Posts Tagged ‘longreads’

Running through the struggle like a golden thread was the indomitable human spirit and a capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey at 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

(Howdy! For those interested in a full treatment of the Comrades Marathon including its many unique and long-standing traditions, I recommend you start with my two-part report from last year’s “up” run HERE. On the other hand, if you’re basically just here for the pictures, carry on…)

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

These quiet declarations reached my ears as little more than a mumble emanating from the gaunt runner to my right. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help but smile. The two of us strode forward slowly yet inexorably, like iron filings drawn toward the great white magnet looming directly ahead. Every step brought us closer to our ultimate destination and the object of his desire: Moses Mabhida Stadium, its central arch rising in defiance against the afternoon sky.

Despite our conspicuous outer differences — his deep ebony skin and Old World accent vs. my own melanin-challenged physique and New World English — the two of us moved as of one mind and body, eyes locked on our mutual Mecca as we approached the end of this arduous pilgrimage together. Eternal glory and an ice-cold soda beckoned.

At that moment we were kindred spirits, brothers in arms (and legs), intimate associates pulling in the same direction and with the same focused fervor for the same compulsive cause.

Or what Webster’s Dictionary would call comrades.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2018 Comrades Marathon expo


Had it really been a year?

371 days to be exact, since I’d stood in a similar position at the start line of my first Comrades Marathon, sweating incongruously in the cool morning air while the butterflies of the moment treated my stomach like children treat a bounce house.

This was like déjà vu all over again.

The scene around me now was electric — not surprising at the start line of the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. The collective human electricity of nearly 20,000 tightly packed runners intermingled with the harsh electric floodlights, the latter sending the pre-dawn shadows into hiding along the back alleys of downtown Pietermaritzburg.

Directly ahead at one end of the sea of heads stood the brighly lit red arch with “Bonitas” written in script letters on either side of the word “START.” The scene felt very much the same as I remembered it from a year earlier.

And yet different. Durban City Hall, which had towered over these same start corrals one year ago, had been replaced with the equally majestic brick façade of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. This, of course, is one defining feature of the Comrades Marathon: its course reverses direction in alternating years, so that whereas last year’s “up” ran started in Durban and finished in Pietermaritzburg, this year’s “down” run would travel the opposite route, starting in Pietermaritzburg before finishing 90.184 km (56 miles) away in Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban

The familiar face alongside me was also a welcome difference from the 2017 run. IRONMAN triathlete power couple Jimmy and his wife Catherine had accepted our invite to join us for this year’s down run, with Jimmy running and Cath joining Katie in providing all-important crew support (or “seconding,” as it’s termed in South Africa). This would be not only Jimmy’s first Comrades but also his first ultramarathon, in recognition of a milestone birthday. What better way to celebrate half a century on this planet than by traveling halfway across it to run 56 miles?

Likewise Beth from Vancouver, whom we’d first met five years earlier when she’d won the half marathon in Antarctica, had decided this year’s down run would be her first Comrades and first ultramarathon in celebration of her own milestone 40th birthday. Because you’re never too old to make questionable decisions!

Beth’s husband Miguel, the only soccer player among us, would be joining Cath and a now-experienced Katie to form the day’s most bad-ass seconding crew. Having the three of them on the course armed with a beautifully detailed map courtesy of 12-time Comrades finisher Rory — another Antarctica pal and our excellent host for Comrades 2017 — gave me a huge sense of confidence. Talk about strength in numbers.

Relaxing at Southern Sun Elangeni leading up to 2018 Comrades Marathon

The days in Durban leading up to Comrades are just packed

Another notable distinction from the 2017 race was my nerves, or more accurately my unnerving lack of nerves. Standing in the monolithic presence of Pietermaritzburg City Hall chatting with Jimmy, I felt none of last year’s anxiety or apprehension. Sure, a lot of unknowns lay ahead on the 90 km journey to Durban, and for that the butterflies in my stomach were up to the challenge. But this time they all seemed to be flying in formation, rather than each doing its separate thing — the moment brought to mind the 80s video game Galaga, with the enemy warships all flying in formation at the start of each new screen, compared to the ensuing swarm of every ship for himself. And as the South African national anthem reached its conclusion, I felt relaxed and strangely at ease.

That said, even the best-behaved butterflies can’t help but be thrown off course by the power and beauty of what comes next: the Ndebele mining song, “Shosholoza.” Rather than observe in awestruck appreciation as other runners around me joined in the performance, though, this year I joined in myself. This despite the fact my voice was little more than a vibration in my head against the sonic wall of vocal harmonies, which resonated deep in my chest like a lion’s roar at close range.

“Shosholoza” segued predictably into “Chariots of Fire” as I made a last-second adjustment to the safety pins holding my bib number. Moments later the last notes of Vangelis’ classic score faded away, and the pregnant pause in its wake sent a few more butterflies fluttering out of formation. Adrenaline flooded my bloodstream.

Then, as loudly as if I’d been carrying a restless rooster in the lightweight pack on my back, the ear-splitting sound of Max Trumbull’s recorded cockerel crow pierced the morning quiet, signaling the start of the 93rd Comrades Marathon just as it has every Comrades Marathon for the past 71 years.

The decisive crack of a gunshot followed and with that, every one of the 19,116 starters assembled outside Pietermaritzburg City Hall — from the eventual champions in Corral A to the final finishers in Corral H — was at the mercy of the ticking clock. Because no matter our corral seeding or how long it would take us to cross under the official red START arch, we would have exactly 12 hours from the moment of that opening gunshot to cross the finish line in Moses Mabhida Stadium some 90 km away. “Gun to gun” (rather than “mat to mat”) timing is one of the signature traditions of the Comrades Marathon.

2018 Comrades Marathon start line selfie of Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam

NO TURNING BACK — except for a start-line selfie

As Jimmy and I joined runners from 79 other nations in the relentless march toward Durban, I reflected on the irony of my being here after last year’s race. Comrades 2017 had left me so emotionally and physically depleted that I’d been unable to get comfortable for hours after crossing the finish line at the Scottsville Racecourse. Even my palate had hurt the next day.

But as every ultrarunner can tell you, miserable is memorable, and it wasn’t long before the siren song of the coveted back-to-back medal (earned by running the up and down runs in consecutive years) had reached my ears in Los Angeles some 10,000 miles away. And as the official Comrades Coach Lindsey Parry had pointed out at the pre-race expo three days earlier, you haven’t really run the Comrades Marathon until you’ve run both the “up” and “down” runs.

In other words, what goes up must come down. And gravity ain’t got nothin’ on Comrades.

90 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon start

The calm before Comrades
Jimmy, Cath, Katie and I had arrived in Durban on Wednesday after back-to-back-to-back flights from Los Angeles to London, London to Johannesburg and Joburg to Durban. Based on our positive experience of the previous year, we’d again elected to stay at the Southern Sun Elangeni in coastal Durban near the pre-race expo, rather than save ourselves time on race morning by staying closer to the start line in Pietermaritzburg.

We’d taken advantage of our mid-week arrival to recover from jet lag and tackle the intimidatingly large expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre on Thursday, well before the crush of foot traffic that would descend on Friday and Saturday. (Luckily the registration line for international athletes is typically short on any day, not surprising given that South Africans account for over 90% of registered runners.)

2018 Comrades Marathon expo

After flying 11,000+ miles, you better believe there’s no turning back (Me, Katie, Jimmy, Cath)

All manner of vendors stood alongside their booths hawking various goods and services, from athletic gear and apparel to other South African running events to Cape Town wineries and even an aggressive, aerosol can-wielding team of fellows who seemed hell-bent on shining my New Balance running shoes.

Several local charities had set up tables to raise awareness, and we sought out the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children — the school itself is located near the 37 km mark of the down run — to make a donation. In one corner of the exhibition centre we purchased tickets for the Sunday shuttle to Pietermaritzburg, while in another a convenient food court boasted a diverse selection of lunch fare.

I could only imagine how claustrophobic this hall would feel come Saturday.

[Comrades Tip #1: The earlier you can hit the pre-race expo, the better — things start to get very busy on Friday afternoon.]

Along with the Old Mutual stage where Coach Parry shared his tips and tricks for the down run, the highlight of this year’s expo was the food court, where during lunch we met Benny and his wife Monica, an enthusiastic couple from Johannesburg. With Monica’s support, an infectious smile and an easy laugh, Benny was preparing to run his first Comrades. Nothing unusual about that, except that he’d only run his first mile a year earlier, and so was not only a novice to Comrades but to the sport itself.

Benny was clearly eager to embrace the opportunity and put his best foot forward; at the same time, he harbored no allusions as to the challenge ahead. And though in the end he’d just miss the Pinetown cutoff and be among the 13.8% not to finish this year’s race, he’d message me afterwards to say that he’d had “so much fun” and that he’d start preparing for 2019 just as soon as his “penguin walk” subsided. And I have no doubt he’ll be ready.

Breaking bread with Comrades first-timer Benny (left) and his wife Monica (third from left)

Because that, in a nutshell, is what Comrades does to your brain — like your favorite childhood memory, it takes hold and never lets go. I can’t imagine many Americans following Benny’s ambitious “Couch to Comrades” program. And it’s probably fortuitous that Katie and I don’t live in South Africa, because despite the distance I’d have a helluva time saying “no” to a hometown race like Comrades.

On Thursday evening we’d attended the International Runners Reception at the Hilton Durban, which this year was sparsely attended and featured an obnoxiously loud musical score that quickly drowned out every conversation I tried to start. As usual, the highlight of the reception was 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce with his waggish energy and bottomless quiver of amusing anecdotes. Everyone appreciates Bruce — he’s a magnetic personality and the best ambassador this race could ever hope for.

As it had last year, our Saturday began with thousands of our fellow Comrades runners at the packed Durban North Beach parkrun, where we’d met up with our buddy John from Anchorage, like me a returning runner chasing his back-to-back medal. Along the 5K route we’d also met “Marathon Granny” Joyce from Kenya, who apparently had taken up running after developing arthritis in her knee and who would be running her first Comrades at age 64. Not only would Joyce start her first Comrades, but she’d finish her first Comrades in an astonishing 10:27:15, easily eclipsing runners half her age to become one of the weekend’s most inspiring stories. Rock on, Joyce!

Durban North Beach parkrun day before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Durban North Beach parkrun (clockwise from top left): Shaking out our selfie muscles with John from Anchorage, center; Cath turns parkrun into a full-body workout; catching up with Marathon Granny Joyce from Kenya; Cath and Katie do their best human butterfly impression

The rest of our Saturday had been overly restful, so that after a solid five hours of sleep I’d awoken on Sunday morning feeling well rested and ready to go, with the voice of experience in my head calming any potentially skittish butterflies in my stomach. After all, as noted American poet Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” With one Comrades finish under my belt, I liked to think I knew what the hell I was doing.

After a semi-normal breakfast (as normal as 2:00am breakfast can be), Jimmy, Beth and I hopped aboard the 2:45am shuttle bus for the long and (luckily) uneventful ride to the start of our personal journey in Pietermaritzburg.

2018 Comrades Marathon profile map

Asijiki: No Turning Back (Pietermaritzburg to Little Pollys)
Now, with confetti falling all around us, Jimmy and I crossed the start line two minutes and 30 seconds after the gun, 30 seconds slower than last year. As the sea of official red-and-white race caps disappeared into the darkness ahead of us, I fell into a comfortable jog alongside Jimmy, gauging the weight distribution of the lightweight Ultimate Direction pack on my back that held my limited assortment of baby food pouches and GU packets. Learning my lesson from last year’s race, I’d left the hydration bladder at home.

[Comrades Tip #2: Resist the urge to carry a hydration bladder — there’s plenty of water, Energade etc. along the course. If you must carry a pack, limit its contents to solid nutrition.]

Our game plan was simple: start strong to give ourselves a realistic shot at a 9-hour finish (Bill Rowan medal) and then adapt on the fly. Though I knew Jimmy’s competitive streak would drive him to push for 9 hours, I also knew I hadn’t trained to run a sub-9 finish time myself. After a high-mileage training program that enabled my come-from-behind run for charity at January’s Houston Marathon, I’d barely squeezed in a Corral C qualifying time at my hometown Los Angeles Marathon in March, registering at the last minute before beating the cutoff by a whopping 11 seconds. So I didn’t exactly arrive in Durban Bill Rowan-ready.

Even if I had trained properly, pausing along the route to take pictures would easily add 10-15 minutes to my finish time. If everything went according to plan, I saw 9:30 as a more likely scenario, with my primary goal being sub-10 hours as in 2017.

2017-2018 Comrades Marathon course signs

Not only had I not trained for a sub-9, but downhill running isn’t my strength — I’m much more consistent on the uphills. Whereas many runners naturally post faster times on the down run (with its 6,000+ feet of elevation loss vs. 4,000+ feet of elevation gain), I’d diligently trained my quads to survive and hopefully thrive on the extended descents between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. To my usual training regimen I’d added twice-a-week lunges and eccentric quad strengthening, the latter on the recommendation of Rory who’s completed the down run six times. I’d even run the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon in late April, a doozy of a test run boasting a net elevation loss of 5,300 feet over 26.2 miles.

So my quads were as ready as they’d ever be to tackle the challenge of the Comrades down run.

Luckily we’d have the ultimate wild card on our side this year — the South African winter. Unlike the previous year’s unseasonal heat and unrelenting sunshine, this year’s temperatures were expected to peak in the mid-70s with regular cloud cover to keep the sun at bay. Given that my spring training regimen had included spending 20-30 minutes a day six days a week in a 180°F sauna to build my heat tolerance, this was welcome news. And it would help to make up for the fact that the 2018 course would be the longest in 23 years.

At 90.184 km, this year’s down run would be the longest Comrades course since 1995 and nearly 3½ km longer than last year’s up run, which measured 86.73. Assuming I matched last year’s average pace of 10:53/mile, the extra distance would add over 23 minutes to my projected finish time. So never mind sub-9 hours — I’d have my work cut out for me if I hoped to improve on last year’s finish time of 9:52:55.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Comrades Wall of Honour

Paying homage to Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Comrades Wall of Honour

Like a gracious host reminding us that this was indeed the down run, the narrow road leading out of Pietermaritzburg started on a gentle descent. As my nerves fired and my pulse rate quickened, I did a full-system check to ensure all systems were go. My gut had dodged a bullet thirty minutes earlier after each and every porta-potty outside the start corrals had inexplicably run out of toilet paper, with no one to refill them. Talk about a helpless feeling, and only a bit of last-minute ingenuity had saved the day…

[Comrades Tip #3: That gauzy Bonitas hospital gown included in your pre-race goodie bag for warmth on race morning? It can also be torn into convenient strips for use as toilet paper.]

Jimmy and I cruised through the darkness of Pietermaritzburg and into Ashburton, the early route narrower and more tightly packed than it had been on last year’s up run, when we’d exited Durban via the well-lit N3 highway. In the pitch black I fell into a rhythm, quieted my mind and focused my mental energy on avoiding potholes as well as other runners carelessly drifting across invisible lanes of traffic.

On that note, I found myself frustrated by the sheer number of runners who seemed either unable or unwilling to run a straight line. And I know I wasted a nontrivial amount of energy pumping the brakes as restless runners insisted on weaving in front of me.

Though Jimmy and I would run together in the early going, each of us had every intention of running our own race. Because despite the fact that you’re surrounded by thousands of other runners and countless screaming spectators throughout the day, Comrades — more so than any other race I’ve run — is a very personal affair. It’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: Comrades is 90 km of you vs. you, and for most of us that’s plenty of competition.

After wearing RaceRaves gear in my Comrades debut, I’d decided to go the patriotic route this year with USA flag shorts, Statue of Liberty calf compression sleeves, an American flag behind my bib number on front and back, plus stars & stripes sunglasses I’d bought for $1 at Target to round out my wardrobe. Bruce Fordyce had recommended wearing our national colors the year before — “I can’t understand why someone travels all this way to run Comrades, and then runs in a San Diego Marathon shirt” — and I’d witnessed first-hand the raucous reception other runners had received for proudly sporting their national colors.

As I’d soon discover the red, white and blue elicits a curious mix of reactions, and especially among 80 nations in which Americans account for less than 1% of the field. Sadly I missed this exchange, but according to Jimmy a woman behind us in the early miles saw my shorts and yelled, “Go America!” to which a salty Brit behind us responded with, “Said no one evah!” In response to Jimmy’s sideways glance he added sheepishly, “Sorry, don’t hate me.”

