeting, but without question this is one of the most poignant images to emerge from the day’s harsh surreality:

Comforted

Détente in the Bronx (Tuesday)
As much as I hate to admit it, the New York Yankees are a classy organization.  New York’s show of solidarity with its normally bitter rival was on full display on the outer facade of Yankee Stadium before Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The team recognized a moment of silence for the bombing victims, and the stadium’s PA system played Fenway favorite “Sweet Caroline” as fans sang along at the end of the third inning:

NYY07_BASEBALL

Four days later, the two cities set aside their similarities for 48 minutes as the Knicks defeated the Celtics in game one of their NBA playoffs series.  Don’t get cocky New York, it’s only one game.

Manhunt in the streets of Boston (Friday)
Boston residents were ordered to “shelter-in-place” as authorities pursued bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  The lockdown left the streets of Boston and its surrounding suburbs eerily empty and quiet, as exemplified by this photo of Kenmore Square tweeted by Andrew Golden:

BIOajDVCYAETXOg

The Boston Police Department: “CAPTURED!!!” (Friday)
This tweet, time-stamped 8:58pm EDT on Friday April 19, says it all:

CAPTURED

It’s his f@&#ing city, too
He’s David Ortiz’s kind of kid: I’ve had this picture on my hard drive for several years now, and usually call on it to harass my friends once the baseball playoffs begin.  Before I get called out for my naïvete, yes I realize he’s a promiscuous kid and can be found online wearing pretty much any team’s jersey.  But to me the sentiment is so perfect and so… Boston, particular now, that this list wouldn’t feel right without him:

Red Sox fan

Boston Bruins fans sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Wednesday)
In the first professional sporting event in Boston since the bombings, Boston Bruins’ fans joined in and then overwhelmed Rene Rancourt as he sang the national anthem.  If this doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, or at least a gaggle of goosebumps to your skin, I can only assume you just awoke from a 102-hour slumber:

And I leave you with one final image, a collective sentiment that will continue to resonate with runners everywhere long after the debris on Boylston has been cleared away… after all, Boston is our fucking city:

o-RUN-FOR-BOSTON-570

The One Fund Boston, Inc. was established “to help the people most affected by the tragic events that occurred in Boston on April 15, 2013.”  Please give generously.