Comrades is the perfect opportunity to showcase your patriotism

Daybreak’s pale, pink-tinged lips kissed the sky as we reached Polly Shortts — the last of the “Big Five” hills on the up run — at the 82 km mark. As the pace accelerated on the mile-long descent, I paused for important business by the side of the road while Jimmy shot ahead. Though he quickly vanished out of sight, I reeled him in on the next short climb before the pace again increased down Little Polly’s.

It was on Polly Shortts and her sister Little Polly’s (Little Mpusheni) that I realized Jimmy and I were running different races. While he attacked the downhills with gravity as his muse, I worked to keep my pace in check without riding the brakes. Because starting too fast is the #1 cardinal sin of Comrades, and I hadn’t come all this way just to shred my quads before sunrise.

77 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon at Camperdown

Little Pollys to Harrison Flats
After Little Pollys, we switched gears once again for our longest extended climb of the day up to Umlaas Road. Along the way we passed under the N3 to reach the first of six cutoff points at Lion Park (~75 km to go). Unsure of the best way to mentally divvy up 90 km, I’d decided the six time cutoff stations would be my best landmarks, as they stand 10-15 km apart.

Despite its significance as the highest point on the course (2,700 feet), Umlaas is nondescript and easily missed during the race — and especially on the down run, where it arrives so early. Except that this year, rounding a corner I happened to glance Rory’s tall distinctive frame among the spectators lining the road.

Unfortunately by the time my brain processed the moment I’d passed Rory by, and so not wanting to slam on the brakes and risk causing an accident, I turned quickly, yelled his name and threw up my hand in greeting as I continued on my way. I saw him respond to his name, but whether he’d recognized my voice or seen me in the crowd, I had no idea.

2018 Comrades Marathon on way to Camperdown

Savoring sunrise on the way to Camperdown

One advantage of the down run is the opportunity to cover the relatively quiet, wide-open stretch through Camperdown and Cato Ridge early in the day, before the sun is high in the sky. I could still recall how interminable these long, desolate and unshaded miles had felt during last year’s up run, with Inchanga in our rear-view mirror and Polly Shortts yet to come.

A pungent odor hit my nostrils, more like rotting animal carcass than the familiar Camperdown chicken farm smell I remembered from the year before. Luckily it passed as quickly as it had appeared. No harm, no fowl.

I texted Katie to let her know we were 2 km away from where she, Cath and Miguel would be waiting. I’d missed her and Rory at our first meeting place last year, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. We’d also made the sage decision this year to invest in a South Africa SIM card for our iPhones upon landing at the Johannesburg airport, so we’d be able to text freely throughout the trip.

We reached our terrific trio at the 66 km mark with Jimmy about a minute ahead. He passed the trio quickly without stopping while I paused for a couple bites of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich to supplement the baby food pouch I’d downed earlier. And I laughed as Cath, responding I think to Jimmy’s own sense of focus, urged me to get going while I took a minute to stretch my legs and pose for a picture with Katie.

Even the best seconding crew in South Africa’s gotta eat!

Seconding is a key part of the Comrades experience for both runners and crew; I appreciated their being there, and the excitement on their faces was a definite pick-me-up. I also knew that one or two minutes per pit stop wouldn’t make an appreciable difference in my final time. My nonchalance was fueled by my desire to enjoy race day to the utmost, but also by what I consider to be the most glaring oversight on the part of the Comrades Marathon Association. Let me explain…

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Comrades is its distinctive finisher medals, awarded on the basis of finish time as follows:

  • Gold: Top 10
  • Wally Hayward (named for the 5-time Comrades Marathon champion and oldest runner to finish the race): Out of the top 10 but less than 6 hours
  • Silver: Greater than 6 hours but less than 7½ hours
  • Bill Rowan (named for the first Comrades Marathon winner in 1921): Greater than 7½ hours but less than 9 hours
  • Bronze: Greater than 9 hours but less than 11 hours
  • Vic Clapham (named for the Comrades Marathon founder): Greater than 11 hours but less than 12 hours:

What jumps out at me from these numbers is the sizable two-hour gap between the first and last Bronze medalists. In this year’s race, bronze medalists accounted for 39% of finishers, compared to 31% for Vic Clapham and 13% for Bill Rowan. To my mind, the difference in performance between a runner who finishes Comrades in 9:01 and one who crosses the finish line in 10:59 is significant enough to merit distinct medals.

So then why not introduce a new medal, say the Bruce Fordyce medal, for runners who finish between 9 and 10 hours? Named after the race’s 9-time champion and its premier ambassador, the promise of a Bruce Fordyce medal would immediately inspire many runners who are on the cusp of 10 hours to train harder and run a smarter, more focused race. At the same time, it would set an exciting new standard for sub-10 runners like me — who currently know a Bronze medal awaits us whether we finish in 9:45 or 10:15 — and encourage us to treat the race with less nonchalance, knowing a sub-10 finish means the difference between a Bruce Fordyce medal and a Bronze.

So how ‘bout it, CMA?

The aid stations were as efficient and energetic as I remembered, though thanks to the cooler temperatures I didn’t need to visit quite as many this year. But despite the availability of trash bins, the streets around each aid station were littered with discarded water and Energade sachets, some still partially filled so that they emitted a last-gasp {POP} when stepped on.

[Comrades Tip #4: Unless you’re in the lead pack, toss your used cups and sachets off to one side of the road, near a trash bin. If you don’t like tramping over discarded trash and half-filled water balloons, why should the runners behind you?]

The 12-hour “bus” (pacing group) rolls through Camperdown

During the course of running 90 km you’re bound to experience at least one aid station snafu, and my most memorable came courtesy of a harmless-looking orange slice which I gratefully accepted from a proferred plate. Biting down to release the sweet juice, I was instead greeted by an unwelcome saltiness that nearly caused me to gag. Instinctively I spit out the foul fruit, my taste buds scrambling to reconcile the sensation of salty where there should only have been sweet.

Unfortunately by this time I’d already passed the aid station, and so it would be another km before I could wash the salty aftertaste {blech} from my mouth. Later in the race I’d grab another orange, but not without first interrogating the poor volunteer as to the flavor profile of his fruit. To his credit my ramblings didn’t faze him, and I thanked him as I jammed the sugary slice in my mouth.

Given my newfound suspicion of something as familiar as oranges, you can bet that I politely declined the offer of mageu, a milky drink made from fermented mealie pap and offered at aid stations in plastic yellow bags.

An aid station volunteer offers water sachets to thirsty runners

My stars & stripes running kit was a great conversation starter, with both international runners and fellow Americans curious to know where in the U.S. I was from and eager to share their own home country or state. And my kit complemented the race’s own strategy to distinguish South African and international runners — its colorful bib numbers.

True to the camaraderie of the event, the Comrades bib numbers communicate a wealth of information at a glance. I enjoyed congratulating other back-to-back runners, first-time international runners (as indicated by the “0” under “Medals” on their blue bib numbers) and especially Green Number hopefuls, whose yellow bib numbers distinguish them as 9-time finishers in pursuit of that coveted 10th finish. For the recreational runner, few achievements rival that of earning a Comrades Green Number, and the Green Number Club currently boasts 13,000+ members from the race’s 93 years.

Passing the second cutoff point at Cato Ridge (~60 km to go) brought us to the ironically named Harrison Flats. Luckily its rolling roads struck me as less challenging from this direction with their net downhill profile, and so I was able to make up time as the Old Main Road led us down into the belly of the waiting beast, my old buddy Inchanga.

56 km to go.

Harrison Flats to Drummond (Inchanga)
Though my energy levels remained high, all the climbing and descending was starting to wear on my legs as we made our way up the backside of Inchanga. And speaking of backsides, I can now appreciate that even though the Big Five — Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill and Cowies Hill — are notorious landmarks on the up run, they’re just as much a pain in the ass on the down run. Because it’s not like they suddenly flatten out in the opposite direction.

Climbing up the back of Inchanga we reached my favorite section of the course, the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children. At the same time emotionally disturbing and hugely uplifting, no memory of Comrades race day stands out like seeing the troubled children of Ethembeni, many with unfocused or faraway looks in their eyes, lined up with hands outstretched in the hopes of securing a high-five from passing runners.

Still wearing the beaded bracelet I’d received last year from the school’s headmaster, I smiled and high-fived every tiny hand available to me, in the hopes that feeling my encouraging slap on their palm might lift their spirits and, for even a brief moment, bring a smile to their face or heart.

Turning down the backside of Inchanga at the 2018 Comrades Marathon

Turning down the backside of Inchanga

Our brief visit to the Ethembeni School, coupled with the view from the top of Inchanga as runners below us descended the beast like two-legged ants, was well worth the struggle. Particularly since that struggle hadn’t been waged under direct midday sunlight.

Then down, down gravity carried us once again as I lay off the brakes and opened the throttle, taking the opportunity to catch my breath before the course briefly leveled out at its ceremonial midway point (cutoff mat #3) in Drummond. There the folks from Hollywoodbets greeted us alongside their familiar purple-and-yellow inflatable arch with music blasting and spectators screaming, as though we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. And while “loud” typically isn’t my scene, I tried to appreciate the raw energy of the moment before we’d immediately shift gears and start climbing again.

Because in case you hadn’t noticed, much like labeling Earth as “blue,” the terms “up run” and “down run” can be pretty misleading.

46 km to go.

Comrades Marathon halfway point: Drummond

Drummond to Winston Park (Botha’s Hill)
Unlike the up run where the second half begins with the nasty climb up Inchanga, this year we had something to look forward to on the climb out of Drummond and the Valley of 1,000 Hills.

First I paid a brief visit (along with a steady stream of fellow runners) to Arthur’s Seat, a shallow alcove carved out of the rock embankment on the south side of the road where 5-time Comrades champ Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his training runs. Legend has it that those who greet Arthur and leave him flowers during the race will enjoy a strong second half. And though my greeting had apparently fallen on deaf ears the year before, there was no use tempting fate by being an ugly American.

“Good morning, Arthur,” I said, leaning in and tapping the rock face gently as if to awaken its sleeping denizen. Who am I to flaunt tradition?

Arthur's Seat at 2018 Comrades Marathon

Just beyond Arthur’s Seat on the north side of the road stands the Comrades Wall of Honour, with its collection of plaques set in individual stones and labeled with the names and bib numbers of previous Comrades finishers — yellow plaques signify those with fewer than 10 finishes, whereas green plaques recognize members of the Green Number Club with 10 or more finishes. Amazingly, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy their own plaque to be displayed on the Wall. Can you imagine the folks at the Boston Athletic Association doing something similar for Boston Marathon finishers? Talk about great fundraising for the B.A.A.

Rounding the corner from the Wall of Honour I spied Katie, Cath and Miguel waving to get my attention. Pulling alongside them, I was psyched to see that Rory and his brother Kirby had joined them. Rory apparently had recognized me at Umlaas and had texted Katie to coordinate their positions. They all looked to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Katie informed me that Jimmy was about five minutes ahead and that they’d been able to see Beth in Camperdown. Good news all around.

Seeing the five of them was a solid pick-me-up, as was the Tailwind mix I sipped while catching my breath and stretching my legs. I could feel my quads growing heavy from all the hill work, and worried that they’d only continue to tighten as the miles mounted. Luckily the course would be largely downhill from here (= “down” run). So I did what I could to quickly loosen my weary legs before pulling back into traffic and continuing on toward Durban.

Miguel and Beth celebrate her farthest run ever in Drummond — only a marathon+ to go!

Looking around at the caravan of runners, I reflected on the fact that as a woman Beth was definitely in the minority here. Female runners made up less than ¼ (23%) of Comrades registrants and only 31% of international runners this year, consistent with the disproportionately lower number of female participants in ultramarathons around the world. This despite the fact that in the United States, women runners now outnumber their male counterparts. Attracting female runners should clearly be a priority for the Comrades Marathon and ultrarunning in general.

On the up run, Botha’s Hill is the third of the Big Five. On the down run, as Lindsey Parry had noted in his pre-race briefing, Botha’s is in fact three separate hills. And while none of the three is particularly steep, the road just seemed to roll ever upwards toward the sky, a physically and psychologically exhausting reality that turns many runners into walkers.

At last we crested Botha’s Hill and reached Kearsney College, where the students had apparently returned home early from a rugby tournament so as not to miss Comrades Day. Some boys lined the road while others sat in bleachers off to one side, each sporting his distinctive blue blazer with its “CARPE DIEM” crest on the lapel.

Top of Botha's Hill during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Welcome to Kearsney College and the top of Botha’s Hill

Lindsey Parry’s advice on the down run is to run conservatively until you reach the top of Botha’s Hill, just past the 50-km mark. Then, if you’ve played it smart and still have your legs under you, you’ll be able to pick up the pace in the final 40 km. Luckily my legs felt no heavier than they had during my pit stop in Drummond.

On the other hand, my body was once again rejecting the notion of solid (or even gelatinous) food, and so I knew the next 40 km would be challenging from a nutritional standpoint.

Reaching the bottom of Botha’s Hill, a nasty 1 km uphill jag welcomed us to the town of Hillcrest, one of the most raucous sections of the course. There, supercharged spectators lined the road, whooping and cheering their support for the runners. Many of them focused specifically on my stars & stripes with cries of “Go USA!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A!” I pumped my fist lightly in appreciation, not wanting to sacrifice too much adrenaline to the cause of patriotism.

Mike Sohaskey on Botha's Hill at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

If you were to close your eyes (though hopefully not while running) and judge solely by the music along the course, you could be forgiven for thinking Comrades was a US race. I heard plenty of American favorites including the theme song from Rocky and (twice) Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough like Jimmy to catch “Sweet Caroline.”

Aid station volunteers were pouring salt into runners’ hands; I recoiled like a red, white and blue slug. Was it really that hot? If so, I definitely wasn’t feeling it. Though the sun was approaching its zenith, extensive cloud cover ensured its influence would be minimal.

With 32 km to go, a quick left-then-right turn on Old Main Road brought us to the fourth cutoff mat at Winston Park. Here in the vicinity of Winston Park, I heard an announcement that the second female had entered the stadium in Durban. As much as hearing this underscored the freakish disparity between our respective athletic abilities, it also heartened me to realize I was far enough along that other runners were already finishing the race.

Have I mentioned how important a positive mindset is to success at Comrades?

30 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey crossing 4th cutoff in Winston Park at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Crossing the 4th cutoff mat in Winston Park

Kloof to Pinetown (Fields Hill)
Raise the roof, I’ve made it to Kloof, I thought with a wry smile. The thought lifted my spirits, since Kloof would be my third and final meeting place with the terrific trio of Katie, Cath and Miguel.

“We’re on the right, past the Coca-Cola hoopla at ~26km to go!” Katie had texted moments earlier, and now rounding the corner on the downhill I saw the Coca-Cola aid station just past the red Bonitas sign with its countdown thermometer indicating 28 km to go. I was a bit confused until, passing the aid station, I saw the three of them waiting just beyond.

Katie estimated Jimmy’s lead at 8–10 minutes, and I was psyched to hear he was still running well. So too was Beth, who I was told had looked strong in Drummond.

Jimmy makes one last stop to refuel in Kloof

For my part, I was thrilled to discover my legs felt no worse for wear now than they had at the midway point. Sure, the final 28 km wouldn’t be pretty, but just how un-pretty would depend more on the state of my stomach than the life in my legs. The good news was that I no longer had any need for my lightweight pack, since it wasn’t like my stomach would suddenly start accepting solid food again. So I dropped it with Katie, high-fived each of them to get my blood pumping and reluctantly bid them goodbye for the last time, promising with one last deep breath that I’d meet them at Moses.

Much like last year I know Fields Hills was long; I just couldn’t tell you how long. I do know it ended in Pinetown, an ending that couldn’t come soon enough. Because while the fourth member of the Big Five is definitely long and steep, it’s neither of these endearing qualities that makes Fields Hill public enemy #1 on the down run. That distinction belongs to its awful camber, which punishes the legs like nothing else on the Comrades course. I could easily see how runners might succumb to the siren song of Fields and fly down its steep slope, only to blow out their quads before Pinetown. And while Pinetown features plenty of car dealers and auto body shops, I didn’t notice any businesses touting “quad and calf repair while u wait.”

So I was relieved to reach the fifth cutoff point in Pinetown with my quads intact, and I’m confident my strength training (plus the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon as a downhill training run) made all the difference.

Conferring with Rory in Drummond

But though my quads remained intact, I can’t say the same for my stomach — because I still haven’t trained it to eat at the speed of Comrades. Thanks to the cooler weather I was able to snack more this year than last year, nibbling on a banana here and an (unsalted) orange there, along with two of my baby food pouches (200 calories, par-TAY!). Eventually, though, as has become its modus operandi, my stomach rebelled at any hint of solid food, so instead I resorted to the occasional sip of Coke or Energade to satisfy my body’s caloric cravings.

Turns out the problem with this strategy was the disconnect between mind and body — whereas my mind told me I needed the sugar/calories, as soon as I’d take another sip of Coke or Energade I’d feel the uncomfortable sloshing in my stomach. I ran ~15K from Kloof to Pinetown to Westville feeling like a human water balloon, even stopping once to answer nature’s call at a Pinetown porta-potty.

Finally, in the midst of my rising frustration it occurred to me to just ignore my mind and let my body use its fat stores as fuel, as I had for so many of my training runs. And though this certainly didn’t have the same magical effect as Popeye’s spinach, at least I was able to ease the bloating and get back to running (semi-) comfortably the rest of the way.

Again, it’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: you have to be ready, willing and able to adapt, mentally and physically, to any challenge and any situation.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Arthur's Seat

Pinetown was off the chain, much more so (understandably) than during last year’s up run when we’d arrived early in the day at around the half marathon mark. Now, loud and high-spirited crowds several deep lined the road, which narrowed at one point to almost single file as spectators pressed in from both directions. Boisterous chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” filled my ears, and I seemed to be running with my hand in a perpetual “thumbs-up” position.

Pinetown was amazing.

One of the human highlights of Comrades is the volunteers — like the race itself, they’re in a class by themselves. They do a remarkable job maintaining their focus as sweaty glassy-eyed runner after sweaty glassy-eyed runner shuffles toward them, eagerly snatching two water sachets at a time from their outstretched hand and often dropping one in the process. So the undisputed lowlight of the day was seeing one runner in Pinetown pause to reprimand a volunteer who apparently hadn’t lived up to his lofty expectations. “Pay attention!” the runner barked at the volunteer, who I didn’t see.

If you have enough energy to be dressing down volunteers this late in the race, I thought, you should be running harder.

Leaving Pinetown, a mild-mannered older woman saw my shorts and replied, “Oh, America… so sorry about Trump, eh?” I smiled wryly and thanked her for her sympathy, waving over my shoulder as I passed. I was admittedly curious to see what reactions my USA running kit would evoke, and hers was the overwhelming sentiment within South Africa, from runners and spectators on the course to our safari ranger several days later who matter-of-factly referred to our 45th President as “a retard, eh?”

20 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Based on the crowds around me, I must have been leading the race at this point

Pinetown to Mayville (Cowies Hill)
With nearly 72 km (45 miles) in my legs, the last of the Big Five loomed large. On the up run, Cowies Hill makes an early appearance as a key part of the long, steady climb toward Drummond. On the down run, though, it includes a nasty ½ mile ascent that reduced me unashamedly to a walk and earned me with a 12:25 mile, my slowest moving mile of the day. Luckily the payoff for reaching the top of Cowies was a smooth downhill run into Westville.

[Comrades Tip #5: Uphill, downhill, it doesn’t matter — smile for the photographers when you see them. One moment of faux happiness is worth a lifetime of memories. And at very reasonable prices relative to other large races (I paid ~$33 USD for the entire digital package), you’ll likely want to purchase your race day photos.]

Descending toward Westville I thought Ah, so this is why it’s called the down run. Seeing the urban landscape of Durban laid out below me, I let myself relax as waves of suppressed fatigue washed over me. Having been on my feet for over eight hours, I let my mind wander as we cruised along King Cetshwayo Hwy, the encouraging shouts of the spectators now sounding muffled and distant as I retreated into my own head.

Last year the 10-hour “bus” (Comrades-speak for a pacing group) had caught me as we approached Little Polly’s with 10 km to go. I was determined that wouldn’t happen this time as I kept pushing forward whenever possible. At the same time, I still recalled the punishing latter stages of last year’s up run and had no desire to relive that misery. Because the thought suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning on a clear day — this may be the last time I ever run Comrades.

With that sobering thought in mind, I allowed myself to look up, look around and use my walk breaks to soak it all in. I basked appreciatively in the adulation of the endless throngs with their tireless cheers, their uplifting chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and their altruistic offers of whatever we needed to help us get to Durban.

Yes, I wanted to run my best possible Comrades — but not at the expense of hating the final 20 km.

My reverie was shattered by a fellow runner dressed in African tribal gear who insisted on blowing his referee’s whistle as loudly and as frequently as possible. And while I appreciated both his enthusiasm and his outfit (and especially his ability to run 90 km in such an impressive headdress), at that moment I wanted to be anywhere else but running next to him and his freaking whistle. So whenever he’d pull alongside me with several shrill blasts to announce his whereabouts, I’d quickly speed up just enough to propel myself out of his direct earshot.

I’m sure the spectators appreciated his shrill whistle

In my bid to conserve energy, I wasn’t happy at being forced to accelerate in short, sporadic bursts. It felt like a bad dream where I’m trapped in drill team practice and can’t escape. And I wondered irately, Why blast a f@*#king whistle in your fellow runners’ ears for 10 hours?

Luckily I soon pulled far enough ahead to escape his one-note recital. The silver lining? His shrill blasts helped me stay sharp and maintain focus as we descended into Westville. After all, this stretch along King Cetshwayo Hwy is a quieter section of the course where, with Cowies behind and Durban ahead, it’s easy to lose your mental edge momentarily and feel fatigue setting in.

In the final ten miles or so as we neared Durban, every uphill seemed to require at least a short stint of walking, usually just long enough to take a few deep breaths and pull myself together. And though my legs were always reluctant to start running again after these slowdowns, once I did I found myself able not only to run but to run well, making solid progress and passing other runners. So I was definitely using the walk breaks to my advantage.

In Mayville we crossed the sixth and final cutoff mat, the last major milestone en route to finish line glory.

9 km to go.

The crowds thinned a bit between Cowies Hill and Westville — it is a highway, after all

Mayville to Moses Mabhida Stadium (finish)
One of the most memorable climbs of a long and memorable down run was also one of its shortest — the on-ramp from the M13 to the N3 at around the 83 km mark. After a sharp left turn, this steep uphill jag greeted us with a rise of 50 ft in just over 1/10 mile.

As I power-hiked upward to begin my final approach to Durban, a South African runner congratulated me on having my back-to-back medal “in the bag” — which at that moment sounded brilliant. I thanked him, and seeing my shorts his friend added that “Trump would be proud of you.” “Don’t think you want to go there,” the first fellow responded, and I agreed with a nod that our President’s approval was the furthest thing from my mind. Didn’t these two realize that exercise only depletes the body’s finite amount of energy?

[Comrades Tip #6: For all things coaching, Lindsey Parry is the definitive voice of the Comrades Marathon. That said, I’d respectfully disagree with his claim that the N3 on-ramp in Mayville is the last real uphill on the down run. With 84+ km in my heart and legs, the subsequent climb up to Tollgate and the N3 off-ramp into Durban both took the wind out of my sails.]

While it’s easy to predict the beating your legs will suffer over the course of 90 km, what may be less obvious is the steady pounding absorbed by the core muscles of your stomach and lower back. As we crested Tollgate my core muscles grew increasingly weary, and I did some quick high knee lifts in the hopes of granting them a momentary reprieve.

As it turns out, it’s tough to do much of anything without full cooperation from your back and stomach.

On the other side of the highway, drivers heading in the opposite direction honked (or hooted, as the South Africans say), and passengers hollered their support from passing cars. Which reiterated the insane fact that on this day we silly, selfish runners pursuing our silly, selfish hobby were the proud focus of a nation 56 million strong. And that humbling reminder immediately put a pep in my step.

Setting sights on Durban during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Hello Durban!

With around 7 km to go the concrete, steel and glass skyline of urban Durban came into view at last. The moment was empowering, to be running on a national highway lined with cheering supporters as the sprawling skyline of South Africa’s third largest city — and our final destination — beckoned in the distance. Welcome, the soaring gray skyscrapers seemed to say. We’ve been expecting you.

Pulling out my iPhone for a picture, I happened to glance down at the time: 2:35pm. Which meant I had roughly 54 minutes to cover 7 km and still finish in less than ten hours, a much slower pace than I’d been running to that point. And I’ll be honest — after seeing the time and doing the math, it became increasingly difficult to push myself any harder. As long as I broke ten hours, what was the difference between finishing in 9:54 (last year’s finish time) vs. 9:44? Aside from my overall place in the final results, to my mind there was no meaningful difference.

Moments like this emphasize the importance of a well-defined goal to help maintain focus; without one, a race like Comrades becomes even more challenging than its 90 km distance.

Though barely a blip on my final Garmin tracing, the last uphill of the day would be the N3 offramp that would drop us down onto the city streets of Durban for the final 5 km. Though not a formidable climb at any other time, glancing up now I felt almost dizzy following the sweeping arc of the overpass as it curved upward and away toward Moses Mabhida Stadium. And so, with heavy legs and a light head, I walked.

From there the course did something it hadn’t done in the first 85 km — it leveled out.

Scenes from Durban before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Scenes from Durban (clockwise from top left): “Mzansi” is the Xhosa word for South Africa; Indian Ocean’s-eye view of the beachfront; with an expected R355 million (~$24 million USD) impact on Durban’s economy, Comrades is all around you; street market spices — the city is home to the world’s largest Indian population outside India

We’d been told so many times leading up to race day that the new course would pass by the old finish venue at Kingsmead Stadium, that by the time we finally passed the unassuming cricket facility with 3 km to go, I felt as though I’d been here before. But even with 87 km in my legs, I was more than happy to bypass Kingsmead in favor of shiny new Moses Mabhida Stadium, which as we rounded the bend just past Kingsmead came into full and glorious view.

From there, the final “Toyota Mile” was a straight shot past the cheering masses lining Masabalala Yengwa Ave, as though Moses (Mabhida) himself were parting the sea of spectators ahead of us.

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

I glanced over at the gaunt fellow mouthing these words to my right and smiled weakly as the object of his desire rose up to greet us. The screaming onlookers faded into the background as I focused on the stadium’s distinctive ladder-like arch, reminiscent of a DNA double helix. Meanwhile, the asphalt beneath my feet rolled by like an urban treadmill. One step at a time. Step, stride, repeat. Feel free to breathe.

Absurd as it may sound, even better for me than seeing the finish line at Comrades is seeing the big red Bonitas sign announcing 1 km to go. Because that’s when I know the official victory lap begins. Being nearly 11,000 miles from home, soaking in that last ½ mile while basking simultaneously in the exhaustion and glory of the moment is like no other feeling I’ve experienced as a runner. And that includes right on Hereford, left on Boylston.

The understatement of the year — on Africa or any other continent — goes to the official-looking banner hung the full width of a pedestrian bridge just outside the stadium that read earnestly, “THERE IS NO TURNING BACK NOW!”

89km mark of the 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Nothing like a bit of last-minute motivation at 89 km

Then we’d arrived, and with a left turn we entered the stadium through a dark tunnel, emerging onto the bright green grass of the playing field. Ironically, after running under open sky for nearly ten hours, I suddenly felt very small under the venue’s massive open-air roof surrounded by 56,000 seats. Originally built to host the World Cup in 2010, Moses Mabhida Stadium is a breathtaking venue in which to complete your Comrades journey.

I’ve heard other runners, in the full throes of cliché, say there are no words to describe the finish of the Comrades Marathon. I disagree. There are plenty of words, with “freaking awesome” being the first that come to mind. The last stretch from entrance tunnel to finish line is a moment of sheer exultation that I wish I could have bottled to relive and share with others for the rest of my life. And when I die, the bottle could live on, inspiring other runners in its new home at the Comrades Museum in Pietermaritzburg.

The familiar green-and-white finish line topped with its double balloon arch welcomed us in full view — unlike last year’s winding finish inside the Scottsville Racecourse, there would be no game of “Find the finish line.” I savored those final 100m to the fullest, scanning the stands quickly for familiar faces before raising my arms in triumph and completing my back-to-back quest in an official time of 9:48:25.

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

0 km to go. AND… breathe.

Mike Sohaskey crossing finish line of 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Holy Moses!
Wobbling to a stop after my longest run ever, the first booming voice I recognized was Rory’s, and I glanced up into the stands to see him clapping excitedly in my direction. I was psyched to see him, and I can’t tell you how much it means to receive personal congrats from a fellow who finished this race 12 times, who earned a Green Number and to whom this event means so much.

Shuffling through the finish chute, I gratefully accepted my second consecutive bronze medal and Comrades patch, though sadly a yellow rose was excluded from this year’s awards. Hopefully Katie would understand when I showed up empty-handed.

Looking up at the steps that led from the field to the International Runners seating area, the grim reality of Moses Mabhida Stadium reared its ugly head. Because after covering 90 km in less than 12 hours, there’s nothing a runner wants less than to climb or (worse) descend stairs, and especially a stadium full of them. On the bright side, thanks to the mild weather I was in better post-race shape than last year when I’d been unable to move, much less negotiate stairs.

Jimmy Nam in homestretch of 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Jimmy’s day-glo calves put the finishing touches on their first ultramarathon

One slow and unsteady step at a time, I ascended the concrete stairs in search of the others. I saw Jimmy seated in a section by himself and waved — he’d run a brilliant race in his first Comrades, finishing in 9:25:23. From my vantage point, he looked comfortable and none the worse for wear.

For my part, I’d run 4½ minutes faster than last year, despite this year’s course being 3½ km longer. The mild weather had a lot to do with that, as did a familiarity and comfort with the event itself. And even with all else being equal, most folks clock faster finish times on the down run.

Reaching the top of the stairs and the inner concourse, I bumped into John from Anchorage who had finished just one minute and 52 seconds ahead of me to earn a second consecutive bronze of his own. Tiredly we congratulated each other and agreed that yes, two in a row was just about enough Comrades for a while.

But aside from finding Katie, my immediate post-race focus was on securing my back-to-back medal. Eventually I located its caretaker, a Comrades official on the move who wore the medals around his neck and who quickly presented me with mine before hurrying past on another mission. Why the back-to-back medals hadn’t been made available at the finish line with the other finisher medals is unclear, but who am I to tell the CMA their business?

The back-to-back medal is hands-down my proudest achievement in running. If I were to come home one day to find our house in flames and I could grab only one earthly possession, my Comrades back-to-back medal may just be it. I don’t know whether I’ll have the chance to add a third Comrades medal to my collection (though I’m already eyeing Comrades #100 in 2025), but in any event the first two — along with their back-to-back brethren — will never get lonely.

At last, ambling weakly around the concourse in search of familiar faces, I found Katie and threw my arms around her, lingering for a few seconds to let her hold me up. Because the alternative wasn’t pretty.

Exhausted finishers sprawled out on the floor of the concourse as other runners and supporters gingerly stepped around them. Unlike Scottsville Racecourse which last year offered grassy expanses on which to rest and recover, Moses Mabhida provided nowhere for finishers to comfortably gather their wits. The only available options were the cramped stadium seats with little room to stretch your legs, the cold concrete ground around those seats or the floor of the concourse with its busy foot traffic.

Acknowledging Rory’s support in the grandstands

None of the three options was ideal, but I needed to collapse somewhere. So while I sprawled uncomfortably on the floor of the concourse trying to a) get comfortable and b) avoid getting stepped on, Katie visited the concession stand and returned with nirvana in a cup. I don’t think I’ve had orange soda since I was like ten years old, but the Fanta orange soda she brought me at that moment was the best orange soda — and maybe the most amazing beverage — I’ve ever tasted. It was life itself, equal parts nectar, unicorn tears and liquid crack. Hello, insulin!

In addition to all the stairs and the lack of recovery spaces, massage tents (which last year were easily accessible) were inconveniently located on the outer concourse of the stadium, a fact I didn’t realize until it was time to leave. And immediately past the finish chute, South African runners were being directed to their club tents outside the stadium, meaning that unlike last year they were unable to mingle with the international runners. All because running clubs were prohibited from setting up their tents on the grass playing surface inside the stadium.

The five of us were on “Beth watch” as the clock ticked toward 11 hours. We wouldn’t be disappointed. As it turns out Beth paced the latter stages of her race beautifully, finishing with the 11-hour bus in 10:57:28 and earning her own bronze medal with 2½ minutes to spare.

With everyone present and accounted for we all reconvened, shared congratulations and then made our way toward the seats at midfield, directly in front of the finish line. Despite feeling like the walking undead, we weren’t about to miss what came next.

Cath and Jimmy wisely wasted no time in celebrating

The Spirit of Comrades
Without a doubt, the 12-hour cutoff for the Comrades Marathon is one of the most dramatic moments in all of sports. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, played out within yards of each other on a national stage. And I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to witness it in a venue like Moses Mabhida, with its warm fluorescent lighting and grandstand seating offering a full view of the finish line. Spectator viewing is where Moses Mabhida really excels as a finish venue — no offense to the rickety bleachers and overmatched floodlights of the Scottsville Racecourse.

[Comrades Tip #7: If you’re an international runner, and unless you were swept off to the med tent or have a bone protruding through your skin after the race, DO NOT MISS the 12-hour cutoff. It’s human drama like you won’t see at any other sporting event, and it may make you cling just a bit tighter to your own finisher medal.]

The announcer was again in top form for this year’s finish, setting the stage in dramatic fashion with his full-throated countdown. And it was in the final minute of the 12 hours that the Spirit of Comrades played out magically before our eyes.

View from the 2018 Comrades Marathon finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

View from the finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

Wobbling down the home stretch toward the finish line like a drunken schoolboy, a runner lost control of his body and collapsed to the grass roughly 30 yards from the finish. Several fellow runners, so close to glory themselves and risking their own finish, lifted the man off the ground and supported his limp body while propelling him forward, his head bouncing listlessly like a rag doll. Only his legs still seemed to grok their role, churning slowly beneath him as the rest of his body tried to call it quits. Apparently 11 hours and 59 minutes of concentrated effort had been enough.

It was like Weekend at Bernie’s meets reality television. About five yards from the finish he collapsed for the final time, and a volunteer signaled to his impromptu crew, presumably telling them he had to cross the finish line under his own power. And so, as the energized crowd cheered him to glory, he crawled on hands and knees past the waiting human chain of volunteers and across the finish line with 40 seconds to spare. It was then that I realized I’d been holding my breath behind my camera, and immediately I exhaled and erupted in applause of my own.

I’ve never seen anything like it, and I may never see anything like it again. And if I had to summarize the Spirit of Comrades in 45 seconds, I’d probably point to this footage:

Then the final countdown began, and seconds later the human chain swung into place, blocking the finish line as approaching runners looked on in a poignant mix of horror, disbelief and resignation. So close and yet so very, very far. Like marionettes who had danced for 12 hours before having their strings cut, several dropped to the grass within yards of the finish line and lay there with exhausted bodies and broken hearts.

The six of us stood for several heartbeats in shocked silence before our sympathy gave way to heartfelt applause. Two women seated nearby wiped tears from their eyes.

And with that, the curtain fell on the human theater of the 93rd Comrades Marathon. All the actors had played their roles admirably, and the performance would predictably garner rave reviews. The sequel opens June 9, 2019, and though the itch will undoubtedly be there when registration opens in October, I’m hoping to scratch it with a different South Africa race in 2019. But where Comrades is concerned, I’ll never say “Never again” — and especially since #100 happens in seven short years.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the day’s most remarkable story. Though he didn’t earn a medal, South Africa’s Xolani Luvuno earned a whole lot of love from his fellow athletes and countrymen by completing the 2018 Comrades Marathon — on one leg. Luvuno, a former addict who lost his right leg to amputation following a bone cancer diagnosis in 2009, started 5 hours ahead of the field and completed the 90 km distance on crutches in 15 hours, 50 minutes.

The next time your brain tells your body it can’t do something, think about Xolani Luvuno. Then stop listening to your brain and go do it. No less an authority than Nelson Mandela once said, “It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” He would know.

When the dust settled and the sun descended over Moses Mabhida Stadium, 16,478 of the day’s 19,116 starters (86.2%) had earned a finisher medal, with the distribution as follows:

618 = Gold + Wally Hayward + Silver
2491 = Bill Rowan
7,455 = Bronze
5,914 = Vic Clapham

(Source: Louis Massyn on Facebook)

As for the elites, Comrades 2018 was a clean sweep for the home team, with Bongmusa Mthembu claiming his third overall and second consecutive Comrades title in 5:26:34, while Ann Ashworth led the South African women to four of the top five slots, winning in a time of 6:10:04. (Defending champion Camille Herron of the US was forced to withdraw ten days before the race with a quad strain.)

2018 Comrades Marathon winners

Comrades champions Bongmusa Mthembu and Ann Ashworth led the way for South Africa (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I’ve gotten the question several times now: Which direction do I prefer, the up run or the down run? And the honest answer is, both and neither. Because there’s so much more to this race than the placement and gradient of the hills.

On the one hand, given the amount of downhill in the second half, the down run is traditionally a faster course (Lindsey Parry agrees). If I were ever to seriously consider a run at a sub-9 hour finish and Bill Rowan medal, I’d do it on the down run. I also met a handful of Comrades veterans whose only successful finishes have been on the down run, along with several unsuccessful attempts at the up run. (I’ve yet to hear of the reverse happening.) If you’re a slower runner who’s concerned with beating the 12-hour cutoff, I’d recommend the down run.

On the other hand, the down run is consistently 3-ish km longer (89 vs 86) than the up run, and will punish your quads and calves if you haven’t adequately trained for downhill running. By the midway point of this year’s down run, my legs definitely felt more fatigued than they had after the first 43 km of climbing last year. So if your strength (like mine) is uphill running, the up run may be your best bet.

That evening, despite our sadly limited appetites, Rory generously hosted dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. Dining at a nearby table, Bruce Fordyce dropped by to say hello and shake Jimmy’s hand in recognition of an excellent performance in his first Comrades. It was a singular moment and, together with dinner itself, a perfect ending to a day I didn’t want to end. Because it’s not often you earn a personal congratulations from one of the planet’s greatest athletes, amirite?

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run, while I steal a handshake

Turns out our day wasn’t quite over — or at least not our night. With wire cutters in hand, Katie and I drove the darkened streets around Moses Mabhida Stadium, snipping yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards from lamp posts to keep and distribute as souvenirs. (I’d secured my matching 2017 placard, signed by both Bruce and 1982 women’s champ/current CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn, via a charitable donation at the International Runners Reception.) The street crews were happy for the help, since they planned to remove the signs within the week anyway.

[Comrades Tip #8: Want a cool unofficial souvenir? If you have a car, on the night of the race borrow a set of wire cutters (we got ours from the hotel) and go snip one of the yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards that are affixed to lamp posts along the route. This also helps with post-race clean-up.]

Amazingly, come Monday morning my legs were minimally sore, and even that low-level soreness faded by Wednesday. Either I hadn’t run hard enough, or I’d training my quads well for the downhill pounding — or maybe both. As usual after a tough marathon or ultra, though, my immune system was the real casualty. Over the course of the next week I developed a nasty cold and cough, just in time for back-to-back 11+ hour return flights from Johannesburg to London and London to Los Angeles.

Having crossed finish lines in both Pietermaritzburg (up run) and Durban (down run), I can now say by any standard that I’ve completed the Comrades Marathon. And I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s nothing else like it in the world. It certainly isn’t the most scenic event — there are many more picturesque courses including South Africa’s own Two Oceans Marathon, which bills itself as the “World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.” But it’s hands-down the best, owing to its epic scope — its 93 years of history, its uniquely time-honored traditions, its diverse brotherhood of runners from around the globe, and its cultural and spiritual significance to an entire nation that has fought long and hard to embody the values of dignity, respect and equality that are the cornerstones of the Ultimate Human Race.

Bruce Fordyce has said that “If you don’t shed at least one tear during Comrades, you must have ice in your veins.” He may be right. But even if you’re not the misty-eyed sentimental type, you’ll never be the same once you’ve experienced this event for yourself. And my suggestion for next year’s race slogan would simply be Liyakushintsha, from the Zulu meaning, It changes you.

Though unthinkable a year ago, the truth is that this year’s sequel more than lived up to the original. This was in large part thanks to the excellent companionship of Jimmy, Cath, Beth and Miguel, plus the excellent returning companionship of John and Rochene from Anchorage and other friendships renewed and forged throughout the weekend. The only thing better than competing in the Ultimate Human Race may be sharing the experience with someone else.

Because while the 90 km marathon may be the focus of the weekend, and rightfully so, this race is all about the comrades.

U-S-A! Ca-na-da! U-S-A!

Comrades Marathon resources I leaned on (in addition to Rory):

  • Lindsey Parry’s podcast “RUN with Coach Parry”—especially its archives—is a treasure trove of expertise and insights from the official Comrades coach; older episodes are less than ten minutes each, so you can listen to several at a time. Coach Parry also has some very good content on YouTube.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them myself, both volumes of his “Fordyce Diaries”—Conquering the Up as well as Tackling a Down Run—are available as e-books exclusively on the site. If anyone can teach you to conquer Comrades, it’s the man who won it nine times!
  • Though we planned our own itinerary this year, our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades 2017 and for our post-race travels in South Africa.

2018 Comrades Marathon finish line selfie with Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho

BOTTOM LINE: At the risk of sounding like a (happily) broken record, the Comrades Marathon is the greatest running event on the planet. Not only is it the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, but no other event can match its epic scope and time-honored traditions, its all-day adrenaline, and the easy camaraderie forged among runners from around the globe. Comrades is truly a race that celebrates all runners and wants everyone to succeed, from international runners who travel halfway around the world to local runners who qualify for the race but can’t afford lodging — for these athletes, the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) sets up cots to sleep on near the start line the night before the race.

But to whom much is given — in this case, the opportunity to participate in the Ultimate Human Race — much is expected, and you can expect the journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (or the reverse) to be anything but smooth. Because Comrades is a trial by fire. Both mental and physical hardships await on the long, hot, hilly road to Durban, each of which will test you, test your resolve, and ultimately change you. As the 2016 race slogan predicted, Izokuthoba: It will humble you. And if you’re anything like me or the many other runners from around the world who return to this event year after year, you’ll discover that 90 km cycle of destruction and renewal to be cathartic and even downright addictive — physically, spiritually and psychologically. You’ve been warned.

2018 Comrades Marathon and 2017-18 back-to-back medals

PRODUCTION: Awesome, except for the post-race logistics in Moses Mabhida Stadium, which despite its sleek modernity was less runner-friendly than the smaller Scottsville Racecourse last year. I won’t be the first or last person to tell the CMA that the stadium as a finish venue is a work in progress. Whereas its grandeur and spectator-friendly viewing arrangement are beyond reproach, as a post-race recovery zone for runners it leaves a lot to be desired.

There’s plenty of work to be done to reimagine Moses Mabhida as a more comfortable and inviting post-race venue, and hopefully that starts with letting finishers and running clubs gather on the grass playing field. While I’d imagine there are liability and security issues that limit its access, it seems absurd to have exhausted runners dragging themselves up and down concrete stairs, sitting in cramped plastic seats and sprawling underfoot on the floor of the concourse while an immaculate grass surface lays unused below them.

Aside from that, race day was perfect. And a special shout-out of appreciation to all the volunteers without whom Comrades would be impossible — I’m constantly amazed at the selflessness of the folks who voluntarily stand on their feet for hours in any weather to help runners like me achieve our personal goals. You all are the real heroes of the Comrades Marathon!

Appropriately, Jimmy’s shoes get the last word

SWAG: At roughly the size of an American quarter or RSA 5 Rand coin (the back-to-back medal is only modestly larger), the Comrades finisher medal may be the smallest in distance running. And yet it’s also among the most coveted. My three Comrades medals — two bronze, one back-to-back for running consecutive years — are the guests of honor in my collection alongside my Boston Marathon unicorn. To me, the medals are beautiful in their simplicity. Plus, they’re great conversation starters, particularly for puzzled non-runners who balk at the notion of running 90 km for something that small.

Unfortunately, the official race shirt this year was downright ugly. As Jimmy suggested, it’s almost as if Mizuno learned they’d won the Comrades sponsorship and immediately sent someone into the back of the warehouse to find a bunch of blank tech shirts on which to print a Comrades logo, year and distance. The royal blue shirt has the beginnings of a honeycomb pattern on front which morphs into a strange geometric pattern reminiscent — to this lab rat — of viruses viewed under an electron micropscope. All of which adds nothing to the design. The shirt lacks the design sensibility of last year’s New Balance merch, a truth that extended to everything in the Mizuno store at this year’s expo. I showed up at the expo ready to support all things Comrades as I had in 2017, only to be disappointed by Mizuno running shoes with no Comrades branding and Mizuno t-shirts that simply said “Osaka Japan” on the front. In the end, I grudgingly saved my money and opted for a simple black tech shirt with a tiny Comrades logo on the sleeve. So a word to the wise at Mizuno: get back to the drawing board before next year’s event and KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. You could sell hella more merch with even the slightest bit of foresight and design sensibility.

(Huge thanks to Cath, Katie and Miguel, without whose photos I couldn’t have filled up a 13,000-word race report!)

2017-2018 Comrades Marathons medals

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Jun 10, 2018 (start time 5:30 am, sunrise 6:49 am)
56.58 miles (91.1 km, officially 90.184 km) from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa
Finish time & pace: 9:48:25 (second time running Comrades, first “down” run), 10:24/mile
Finish place: 4,957 overall, 1,760/5,710 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 16,478 total (78% men, 22% women)
Race weather: cool (57°F) & partly cloud at the start, warm (72°F) and partly cloudy at the finish, overcast throughout the race
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,024 ft ascent, 6,134 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 20 ft, 2,710 ft

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I walked around for a while angry, in a bad mood… ‘Woe is me.’ I’ve gotten over that. It doesn’t do any good.
– Peyton Manning, on his attitude following neck surgery

28 Days Later_PF_BCH

“I used to be a runner.”

Joking or not, I’m sure Katie’s more than a little tired of hearing me utter that line.  Eight weeks since the Big Sur International Marathon and seven weeks into Operation: Heal Heel, I’m slowly working my way back into running shape. Sure, last week’s easy five-miler felt like someone had shortened every tendon and ligament in my legs by an inch, but despite feeling like a puppet with its strings pulled too tight, I’m happy to report that the foot held its own.  Now I just hope that light at the end of the tunnel isn’t another train.

No doubt about it – having plantar fasciitis (PF) sucks.  Not running sucks.  Watching others run when you can’t, sucks.  Reading about others running when you can’t, sucks.  Looking forward to National Donut Day more than National Running Day sucks.  Having a Thera-Band as a constant companion sucks.

As my labmate used to say in moments like these, “Deep breaths – in with Jesus, out with Satan…”

But the truth is, although PF could easily stand for “Plenty Frustrating”, a lot of good has come out of the past two months, apart from building a better foot.  So I thought I’d share 9 PFun PFacts I‘ve learned (or in some cases, re-learned) during my stint with plantar fasciitis:

1) R-E-S-T-E-D, find out what it means to be…
Yes, I frequently (and unapologetically) trumpet the glory of California with its extended beach paths, picturesque trails overlooking the Pacific Ocean and perennially perfect running weather.  But the flip side to being able to train year-round… is that I train year-round.  No winter breaks, no changing of the seasons to remind the body of its natural biorhythms, and no downtime to heal fully from the previous year’s training and racing schedule.  Running in California means running as far as I want, as often as I want.  Which often means running when I should probably be resting.

So these past six weeks have forced me to do what I’d never have done on my own – stash my Sauconys and rest.  I can’t say it’s my preferred approach, but admittedly my legs feel stronger than they have in at least two years (which they actually are, see point #6 below).  That was the last time I gave my body this much of a break, and I followed up with my current marathon PR in Chicago.  So for me at least, the evidence suggests that downtime now improves uptime later.  We’ll see.

I’d love to say, I’ve learned my lesson! I’ll change! and mean it.  But the reality is, that when I’m feeling perfectly healthy next January 15 and it’s 70°F outside, counting down intervals on a stationary bike or swimming laps in a crowded pool is unlikely to happen.  I’m good at recognizing when I need to shut it down because I’m injured… but asking myself to shut it down because I’m healthy?  Don’t hold my breath.

2) Working out at the gym isn’t the terriblest thing
First in the Bay Area and now in SoCal, I’ve found the YMCA to be a better, more focused workout experience than any of the countless for-profit fitness clubs, which primarily serve (especially in L.A.) as expensive venues for pretty people to see and be seen.  Until last month, though, I rarely ventured into the Y more than twice a week… and even then, I’d usually use my visit as an extended cooldown at the end of a run.

Part of my problem with the whole gym experience is that it reminds me a) I’m injured and b) I’d rather be outdoors. But with patience, I think I’ve begun to find my niche (five hours a week in a room with mirrored walls will provide some level of clarity).  I still have no intention of stepping on a treadmill any time soon, but I have discovered several new arrows for my training quiver – for example, I’ve grown surprisingly fond of the Stairmaster, where I can crank up the intensity while I struggle to avoid George Jetson-ing myself under its increasingly relentless pace.

With muted MSNBC always showing on one corner TV and muted Fox News on the other, I generally prefer people-watching to help pass the time at the Y… especially since the best thing about the Y may be its diverse clientele. Perched atop my stationary bike, my gaze recently settled on one particular “Customer of size” (to borrow Southwest Airlines’ euphemism) sporting a brightly colored tank-top with the normally arrogant message “Your workout is my warmup” stretched across it.

The whole scene screamed You go, girl!  She may have an uphill battle ahead of her, but the sign posted next to the treadmills says it all – “No matter how slow you go, you are still lapping everybody on the couch.”

3) WARNING: Google-ing your injury may be hazardous to your health
Two summers ago, when acute foot pain after the Wildcat Half Marathon convinced me to put my training on hold, the interwebz quickly pointed me to a diagnosis of either a) posterior tibial tendinosis, b) compartment syndrome, a painful and potentially life-threatening condition caused by increased pressure and a lack of blood flow to the limbs, or c) a brain tumor.

Luckily, I decided to take matters out of my own hands and consult a physical therapist who specialized in running-related injuries. Thanks to a diligent program of stretching and (more importantly) strengthening, my posterior tibial tendon soon returned to good-as-new status and has been nothing but supportive ever since.

The upshot: experts are experts for a reason.  Google is not an expert, and using Google won’t make you one.

On the one hand, the internet is a fantastic and unrivaled source of information.  On the other, it’s a world of worst-case scenarios and paralysis by analysis.  To spare other PF-stricken runners the frustration of online self-diagnosis, here’s a summary of what I learned by Googling “plantar fasciitis treatment”:

Ice.  Don’t ice.  Take ibuprofen (to prevent inflammation).  Don’t take ibuprofen (what inflammation?).  Lose weight. Stay off concrete.  Stay off uneven surfaces.  Stay off sand.  Stay off your feet and stop running.  It’s ok to run, as long as you reduce your mileage.  Wear orthotics to support your heel and expedite healing.  Don’t wear orthotics, you’ll only weaken your foot so it will never heal.  Go minimal.  Go maximal.  Run in super-cushioned Hoka shoes for added support.  Running in super-cushioned Hoka shoes will make your PF worse.  Use a frozen golf ball to massage the plantar fascia and break down scar tissue.  Massage is at best a temporary fix, not a cure.  Get a corticosteroid injection.  Corticosteroid injections may help – or they may cause your plantar fascia to rupture.  Change your running gait.  Don’t change your running gait, it will only lead to other problems down the line.  If all else fails – extracorporeal shockwave therapy!  Iontophoresis!  Platelet-rich plasma!  And wear a night splint – but don’t tighten the velcro straps too much, or you’ll cut off circulation to your foot.

PF splint

The PF night splint has helped a lot… and kept my plantar fascia stretched on the drive to Big Sur

To make matters worse, runners who do successfully recover from plantar fasciitis rarely understand what they did right – they typically attribute their recovery to a combination of two or three things that eventually worked, one of which is invariably some unappealing superstition such as alternating between the same two pairs of socks twice a day for a month.

In the course of my Google-fueled “research”, I happened upon the website for “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed”. This site promises the holy grail every injured runner seeks: an easy, sure-fire non-invasive treatment that will “eliminate plantar fasciitis and foot pain in as little as 72 hours and cure it completely within 30 days GUARANTEED.”  Every rational bone in my body screamed shyster!, and the $37.97 price tag did nothing to allay my suspicions.

So continuing down this poorly lit alley, I decided to investigate “Plantar Fasciitis Secrets Revealed” and found – among other gems – this awesome “review” that reads like it was written by either Chuck Palahniuk or a tweaking Yoda:

Home Treatment System is an easy to follow Plantar Fasciitis as well as Feet Soreness Remedy treatment guide as well as step-by-step instructional videos.  Laser hair removal can function completely with out really breaking the perspiration neither commit unique break of your frantic day time that…. Due to this the dog owner present a person 100% income back again assure.

After some consideration, I opted to spend my $37.97 on tickets to see the 3D showing of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”.  And I stayed off my foot for the entire two hours.

4) The injured runner never suffers alone…
Reading about others running may suck when you’re injured, but reading about others not running sucks more.

At first I thought it was my own injury that had tainted my perception.  Soon, though, I realized that a too-high percentage of the bloggers I follow have recently been injured, among them Jen with her traveling hip pain, Jeff with his overworked Achilles, and Scott with his own amazing (and amusing) head-to-toe panoply of injuries, PF included. Luckily this running thing is good for us, or we’d all be in a world of hurt.

As an injured runner, and especially when you’re not sure what caused your injury in the first place, it’s easy to feel like you’ll never run healthy again.  For non-runners, I equate it to the beaten-down, woe-is-me feeling that comes with having the flu, when just struggling out of bed saps all your energy and you can’t imagine ever being healthy again.

But you will.

I’m not here to cheerlead for Team Positivity, but scientifically speaking the body is an amazingly adaptable machine. Like any machine it requires maintenance and will occasionally falter, especially when pushed to its limits or fed a steady diet of the “-itos” food group (Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos…).  But unlike other machines it will rebuild itself, fix its broken bits (especially if you help out by strengthening them), and return to work with a renewed sense of appreciation and purpose.

‘Cuz your body is your biggest fan – even if it may sometimes feel like a bandwagon fan.

5) … except in the case of plantar fasciitis
If Hester Prynne were a runner, her scarlet letters would have been “PF”. Utter the words “plantar fasciitis” to any experienced runner, and it’s likely he or she will:
a) recoil as if they just rested their hand on a hot stove;
b) respond plaintively with “Oh man, that suuuucks,” as if you’d told them your cat just died;
c) immediately (and silently) celebrate the fact they’re not you.
Three months ago, any or all of these responses would have been me.  I felt great, coming off back-to-back marathons, runnin’ while the rest of the country was still (literally) chillin’, and steeling myself for the hills of Big Sur.

But PF is to runners what the Rage virus was to the general populace in the movie “28 Days Later”, rapidly transforming happy and healthy runners into limping, grimacing shadows of their former selves.  Luckily PF isn’t contagious, so it has that going for it – but no other running injury elicits the same unsettling mix of sympathy and horror from other runners as does PF.

Dan best summed up the healthy runner’s perspective in likening the words plantar fasciitis to the familiar dissonant and staccato strings from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho”. And for good reason – whereas other common running injuries such as Achilles tendonitis and stress fractures will likewise bring your training plans to a screeching halt, at least there are definitive treatment plans and timelines to guide the recovery process.

PF, on the other hand, is more like Churchill’s “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.  The lifespan of PF in most runners isn’t measured in days or weeks, but in months or even years, exacerbated by the fact that no legitimate doctor seems to know how long the plantar fascia tissue takes to heal.  And the most frustrating aspect is that there’s no sure-fire road to recovery.

So, to draw from the same fountain of wisdom that advises us to choose our parents wisely, the simplest and most definitive treatment plan for plantar fasciitis is to avoid getting it in the first place.  And with that, I just saved you $37.97.

Thera-band

Even my high-resistance Thera-Band shredded under the twice-daily demands of PF rehab

6) If exposed, seek immediate physical therapy
Too often, doctors and coaches seem content to regurgitate misinformation or hearsay that at best is unhelpful, and at worst harmful.  Massage therapists are excellent go-to’s for general soreness, but much less helpful for injury because the temporary relief they offer does nothing to resolve the underlying problem.  Physical therapists, on the other hand, prefer a more hands-on, get-under-the-hood-and-see-where-that-oil-leak-is-coming-from approach.

I recently had the good fortune to be referred to Doris, a PT who works with the L.A. Clippers.  She listened as I described my symptoms and their progression, then had me lie on my side on her padded workbench.  Within moments she’d zoned in on two trigger points on my lower left leg directly above the offending plantar fascia (I assume these are called “trigger points” because her poking and prodding felt like she’d shot me in the leg).

She recommended several simple yet targeted stretching and strengthening exercises, and within two weeks, soreness and discomfort I’d had for months had faded, replaced by real live muscles that now seem to support the muscles in my feet.  Tibialis anterior, extensor digitorium longus, peroneals – all present and accounted for!

Whether this rest-and-strengthen strategy will be my silver bullet remains to be seen… but it’s a promising start.  And as an added bonus, my running gait now feels more fluid and balanced than it did pre-Doris.

And all it took was one appointment.

So if you’re unfortunate enough to have PF, I’d recommend you forego the internet-inspired home remedies and find yourself a reputable physical therapist… unless you really enjoy popping Advil and storing golf balls in your freezer.

7) Not running frees up a lot of time
As in, a lot. Start with the hour-plus of actual running – or several hours, for the once-a-week long run – throw in the warmup and cooldown sessions, sprinkle liberally with stretching and recovery time, and my May featured large blocks of unscheduled time like never before.  I managed to transfer some of that angst free time to the gym, but the past month has left me wondering what non-runners do with all their free time. And I’ve begun to understand why Americans – especially those without kids – watch on average five hours of TV per day.

(I recently read that chimpanzees spend ten times longer than humans – 48% vs. 4.7% of their days – chewing and eating their food… no wonder you seldom see a family of chimps huddled together in front of their TV!)

Katie and I aren’t TV-ophiles, so instead I’ve been channeling my energy into several long-overdue projects.  And I’m happy to report that after ten years spent hanging from a doorknob in Berkeley or living in a cardboard moving box, my race medals finally have a home on our office wall, courtesy of Katie’s motivation and two 5/8-inch curtain rods from Home Depot:

Medals on doorknob

BEFORE: Ours may have been the most well-decorated doorknob in the East Bay (2013)…

Medals on display_MS

AFTER: Thanks to Katie’s initiative, I can now admire medals I haven’t seen in years

Two buddies and I also filled several days exploring beautiful Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, where we happened upon this lovely fellow digging for critters in a tree stump he’d just yanked apart without breaking a sweat:

8) Not running is a very affordable hobby
I haven’t purchased, or really even ogled, any new running gear since before Big Sur.  And I’m not much for retail therapy, so I hope the folks at Running Warehouse understand that honestly, fellas… it’s not you, it’s me.

My newfound frugality also extends to food, my appetite having diminished markedly without the need for all the extra calories.  On a good day I’m able to work straight through, from the time I get up until the time I eat dinner, on little more than trail mix and a banana.

Naturally, all this talk of parsimony ignores the fact that I’ve registered for two RunDi$ney races while I’ve been sidelined.  Dammit Mickey, I wish I could quit you.

9) Running is a fickle mistress
Few relationships have rewarded me the way running has. She’s many things to many people – a competitive sport, a lifelong hobby, a release valve for stress, a friend in tough times, a cheap and ready source of dopamine, a personal identifier, an all-purpose anodyne, a conduit to experience the world around us, an excuse to jack out of the matrix, a reprieve from routine, a time to turn the day’s lemons into lemonade and make sense of the nonsensical.  Like a trusted credit card she’s everywhere I want to be, and she’s priceless.

Pay her the proper attention, eschew shortcuts and she’ll make it worth your while.  Like any meaningful relationship, you’ll get out of your time together only as much as you put into it.  Start to take her for granted, let arrogance intervene, and you could suddenly find yourself rehabbing an injury and wondering where it all went wrong.  And some days… some days she’ll knock you down a peg or two, just because she can.

No doubt about it – running is a fickle mistress.  I’m just hoping she takes me back soon… I’m tired of sleeping on the couch with a splint on my foot.

So that’s my 9, but since 10 is a nice round number – injured or otherwise, what’s one important lesson you’ve learned during your time away from training?

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

Every traveler has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering.
– Charles Dickens

California on Google Earth

Admittedly I’m biased – but to my mind the coast is clear, and it’s the West one.  California’s temperate climate and 840+ miles of ocean coastline complement a natural splendor that whispers “God’s country” in the ear of the most ardent atheist.  From sun-washed beaches to picturesque vineyards to soaring redwoods to iconic urban landscapes, California is a land of great expectations.  Not to mention we’re polar vortex-proof… though these are hard times for our water table, and we’ll gladly trade you some 70-degree days for a few rainy ones.

Yet despite its 58 counties, 482 municipalities and 26 national parks, the state is in many ways a tale of two cities: San Francisco in the north, Los Angeles in the south.  Many proudly autonomous communities – including Oakland and San Jose up north, Anaheim and Long Beach down south – find themselves living in the long shadows cast by these two cultural and economic goliaths.  San Francisco and Los Angeles set the tone not only for how others view our state, but more importantly for how California views itself. And in the hearts and minds of many residents, the state can and should be neatly bisected into Northern California (NorCal or NoCal) – loosely defined as the San Francisco Bay Area extending north to wine country and south to Monterey – and Southern California (SoCal), delineated by Los Angeles with its megalopolitan sprawl.

(Some folks recognize San Diego and its environs as a third distinct region termed Lower California or, more affectionately, LoCal.  Unfortunately San Diego, though a year-round weather wonderland, isn’t exactly a vibrant cultural hotbed.  As one colleague recently put it, “They wear what we were wearing five years ago, you know?”  Because I’m less familiar with San Diego and can neither confirm nor deny his claim, I’ll stick here with the NorCal/SoCal distinction.)

After living, working and playing in the Bay Area for nearly two decades, Katie and I moved to West Los Angeles last May to seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go… no wait, that was those other guys.  We came in search of new adventures and a change of pace.  Ten months later, while I’m no authority on L.A. living, I’ve gained enough perspective to offer my three cents on California’s own clash of the titans.  Whether I have anything insightful to add is beside the point – I have a blog!

Time then to break out my blogging cal-ipers and evaluate my home state based on 12 criteria that matter most to me (translation: I know nothing about school districts or coffee shops).  So if you’re sick of bleak winter weather and tired of having to bundle up like Kenny from “South Park” every time you want to leave the house, or if you’re a fellow Californian who’s simply curious as to how the other half lives, read on!  Feel free to play along at home… but do keep in mind the opinions expressed are 110% my own:

1) Road running
This is ostensibly a running blog, so let’s start there.  The truth is, whether you prefer the NorCal or SoCal running experience depends in large part on what you want to accomplish.  If you’re primarily a road runner who sticks to pavement and/or who wants to get faster, there’s no better place to do both than on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail (i.e. the Strand), the nearly continuous 22-mile beach path here in West L.A.  The Strand runs (no pun intended) north from Torrance County Beach in Torrance up to Will Rogers State Beach in Pacific Palisades.  Along the way it minimizes elevation gain while maximizing the SoCal vibe, particularly along Venice Beach.  And if you’re okay with a perpetual dusting of sand underfoot, the Strand – with mileage markers painted on the path – offers a nice alternative to the local track for speed workouts.

By contrast NorCal (specifically the East Bay) does feature my favorite stretch of road running, but like much of the Bay Area its demanding elevation profile is much more conducive to a leisurely toil than an uptempo gallop.  And here the East Bay loses points for its suburban sidewalk slog that is the Iron Horse Regional Trail.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

2) Trail running
On the other hand, the trail runner side of me can’t say no to NorCal.  Granted the L.A. area has more than its share of excellent trail systems, from the Santa Monica Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains to the Cleveland National Forest to an amazing assortment of regional and state parks (rattlesnakes notwithstanding).  And Big Bear Lake, hometown of Ryan Hall and high-altitude training ground for elite runners, lies in the San Bernardino Mountains northeast of L.A.  But the Bay Area boasts my favorite trail network – and perhaps the most frequented race venue in the state – in the Marin Headlands.  Throw in Mount Tamalpais State Park, the Santa Cruz Mountains, a wealth of regional parks and preserves and the sun-scorched trails around Mount Diablo, and it’s much more than a convenient cliché to call the Bay Area a trail-running mecca.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Mike Sohaskey running 2012 Brazen Racing's Drag 'n Fly half marathon


Trail running up north in the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve… (photo credit: Brazen Racing)

Mike Sohaskey running in El Moro Canyon in Crystal Cove State Park


… and down south in El Moro Canyon, Crystal Cove State Park (photo credit: Chuck)

3) Races
Admittedly, this is a work in progress as I continue to explore the SoCal racing scene.  Luckily I have a head start, thanks to several years spent running as a tourist: my first-ever marathon in Long Beach in 2010, my age-group victory at the 2011 Malibu Half Marathon, and L.A.’s well conceived “Stadium to the Sea” Marathon in 2012, to name a few.  NorCal, though, may be the footrace capital of the country; its bounty of memorable (and challenging) courses includes the San Francisco and Oakland Marathons, Big Sur, Bay to Breakers, several wine country races, any of Brazen Racing’s excellent trail races and my personal favorite, the North Face Endurance Challenge Championship.  So L.A. has a lot of catching up to do here… but who doesn’t like a good underdog story?
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Mike Sohaskey with running buds at 2012 Oakland Half Marathon


Happy feet and faces after the 2012 Oakland Half Marathon

4) People
Californians tend not to exude the down-home hospitality or Midwestern sensibilities that typify the more genial parts of the country.  Rather, we prefer to abide by our reputation as snooty, self-satisfied shmucks.  But despite the popular stereotype of the self-involved, narcissistic Angeleno who answers texts, eats breakfast, applies makeup and checks for physical imperfections all while swerving through traffic and flipping off other drivers on the 405 freeway, my personal interactions since arriving in L.A. have been overwhelmingly positive.  Not to say they’re not out there… but I have yet to encounter a disrespectful neighbor, an apathetic waiter or a disgruntled driver showing off their middle finger – and this includes several incident-free trips to Dodger Stadium.  Driving in Berkeley, on the other hand, was a regular exercise in temper control and crisis management.

I don’t think I cut a very menacing figure.  But as a runner in the Bay Area, I was bemused by the lack of response I’d receive whenever I’d acknowledge a fellow runner in passing.  Rarely would I receive so much as a nod or a smile or even the most fleeting recognition of We’re in this together.  I’ve yet to experience this aloof-itude in any other city – not in Dallas, nor Boston, nor Portland, nor St. Louis, nor Chicago.  And not in L.A, at least not to the same extent.

During one of my first runs along the Ballona Creek Trail here in SoCal, I struck up a brief but animated conversation with another runner after I complimented her on her eye-catching orange footwear.  Based anecdotally on facial expressions and fleeting one-on-one exchanges, runners in L.A. seem less distressed and more mindful of the fact that this is supposed to be fun.

Dancing in Playa del Rey


My surreptitious flip-phone photo of Playa del Rey’s dancing queen

Many folks up north harbor a curious animosity toward SoCal that seems not to be reciprocated.  I’ve yet to meet anyone around L.A. who doesn’t openly recognize that the Bay Area is a beautiful place, before admitting they’re perfectly content with their SoCal lifestyle.  People like living here, and if you don’t… well, it’s no skin off their back.

And I appreciate the diverse collection of colorful characters who spice up my training runs.  These include the fellow walking his mini potbellied pig on a leash last summer near Venice Beach, as well as the older woman, skin as leathery as a well-worn catcher’s mitt, dancing her way jerkily along the beach path near Playa del Rey, all of her twisting in fits and starts to the music flowing through her earbuds.  And consistent with California’s reputation as a rainbow land of diversi-tunity for all people, Oakland was recently ranked the third most ethnically diverse city in America, with our own “Creative Capital of the World” earning top honors.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

5) Weather
Whether he said it or not (research suggests “not”), the Bay Area’s favorite Mark Twain quote is “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”  In general, NorCal does feature the mild Disney-esque weather most outsiders associate with California.  But the Indian summers of S.F. and the East Bay typically last only from September and October, as the summer months usher in frequent blankets of fog that watch over the region as an attentive parent would a sleeping child.  And darkness brings with it an almost year-round chill.

Facebook comment


A friend and fellow trail runner summed up summer in the Bay Area last August

By comparison, the weather in L.A. is consistently glorious (and that’s not just me talking).  On my first 11-mile run along the beach path from Marina del Rey to Redondo Beach last March, I finished my run in the dark and felt my body tensing expectantly, waiting for the night air to chill my skin as it always did in the Bay Area.  But the goose bumps never arrived, and in that moment I realized just how much I was going to like it down here.

This past December along the Strand, I was greeted by the surreality of a christmas carol drifting from the beachfront condos to my left, while shirtless and bikini-clad beach volleyball players frolicked on the sand to my right.  And last month, with wind chills in the frigid Midwest pushing toward -30°F, my heat-training season began in earnest under bright sunlight and 70-degree temperatures.  As an added bonus, I’m always happy to skip right over the winter training articles in whatever running magazine I’m reading.

Bottom line, I’ll be the first to extol the virtues of California’s weather – in all its forms – over anywhere else in the Lower 48.  But comparing NorCal to SoCal in this respect is like comparing Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan: sure Kobe is a future hall-of-famer, and your team couldn’t go wrong drafting him… but Michael was simply the best.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

6) Urban scenery
The Bay Area – especially the Mission District of San Francisco – features an amazing and ever-changing assortment of “crazy eclectic” street art (graffiti).  Some of it’s legal, much of it is illegal, but all of it lends its surroundings an immediacy and vibrancy you won’t find anywhere else.  And while L.A. has its own fair share of impressively realized pieces that we’ve only begun to explore, I’m always puzzled by how many wannabe (or maybe that’s “failed”) artists here choose to practice their craft on public toilet seats.  Either they realize they have a captive audience, or they simply had time to kill and angst (among other things) to relieve.

San Francisco street art

SF Giants World Series 2012 mural


Two of San Francisco’s umpteen street art masterpieces… there’s an awful lot going on in that top piece

San Francisco’s scroll-like list of urban landmarks includes the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, the Palace of Fine Arts and Lombard Street.  But more than anything else, S.F. boasts the Golden Gate Bridge, its International Orange icon that single-handedly places the city among the world’s most recognizable and postcard-worthy destinations.  Its urban landscape largely accounts for the seductive je ne sais quoi that’s led Tony Bennett and so many others to leave their hearts in San Francisco.

L.A. on the other hand boasts… not a whole lot other than the Hollywood sign in Griffith Park.  Did I mention our weather?
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

7) Beaches
To anyone who knows the state this comparison is laughable.  But since we’re talking about two coastal regions, and since many non-residents equate “California” with “beaches”, I figured I’d go ahead and include it.  Exhibit A: a representative response to that age-old summertime question, “Wanna head to the beach?”:

SoCal native {enthusiastically}: “Wicked idea, it’s been a while since I evened out my tan!  You grab the sunscreen and volleyball, I’ll grab the cooler.  Are you thinking Manhattan Beach or Hermosa Beach?”

NorCal native {reluctantly}: “Wicked idea, it’s been a while since I had a debilitating head cold.  You grab the gloves and scarves, I’ll grab the Dramamine for the car ride.  Are you thinking the foggy beach with the wind, or the windy beach with the fog?”
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

Gloomy Stinson Beach


If the tortuous car ride to oft-chilly Stinson Beach doesn’t deter you… (photo credit)

Stinson Beach shark sign


… the locals just might (photo credit)

8) Dining
This is a toughie.  The Bay Area is renowned for its restaurants, and many foodies would scoff at the notion that SoCal could compete in this category.  Blasphemous at it may seem though, I’d suggest L.A.’s dining scene can and does hold its own, particularly in the one area that matters most to Katie and me – vegetarian options.  Whereas reasonably priced vegetarian/vegan restaurants are more sporadic in the Bay Area (notable exceptions being Source in San Francisco, Nature’s Express – and now Source Mini – in Berkeley, and Souley Vegan in Oakland), West L.A. features a number of unassuming, healthy franchises like Native Foods Café, Veggie Grill, Sage and Tender Greens.  Not to mention excellent (and always veggie-friendly) Ethiopian, Indian and Thai offerings, plus no shortage of farmers’ markets and food trucks.  And though you may (if you’re so inclined) cynically suggest that the wait staff in L.A. are all practicing their actor-ing and actress-ing skills on the customers, servers here come across as more genuinely interested and less put-upon than their Bay Area counterparts (see point #4, above).

San Francisco deserves its world-class reputation as a foodie’s paradise and one of the birthplaces of the “Slow Food” movement.  But if the quickest way to a man’s heart is indeed through his stomach, then slow ‘n’ snooty just won’t cut the mustard.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

9) Leading industry
The Bay Area’s Silicon Valley is and will continue to be the epicenter of the technology universe.  It’s an incredibly forward-thinking place with incredibly forward-thinking people – people with tremendous power to change the world for the better.  But as Uncle Ben told nephew Peter, with great power comes great responsibility.  And with stories of out-of-touch executives behaving badly and a community backlash against tech workers in S.F. surfacing in recent months, Silicon Valley’s beauty is now very much in the eye of the beholder.  That said, Katie and I are pretty much immune to the charms of Hollywood, since we watch less than an hour of TV per day and maybe three movies per year.  So if you ask me which the world needs more – the Internet and electric vehicles, or mucho macho Mark Wahlberg and another “Transformers” sequel – I’d say there’s even less to your question than meets the eye.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

Elite pack at 2014 Tokyo Marathon


Silicon Valley = Apple = my friend Ken’s excellent photo of the lead pack from Sunday’s Tokyo Marathon

10) Violent crime
In so many respects, Oakland has the resources and the potential to once again be a thriving metropolis where companies flock to do business and people move to raise kids.  As mentioned above, it’s the third most ethnically diverse city in America.  But it’s also the third most dangerous city in America, with feckless leadership that’s proven unable to stem the relentless tide of violent crime in recent years.  Nowhere in L.A. comes close to matching Oakland’s violent crime rate.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

11) Professional sports
AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play baseball, is among the crown jewels of the baseball stadium world (one friend who’s visited all 30+ major league ballparks ranks Baltimore’s Camden Yards at the top of that list).  It’s a beautiful stadium that hosts a lot of cold baseball games.  Dodger Stadium, on the other hand, is 38 years older and lacks the “wow” factor of AT&T… but with the San Gabriel Mountains visible over the outfield fence, and game-time weather that’s often so perfect it feels more like the absence of weather, Dodger Stadium gets my heretical vote for game-day experience.  And despite the fact that Giants management is practically printing money after lucking into two World Series titles in the past four years, the Dodgers are the team willing to pay top-flight talent who can actually hit the ball over the outfield wall once in a while.

View from AT&T Park


It’s good to be a baseball fan at either AT&T Park in San Francisco…

View from Dodger Stadium


… or Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on a summer evening

Meanwhile, pro sports wouldn’t be pro sports in the Bay Area without the Raiders, A’s and Warriors all threatening to leave Oakland for greener pastures.  Which is sad, because Oakland’s abused fans are far more supportive than they have any right to be.  The Warriors have already announced plans to relocate to S.F., while the Raiders and A’s throw perennial temper tantrums to try to pressure the economically challenged city into building them shiny new stadiums (they currently share the badly named and poorly maintained O.co Coliseum).

That said, one of my favorite memories of A’s baseball actually took place at the concession stand between innings of a game, when the middle-aged white fellow in front of me politely asked the black cashier whether they might have any vanilla malts rather than the usual chocolate.  “Sweetheart,” she said, eyeing him with an amused expression and a twinkle in her eye, “You in Oakland… all we GOT is chocolate.”

The L.A. area has two baseball teams, two basketball teams, two hockey teams and – best of all – no pro football team (no NFL team, that is; I’m not counting those upstanding amateurs over at U$C).  I’m admittedly proud to live in a city – and not just any city, but the second-largest media market in the country – that in recent years has repeatedly told the greed-soaked, non-profit NFL to f*&# off.  And I can’t say I miss the predictable ritual of 49ers fans and Raiders fans beating on each other, which prompted the cancellation of the teams’ annual preseason game for the past two seasons.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to ask his 49ers team, “WHO’S GOT IT BETTER THAN US?”  My answer: those of us who aren’t on the hook for your new stadium.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

12) Parking enforcement
I acknowledge and appreciate that there is honor in all work… except when it comes to meter maids.  Dante’s Inferno holds a special circle for these folks somewhere between bounty hunters and Bernie Madoff.  San Francisco is the kingpin in this respect, but Berkeley and Oakland are worthy disciples, as their ticket-writing automatons exhibit as much common sense and compassion as a methed-up pitbull.  Case in point, our car was once cited for parking in front of our own house after we neglected to display our annual parking permit on day one.  Even worse, the city refused to rescind the fine.  Never mind that we’d lived at that same address for several years, or that a glance at the city’s records would have revealed our updated registration.

To supplement the income from parking tickets, Oakland city officials in 2009 extended parking meter hours from 6pm to 8pm, prompting a backlash from local business owners who claimed the extended hours were deterring customers and hurting business.  Five months later SFGate reported that Oakland parking officers had been ordered to enforce parking violations everywhere but in the city’s two wealthiest neighborhoods.  It would seem that raining down parking citations like urban confetti – with exceptions made for its most privileged members – is the East Bay’s Oaklandish plan for lifting itself out of economic recession. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Google’s new fleet of parking enforcement drones will soon descend on the Bay Area.

SoCal is no innocent babe in matters of parking enforcement, as anyone who’s encountered Santa Monica’s maddening parking meters can attest.  But since moving to L.A. I’ve received zippo zilch zero parking tickets, and it’s not for lack of trying.  It’s that this city contains 1) parking garages that respectfully offer free parking to customers, and 2) law enforcement officials who apparently have more important things to do than circle the block waiting to pounce the minute your parking meter expires or you forget to move your car for street sweeping.

This past September I found myself doing a double-take when, upon entering a parking garage in a busy neighbor-hood, I was greeted by four words I’d never seen in the Bay Area: THREE HOURS FREE PARKING.  Rock on, L.A.
ADVANTAGE: SoCal

BONUS) Batkid
I couldn’t in good conscience call this list complete without a nod to this remarkable Bay Area achievement… I look forward to seeing first-hand if and how L.A. rises to the challenge.
ADVANTAGE: NorCal

So there you have it – the great debate on the Golden State rages on.  Hopefully this year I’ll bolster my research with some quality time in San Diego, so I can get to know LoCal better.  For now though, I guess the million-dollar question is whether I’d rather live, work and play in Northern or Southern California… and on that point there’s no debate at all.

You bet I would.

If you’ve ever lived in or visited the Golden State: Are you an “up there” or a “down here” type?  Or would you be just fine with California sliding into the ocean tomorrow?

BC&H BONUS: Because blogging’s no fun without the games, I’ll send a $10 Running Warehouse gift certificate to the first (non-family) reader who figures out what I did to amuse myself while writing this post, and provides at least four pieces of evidence (there are six found within this post) to support their answer.  Leave your response in the Comments section below, and I’ll publish the winner and correct answer here on Monday, March 3.  You don’t need to “like” me, you don’t need to “follow” me, you just need to humor me.  Good luck!

Mike Sohaskey & Katie in front of Golden Gate Bridge & Hollywood sign

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

If you got a weak brain and a narrow mind, the world gonna leave you way behind.
Willie Dixon

As a runner, it helps to have a really good brain on your shoulders

It’s late June, though it could just as easily be October or February.  After all, the concept of seasons is largely an abstract one in Southern California.  A light but steady breeze – a product of Venice High School’s proximity to the ocean – complements a stunning azure sky interspersed with sparse white clouds that seem the floating remnants of shredded cotton balls.  It’s a perfect day to be outside… and a perfect day to be outside running.

Certain members of the Venice High Gondoliers football team may not agree.  On the unkempt grassy field encircled by an unmarked dirt running track, sweat-soaked teenage boys in oversized navy-and-white practice jerseys run short sprints of ~20 yards each.  This will be the last drill of today’s practice, and if body language is any indication, for many in this weary group the end can’t come soon enough.  Players cross the finish line and then circle back slowly in an effort to secure as much rest as possible before repeating the ordeal.  Hands rest on knees and faces contort in fatigued grimaces, as varsity hopefuls await their turn in perpetually moving lines that offer little respite.  Two drill sergeants coaches oversee the operation – the first launches each wave of sprinters with a clipped “Go!” while the second stands at the 20-yard mark, urging his charges across the finish line with three strong-throated syllables: “Run through it!”

From my vantage point on the dusty track, rounding a turn on one of my drawn-out recovery laps, the scene feels awfully familiar.  Adolescent memories harken me back to stifling summer days spent enduring similar {ahem} character-building experiences under the watchful eye of a questionably qualified coach.  But what arouses my interest here isn’t nostalgia – it’s that barked command that awaits each group of sprinters at the finish line: Run through it!  Three words that some kids take to heart, leaning forward and jutting their chest out as if to break an imaginary tape, whereas others clearly take their foot off the gas after no more than 15 yards.

It’s doubtful I’ve ever used the terms “high school coach” and “thought-provoking” in the same sentence – growing up in Texas, my 9th grade basketball coach clumsily sliced off three of his toes while mowing his lawn.  But like Valvoline for the brain, that single coaching directive – Run through it! – lubricates my mental gears and gets me thinking:

Why do some runners attack the finish line like shark on seal, while others falter much earlier in the race?  Why don’t we all “run through it”?

The mind is a powerful thing.  It can take you through walls. – Denis Avey
Runners love their motivational quotes about always giving 100% (or for the mathematically challenged, 110%).  But as inspiring as this sentiment is, the reality is that most of us will never come close.  And that reality is a major reason why, in the hearts and minds of the running community, the legends of Alberto Salazar and Steve Prefontaine continue to grow long after the end of their storied racing careers.

Salazar – widely regarded as one of the greatest marathoners (and now coaches) of all time – was once read his last rites prematurely after collapsing at the finish line of the 7-mile Falmouth Road Race with a body temperature of 107°F.  Salazar was able to filter out pain and push through perceived limits to an extent that very few runners can.  Indeed, it was in large part this unwillingness to heed his own physiological signals that short-circuited his racing career due to illness, injury and burnout after his “Duel in the Sun” victory at the 1982 Boston Marathon at age 24.

Similarly, Prefontaine – whose competitive drive remains the stuff of legend 38 years after his premature death at age 24 – once famously said:

A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest.  I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more…. Someone may beat me, but they’re going to have to bleed to do it.

And Pre was the authority on guts, having held the U.S. record at all seven track and field distances ranging from 2,000m to 10,000m.  Clearly both men recognized mental fortitude (or “guts”) as their competitive advantage, an advantage they’d use to claim psychological victory over an exhausted opponent before ever reaching the finish line.  An advantage they’d use to run through it.

So then is it the case that these two simply trained harder and were more genetically gifted than the rest of us, enabling them to dominate their competition?  No doubt that’s a big part of it.  But aside from easily defined measurables like lactate threshold and VO2 max, it was each man’s immeasurable psychological edge that ensured his eventual rise from “runner” to “champion” to “legend”.

Salazar and Pre’s singular ability to reach deep and run through it raises a tantalizing question: what if our own inability to push beyond perceived limits is based on a clever lie, meticulously crafted by our brains over evolutionary time scales, and fraught with lactic acid demons and muscle depolarizing goblins?

In effect, what if our brain is running the show?  What might be possible, in terms of athletic performance, if we can override its self-imposed limits?  Because recent evidence suggests an inconvenient truth of exercise physiology – namely, that the body has more to give than the mind is willing to admit.

Although originally drawn as “The Gout” in 1799, with a little imagination this could be a lactic acid demon


Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.
– John Lennon
In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman makes a compelling case for the dominant role of the subconscious mind in our everyday lives.  Eagleman cites both experimental and anecdotal evidence to argue that the subconscious mind is the engine that drives our decision-making and which enables the entire machine to run smoothly.  He writes:

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it…. The truth is that it’s better this way. Consciousness can take all the credit it wants, but it is best left at the sidelines for most of the decision-making that cranks along in your brain.

Extending Eagleman’s argument to running performance yields the provocative notion that the final frontier in exercise science may well be our ability to harness the power of our own subconscious… and to use that power to regulate the flow of information between mind and body.

Samuele Marcora would likely agree.  Dr. Marcora studies fatigue and endurance performance as Director of Research at the University of Kent School of Sport & Exercise Sciences.  His research into the causes of fatigue in endurance athletes have led him to conclude that rather than effort itself, it is the psychological perception of effort which induces athletes to quit before their physiological well runs dry.  “Perception of effort” is basically a euphemism for “level of suffering,” so runners ultimately stop running not when they experience muscle fatigue, but when they feel they’ve suffered enough.  By extension, anything that lowers perception of effort – smarter training, superior genetics, forgoing those last five beer-battered onion rings, etc. – will increase the likelihood of reaching the finish line faster.

Other observations, scientific and otherwise, support the “perception of effort” hypothesis.  Negative thoughts and facial grimaces while running lead to a greater feeling of fatigue than a positive mindset and relaxed countenance.  Running against competition raises one’s pain threshold compared to running alone.  We’ve all experienced the “end spurt” phenomenon, that lactate-infused dash to the finish in the home stretch of a race.  And most men can vouch for the fact that their mental fatigue and perception of effort both decrease dramatically under the watchful eye of an attractive female.

I don’t have far to look for my own practical example.  The final interval of my speedwork sessions is usually faster than it has any right to be.  Instead of reflecting a predictable deterioration in performance consistent with muscle fatigue, my last interval is frequently the fastest of the bunch.  And that only makes sense if I’m (consciously or otherwise) holding something back – “chickening out” as Matt Fitzgerald bluntly puts it – to prevent the all-out suffering that would accompany an all-out effort.  But once the imaginary coach in my head snaps “Go!” to start that final interval, all bets are off – because the sooner I reach the finish line, the sooner it will all be over.  And the sooner those dissident voices in my head can turn their attention to dinner.

Now that we understand what “perception of effort” means and why it matters, what do we do with that information?  One quote from Dr. Marcora’s 2010 interview with Fitzgerald sticks with me like mental mucilage:  “If you didn’t have perception of effort, you could run your marathon much faster, definitely!”

So naturally the question becomes… how much faster?  Fast enough for an elite runner to, say, run a marathon in less than two hours?

Deserving cover boys Roger Bannister (1955), Steve Prefontaine (1970) and Alberto Salazar (1980)


Physiology always wins the day.
Ross Tucker, Jonathan Dugas and Matt Fitzgerald (p. 187).
No question sparks a more lively debate among hardcore runners than “Will someone break the two-hour marathon barrier in our lifetime?” (although the prospect of a woman chasing the four-minute mile is intriguing in its own right).  In many minds, the word “barrier” aptly describes the potential for a two-hour marathon performance.  And while no less a runner than Ryan Hall believes it can be done, many well-reasoned data-driven arguments suggest it won’t… at least not anytime soon.  Arguments citing the undeniable fact that no runner has ever clocked a sub-hour split – much less two – in the marathon, despite this having happened 178 times (for 89 different runners) at the half marathon distance.  Arguments suggesting that marathon times have more or less plateaued, and that the world record is gradually approaching the uninspiring limit of… 2:02:43.  And arguments pointing to the requisite (and admittedly mind-blowing) 5K and 10K “equivalent performances” as proof that a sub-two marathon ain’t happening in our lifetimes.

Granted a sub-two marathon doesn’t feel imminent – the current world record, set by Patrick Makau at the 2011 Berlin Marathon, stands at 2:03:38.  Given that the record has dropped by only 2:27 in the past 15 years, two hours still feels like a distant target.  Then again, nobody expected Paula Radcliffe to shatter the women’s world record by nearly 3-1/2 minutes when she clocked an astonishing 2:15:25 at London in 2003.  But two analyses published in the Journal of Applied Physiology – one from University of Montreal mathematicians François Péronnet and Guy Thibault, and the other from Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Joyner and colleagues – do foresee the marathon world record falling below two hours by 2040.  And several of Hall’s elite colleagues – including U.S. teammate Meb Keflezighi, former world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie and London course-record holder Emmanuel Mutai – agree it’s not a matter of if, but when the two-hour mark will fall.

So then if you’re scoring at home, weighing the pros and cons of each side’s argument and taking all the data into account, the answer to whether we’ll see a two-hour marathon in our lifetime is a categorical, rock-solid maybe.

But keep in mind… before that spring day in 1954, when Roger Bannister ran four laps around a cinder track in 3:59.4, the four-minute mile was considered by many an insurmountable barrier.  Turns out that barrier was actually more of a hurdle, and the floodgates were open – Bannister’s record quickly fell to Australian John Landy 46 days later, after which the mile record time would drop four more times in just over a decade.  Clearly the four-minute mile “barrier” was more mental than physical.

As you can see, a two-hour marathon is on the horizon (distance measured in SoCal units; updated 28 Sept 2014)


That’s your best friend and your worst enemy – your own brain.
– Fred Durst
All that said, the future – the real future – of exercise physiology doesn’t lie in incremental improvements to our VO2 max or our running economy.  It doesn’t lie in thrice-weekly interval workouts, or healthier eating, or improved stretching techniques, or radical advances in footwear technology, or increasingly elaborate (and expensive) tools for monitoring heart rate and metabolite levels… though these familiar themes should continue to keep Runner’s World in circulation.

Likewise, it doesn’t lie in bigger, better and harder-to-detect supplements that target every organ below the neck – supplements like erythropoietin (EPO) to produce more red blood cells, human growth hormone to increase muscle mass and speed healing, amphetamines and other stimulants (55-Hour Energy?), plus masking agents to dilute ‘em out and decrease the chances of getting caught.  The introduction of the “biological passport” that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong’s downfall makes conventional performance-enhancing drugs a much riskier proposition for elite athletes.

No, my expectation is that the real future of exercise science lies not so much in the heart, lungs and legs (though we’ll want to hold on to those), but in the ability to modulate our perception of effort.  If I may redirect the wisdom of former U.S. Defense Secretary and noted non-brain surgeon Donald Rumsfeld, the human brain is an untapped treasure trove of “known unknowns… things that we now know we don’t know.”  But even more alluring to me are the brain’s “unknown unknowns… things we do not know we don’t know.”  And while well-respected authors such as Matt Fitzgerald and Tim Noakes offer practical guidance on how we can train our brains to improve running performance today, I’m more intrigued by the boundless promise of tomorrow.  Because as neuroscientists roll up their sleeves and poke around under the hood, what they learn about the brain will have game-changing implications for the future of the sport.

Luckily, cutting-edge approaches – non-invasive imaging technologies together with President Obama’s recently unveiled BRAIN Initiative to map the human brain – should offer a wealth of insight into how three pounds of squishy pink biomass governs athletic performance.  Because if we’re to keep pushing the limits of human endurance, we need to know which regions of the brain control each stage of the race-day experience – from pre-race anxiety to onset of fatigue to post-race euphoria – and which neurons fire when we’re nervous, or relaxed, or focused, or overheated, or exhausted, or triumphant.

(This isn’t wishful head-in-the-clouds thinking on my part: similar brain-imaging studies are already being used to map the neural circuits that underlie feeding behavior, with the long-term goal of combating the nation’s obesity epidemic.)

With that toolkit of knowledge in hand the real fun begins, as neuroscientists and exercise physiologists fine-tune their neural tinkering in an attempt to manipulate – via drugs, electrical stimulation, meditation, or other – the pain-and-pleasure center of the brain.  To limber up the limbic system, as it were.  Because what if – to take the mechanic analogy one step further – we could disable the catalytic converter in our own brains?  Might we desensitize our perception of effort, and coax out just enough of a performance boost for us to run our fastest mile, our best 10K, our speediest marathon?  For an elite runner with world-class training and resources to run a sub-2 marathon?  What a brave new world of performance enhancement that would be.

MRI scans

Brain imaging is the future of exercise science (MRI scans courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)


Never was anything great achieved without danger.
– Niccolò Machiavelli
This is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.  To the victor go the spoils, and the first marathoner to break the tape in less than two hours – whether American (though probably not), British, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Eritrean or a citizen of Atlantis – undoubtedly will write his own ticket.  The running community and the world at large will rightly genuflect before their modern-day Roger Bannister.  Who knows, ESPN may even break into its own brain-draining Tiger Woods or New York Jets coverage to report the story!  Or, it may not.

But the greatest resistance to a two-hour marathon will come between the ears of the person running it.  Because like any good police force, the job of the mind is to protect and serve.  And for that purpose it deploys powerful feedback mechanisms – mechanisms such as pacing, perception of effort and “anticipatory regulation” (discussed by Tucker, Dugas and Fitzgerald) – as protective strategies to keep the body from burning out five miles short of the finish line.  Therefore, striving to override these mechanisms – or even tweak them – may be asking for trouble, and may even jeopardize racing careers in the same way that Alberto Salazar’s maniacal training regimen undermined his own.

In any case, physiological limits eventually collide with cold hard reality… all the motivational tools in the shed won’t help you beat a cheetah in the 100-yard dash.  And it may ultimately be those physical limitations, including the body’s capacity to offset excessive heat production with sufficient heat loss, that determine if and when a human being runs 26.2 miles in less than two hours… and whether they’re still standing for the post-race interview.  But one day, and hopefully in my lifetime, some supremely focused runner with a high-altitude background and the mental wherewithal of Bannister, or Salazar, or Prefontaine, will step up and make a legitimate bid for running immortality.  And my guess is that when that happens, the operative word of the day will be “headstrong”.

Because if neuroscience has taught us anything, it’s that deceiving is believing.  And with the right combination of physical stamina and mental fortitude, it’s only a matter of time before someone looks the two-hour marathon barrier straight in the eye, and refuses to blink.  Before someone runs her mile in less than four minutes.  Before someone does the seemingly impossible.  Before someone runs through it.

But they still won’t give 110%.

What do YOU think is the limiting factor for a sub-2-hour marathon?  And how do you envision the future of exercise science?

For a fantastic “State of the Union” on the two-hour marathon debate, check out this recent post on Dan’s Marathon.

And for those readers living in 2030, keep your eye on Berlin this weekend.

If you run, you are a runner.  It doesn’t matter how fast or how far.  It doesn’t matter if today is your first day or if you’ve been running for twenty years.  There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get.  You just run.
John “The Penguin” Bingham

A long walk on a short pier – actually, the south jetty in Marina del Rey

So far so good… lower body strong, upper body loose, stride fluid, breathing rhythmic, hands relaxed, man it’s warm today, run in the moment, focus on the now, don’t stress the later, hold that posture, own that pace, damn it’s warm today, train fast to race fast, you’ve got this, breathe in, breathe out, keep it up, keep it up, keep it –

“EXCUSE ME!”

It sounded almost apologetic.  Forceful to be sure, yet oddly apologetic, this appeal that jarred me out of my mental cocoon, silencing my internal coach and interrupting the audiobook narrative playing in my earbuds.  Now? questioned my startled brain, annoyed at its train of thought being so suddenly derailed.  Really?  I’d only completed 2-1/2 miles of my planned 15-mile “progressive” run, so-named because my pace would progressively quicken over the duration of the run.

Today’s progressive run called for five miles at an 8:00/mile pace, followed by five miles at a 7:45/mile pace, and finally five miles at a 7:30/mile pace… a challenging enough run without sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s (not accounting for humidity).  I’d not even reached the beachfront yet, with roughly half a mile still to go past the upper-crust apartment buildings that line Via Marina.  And already this new distraction?

Despite the prevalence of smartphones these days, people still stop me to ask for directions while I’m running.  Normally they’ll pull over and flag me down from a car, though occasionally someone on the sidewalk will wave to get my attention.  Maybe they figure I must know where I’m going, since I’m clearly in a hurry to get there.  Or perhaps they think they’re doing me a favor by letting me stop to rest.  Treadmill runners, this is one advantage I’ll concede to you – unless they’re after your phone number, nobody’s stopping you to ask for directions.

In any case, being stopped mid-run because someone can’t read a map is irritating.  If you just woke up on the sidewalk with “Memento”-like amnesia, or if your infant child is stuck up in a tree, then I’m happy to stop and help. Otherwise, please consult one of the many other (casually strolling) individuals who are inevitably available to answer questions and point you in the right direction.  Those white cords sprouting from both ears are the universal sign for “Me no talk now.”

But this time, I sensed as my brain reluctantly dragged my body to a sweaty halt – this time was different.  Not only because of who had spoken, but because her follow-up question took me completely by surprise.

“Could you help me with my running?” asked the older woman smiling back at me from the sidewalk.  “I’m sorry to stop you,” she continued, her voice like her face animated in apparent frustration.  “I want to start running, but I’m doing it all wrong.”

I was taken aback – I might have been less surprised if she’d confessed to killing a man with a spoon.  Admittedly, “glib” wouldn’t be among the top ten words I’d use to describe myself, so I spent the next several seconds grasping for words as I sized up both situation and speaker.

Despite the dark, rounded sunglasses that shielded her eyes and much of her face from the morning’s glare, my immediate impression was of a spry, recently anointed octogenarian with an easy smile.  Copper-blonde hair peeked out in all directions from under a colorful head kerchief.  Her casual, comfortable-looking marina gear included a lightweight, long sleeve navy blue blouse, simple beige slacks and white canvas shoes.  Most striking was her pronounced New York City accent, a near-caricature that evoked childhood memories of Edith Bunker from the ‘70s TV show “All in the Family”.  My overall sense was that among Father Time’s children, she must have been a favorite.

Time conquers all.  But it doesn’t conquer all equally, and one reason why is running.  Just ask Canadian distance runner Ed Whitlock.  At an age when most people would be happy to make it out to the mailbox and back under their own power every morning, Whitlock continues to rewrite the running record books.  At age 72, his 2:59:09 finish time at the 2003 Toronto Waterfront Marathon made him the first – and still the only – septuagenarian to run a marathon in less than three hours.  He improved on that time one year later at age 73, running the same race in a mind-blowing 2:54:48, the current 70-and-over world record.  And seven years later he was at it again, setting the marathon world record for octogenarians with a 3:15:54 finish in Toronto at age 80.  Whitlock also holds a slew of indoor and outdoor track records, including a 5:41.80 mile in Ontario at age 75.

I’d give my brother’s right arm to be able to run either a 3:15:54 marathon or a 5:41.80 mile at any point in my life.

Ed Whitlock shows off his medal after breaking the 80-plus half marathon world record in 1:38:59 at the
Milton (Ontario) Half Marathon on Sept. 16, 2012
(photo © 2012 Graham Paine/Milton Champion)

And apparently Whitlock isn’t fazed by the specter of his own mortality.  He trains exclusively in a cemetery, running a paved 1/3-mile loop without any of the benefits that many runners now deem indispensable to their training – no coaches, training partners, massage therapists, nutritionists, specific diets, stretching exercises or weight training.  He has professed to owning ten pairs of running shoes, which he said he alternates so they don’t wear out.  By all indications, the shoes will wear out before the man does.

I may not be much of a running coach, but I’m a decent judge of people.  And intuition told me my spirited new friend wasn’t a lonely senior citizen looking for companionship or an ear to bend.  She seemed altogether lucid and genuinely concerned about… something.  Could this really be about running?

She repeated her conviction, this time with a twist: “I know I’m doing it wrong, and” – she gestured palms-up with both hands to indicate the sweaty fellow standing in front of her – “you just look so fabulous!”

Clearly this woman knew her stuff.  But sincere or no – and I had no legitimate reason to doubt her – I couldn’t deny her infectious energy.  “Have you done any running?” I asked, easing into my sudden mentor status.

“I’ve done some walking, but everybody around here drives, and that’s just not good for me.  So I want to start running, but I know I’m doing it wrong.”

I offered a couple of pointers to get her started: first, that she run with good posture – in response to which she stood erect and simulated a slow-motion running movement – and bent forward ever so slightly at the waist.  Her hips, I explained, would be the engine powering the machine.  Second, I suggested she use her arms in sync with her lower body to drive her forward progress.  As I demonstrated by jogging a few steps, she burst out as if she’d had a bet riding on this, “I knew I was doing it wrong!”

Trying to ease her mind, I quickly explained that there are as many different body types and running techniques as there are runners.  And I stressed that it was more important to run comfortably than to focus too much on “right” or “wrong” technique.  As long as she took it slow (I assumed this wouldn’t be a problem) and didn’t try to do too much, she should be fine.

My new friend looked like a cheerier version of greeting card icon Maxine

“How long have you been at this?” she asked, still smiling.  I assumed she meant running, not offering questionable advice to strangers on the street.  “Several years now,” I rounded off.

This answer seemed to jibe with her worldview, and she nodded.  “How far should I go?”

I suggested she choose a nearby object – say maybe the street sign 20 yards ahead of us – then jog to that target (staying on the sidewalk, of course) and back again.

“What’s the difference between a run and a jog?”

Wow, she’s actually listening.  By “jog,” I clarified, I meant a pace somewhere between a walk and a faster “run,” since it’s important to start slow and gradually build up speed over time.

“So I should jog there and back?  I’ve been walking from the hotel, but I don’t know how far I should go.”

I reiterated that she should start by jogging to a nearby object – a street sign, a mailbox, a palm tree – and back, as many times as she felt comfortable.  Then, after a few days of that, she should choose an endpoint slightly farther away and repeat the process, again based on her comfort level.

“So you think twice a day would be all right?”  Sure, absolutely, if you’re comfortable with that and your body responds well.

“It still responds pretty well for 87!” she smiled brightly, straightening up and planting fists squarely on hips in her best superhero stance.

Now it occurred to me that I should probably be the one asking for advice.

If youth is wasted on the young, then our best bet is to avoid – or at least delay – getting old.  This approach is embodied in the concept of healthspan.

Whereas lifespan – a term everyone knows – refers to how long a person lives, healthspan refers to how long a person lives in the best possible health.  The word first landed on my radar during a March 2012 visit to The Buck Institute for Research on Aging.  The Buck, an independent research institute in Novato, CA, is leading the way in its mission to demystify the aging process and extend healthspan.  What struck me during my conversations with Buck scientists was their collective conviction that aging – and the chronic diseases of aging – are not necessarily inevitable side effects of living.  For a (slightly) more scientific introduction to the importance of healthspan, check out PhD and Buck CEO Brian Kennedy’s recent TED talk below:

Studies from other groups support this seemingly heretical notion.  In a 2004 study published in the journal Circulation, Dr. Benjamin Levine and colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas tested cardiac function in a group of endurance athletes with an average age of 68 who, like Ed Whitlock, had competed regularly since their 40s.  Compared to sedentary individuals of comparable age, the heart muscles of the endurance group were more elastic and resisted shrinking, making them indistinguishable from a group of sedentary 29-year-olds tested in the same way.  These findings led the authors to conclude that “prolonged, sustained endurance training preserves ventricular compliance (i.e. cardiac function) with aging and may help to prevent heart failure in the elderly.”

Similarly, James Fries and colleagues at Stanford University (arguably the greatest research institute in the world, ahem) published a 2008 study in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, in which they tracked running frequency, disability and mortality in 538 runners and 423 “healthy control” individuals, aged 50 and older, over a 21-year period beginning in 1984.  Notwithstanding the inevitable dropout rate in such “longitudinal” studies (40% in this case), their findings were clear:  Habitual runners enjoy a “notable survival advantage” and, maybe more importantly, a significantly longer healthspan than their non-running counterparts.

Surprised by her candid revelation, I instinctively grinned back and stammered out something I hoped would be received as a compliment – “Wow, I would not have put you at 87.”  Really, tongue?  That’s the best you could do on short notice??  I was relieved to see her wrinkled grin widen.  “Yes indeed!” she said.  “But I’m sorry to have stopped you… thank you very much, I knew I was doing it wrong.”

I couldn’t leave without a name, so I introduced myself.  “I’m Claire,” she reciprocated and held out her hand, which I shook gently with one last word of encouragement: “Take it slowly, and you’ll do great.”  This time, brain and tongue were solidly in agreement.

With that, I beeped my Garmin back to life and continued on my way, though the persistent heat and beachfront foot traffic would combine to quash the day’s overambitious time goals.  My entire conversation with Claire had lasted less than five minutes… which, to my data-obsessed Garmin, meant five minutes of “lost time” it was unable to account for, unable to record, unable to analyze and regurgitate in its reliably reductionist manner.

To its owner, however, those five minutes were anything but lost.  And over the next several miles, as my body transitioned into autopilot mode, I’d replay those five minutes in my head, mulling them over and carefully analyzing every angle and facet of our conversation, like a jeweler admiring a flawless gemstone he’d fortuitously discovered in a place he never would have thought to look.

“You only get 26,320 days, more or less.  How will you spend them?” asks one running shoe company’s ad depicting the last vestiges of sand flowing through an hourglass.  I may not spend my own numbered days running in that company’s shoes… but I do plan to spend them running.

Life is uncertain, life is unfair, and life – as we’re constantly reminded – is perversely unlong.  It can’t be beeped on and off like a trusty Garmin (though I’m hoping for a firmware update soon).  And not one grain of sand from the miles of beaches I run every week can add a second more to my hourglass.  But if I can reach year 87 with my sand still flowing, and with the same verve and mobility as Claire, then I’ll look back on a life well-lived.  And hopefully, when that day comes, some fabulous-looking lad will jog past me on the sidewalk, heed my wizened wave and allow me to instruct him on the finer points of proper running technique.

For now, though, I plan to spend what’s left of my 26,320 days – more or less – working diligently on my own technique.  Up roads, down trails, over the river and through the woods, whenever and wherever I can… so that as new memories prove gradually harder to come by, I’ll have plenty of good ol’ days to fall back on.  Even if I’m not the next Ed Whitlock.

“People underestimate what old people can accomplish,” a 73-year-old Whitlock said in a 2005 interview.  “Old people are the worst in that respect.  They let themselves be inhibited by age.”

Not Claire, though.  Approaching the end of Via Marina, I glanced back one last time to see my first and only disciple shuffling – check that, running – with spine straight and arms pumping, toward the street sign that doubled as her designated turnaround.  And I had to smile… not only at her comically exaggerated arm swing, but at her youthful resolve, her earnest refusal to act her age, and her heartfelt insistence that “I’m doing it all wrong.”

Because in that singular moment, I’d never seen running done more right.

I think, therefore I am.
– René Descartes

What could be good-er than a sunset view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Berkeley Marina?

Since the inception of BC&H 14 months ago, one question bounces around my head a lot: did I start to blog because I notice things, or do I now notice things because I started to blog?  If Descartes had aired his thoughts on WordPressicus back in the day, would he have positioned the above tenet as “I think, therefore I blog” or maybe “I blog, therefore I think”?

I tend to think it works both ways – hopefully I have something to say in the first place, or I wouldn’t bother writing. And with every run, I diligently observe and catalog details big and small… not because I see it as my responsibility to the blog, but because that’s just my brain doing what my brain do.  I blame heredity – the most convenient target –plus twenty years of scientist training that’s messed with all the neurons bumping around inside my head.

In any case, over the past year I’ve committed to memory – both neural and digital – a number of notable moments from my time spent exploring the East Bay on foot.  And since Katie and I recently decided to pick up stakes and move down to the Los Angeles area, I figure now is as good a time as any to unload share my personal experiences and more-or-less random musings on the good, the bad and even the ugly of a year spent running in the East Bay and beyond:

  Track day = payday: One summer afternoon, while knocking out mile repeats on the Cal (UC Berkeley) track, I glanced down as I finished a set to see a $5 bill lying in the middle of lane three, silently minding its own business but clearly planning its escape.  Still breathing hard from my mile effort, I reached down to pick up the orphaned bill, only to discover I’d missed a zero and that I was in fact holding a $50 bill.

Glancing around incredulously – left, right, left again, more carefully than if I’d been crossing Highway 101 on foot – I realized that none of the parents or kids loitering around the track were frantically digging through their pockets, or counting the contents of their wallet, or walking around scanning the ground like they’d just lost a contact lens.  Two teenagers sat on a low wall 12 feet away, laughing loudly and completely unaware that I’d just run the most profitable mile of my life.

After pocketing (or rather, Amphipod-ing) the bill, I turned my momentarily lapsed attention back to my recovery lap, already in progress.  I like to think my windfall was an apology from the running gods for all the unattended children and selfishly oblivious parents I’d weaved to avoid during my countless workouts on that track.

  And while I’m talking track workouts: Gotta shout out to the intrepid squirrel who one day elected to stand right in the middle of the local dirt track, gnawing away on an acorn while I and other runners sped by him on each side.  Peace, love and happiness for all nature’s creatures… Berkeley in a nutshell, I thought.

  A question for the Berkeley Psychic Institute, after I spied this sign on a run through downtown: Not to sound cynical, but why the doorbell?  If you’ve earned the title of psychic, wouldn’t you simply sense that I’m standing outside your front door?  Or does that logic only work when a spirit comes a-callin’?

Berkeley Psychic Institute

  Sorry Bay Area, this doesn’t involve you: Hey Hammer Nutrition, I get the cutesy marketing opportunity, but practically speaking why are your gel packets shaped like awkward bloated hammers?  Isn’t it bad enough that your Heed drink tastes like cough syrup?  I’d imagine that as prospective packet designs go, that hammer design scored above only the velcro gel packet, inside-out gel packet and gel packet with pump dispenser among focus group participants.  Nothing says “endurance runner trying to minimize clutter” like an extra inch and a half of utterly useless packaging:

Hammer Gel

Fortunately they didn’t name the company “Jigsaw Nutrition”

If your poorly conceived packet design reflects your desire to distinguish Hammer from the more user-friendly offerings of PowerBar, Clif Bar and GU Energy, then your efforts are paying off and I thank you – your packaging allows me to quickily distinguish and avoid all Hammer Gel products at my local REI.

  As a trail running and minimalism aficionado, I’ve decided to title my not-soon-to-be-released autobiography Zero Drop Dirty.  Or if I happen to suffer a debilitating running injury between now and then, Zero Drop Hurty.  Don’t even try, fellow trail runners… I’ve already trademarked both.

  Speaking of minimalist running, I saw this advice posted to an online running forum on training in minimalist shoes: “Do start out slow and you will avoid sore angry mussels.”  I resisted the urge to post my own “Clam up with your shellfish comments” response.

  When you gotta go:  One typically cool Bay Area afternoon, while running down very steep Moeser Road in El Cerrito, I suddenly felt nature’s call – loud, unmistakable and clearly not willing to wait until I got home.  Noticing two outdoor facilities in the park to my left, I veered off in that direction only to find both bathrooms inaccessible behind a locked fence (if I may digress for a moment on my own blog: this obnoxious practice by communities and businesses of making toilets inaccessible to the general public is regularly repeated across the East Bay and nowhere else I’ve lived.  It seems to stem from a conditioned fear that someone who doesn’t belong there may actually happen by and want to USE the facilities.  On longer runs around Berkeley and Oakland, I frequently found myself on the lookout for homes being remodeled, so I could use the generally unlocked porta-potty in their front yard.)

Anyway… between the time I’d sighted the bathrooms and the time I’d realized they were locked, my brain had upped the ante and begun writing checks my bladder couldn’t cash.  So then I had no choice but to sneak off into some nearby bushes in that same park, just below an embankment.  Fortunately the coast was clear – the park was empty as I hurried to take care of my business quietly and discreetly.  But then, as I stood awkwardly amidst the sparse foliage and passed the physiological point of no return, I heard the squeals and laughter of children – many children – running and playing above the embankment no more than 50 feet away.  It hadn’t occurred to me that the park might be connected to a playground which, due to the steep grade of the road, was situated above the park.

My brain instantly filled with the sorts of horrific images that might fill any normal brain upon finding its charges partially exposed and within throwing distance of an active playground – images of me exiting the bushes to find ten stern-faced police officers with guns raised, ordering me to pull my shorts up where they could see them; images of reporters asking my brother, “So urine no way surprised by his arrest?” and Chuck responding with “Not at all, I knew the truth would trickle out eventually”; and images of letters received in prison in my poor mother’s handwriting, chastising me for not wearing clean underwear when I was arrested (in my defense Mom, running shorts are made to be worn without underwear…).

Luckily though, I exited my shadowy cover of bushes into a still-empty park, and so was very – I guess the word would be relieved – to continue on my way without any pee-nal consequences.

  Citizens of the People’s Republic of Berkeley tend to treat their cars chiefly as mobile billboards for their left-leaning/wordy/esoteric viewpoints, and the city’s bumper stickers provide more entertaining reading material than many a town’s library.  So I rarely pass up an opportunity while running to break out the handy flip phone camera:

bumper stickers

  And what says “East Bay” more than spotting a “I Hella ♥ Homos” bumper sticker on a pickup truck, the same week a fellow named Sonny Dykes was hired to be the new Cal football coach?

Sadly, I wasn’t quick enough to snap this picture myself before it sped off (Etsy.com)

  Though not a bumper sticker, the “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” sign is another variation on the obnoxious “Baby On Board” theme… so I’d like to tip my cap (while at the same time not condoning vandalism) to the unidentified wielder of a can of red spray paint up in the Berkeley Hills, who with a few strokes changed this sign’s intent by 180°:

Drive Like Your Kids

  Now for the ugly:  While running the Iron Horse Trail in 86°F heat, I passed a small cluster of concerned onlookers gathered around two paramedics who were attending to a man lying on his back in the middle of the concrete path.  A quick glance told me the man’s short-sleeve shirt was unbuttoned and spread open… but it was the wide smear of crimson across the trail that momentarily unnerved me, and I resisted the morbid impulse to glance at his face.  Fortunately the paramedics seemed to have the situation under control.  And so I ran on, as runners always do.

  Potential ugliness turned memorable meeting:  Just over a mile into a 22-mile February training run along that same Iron Horse Trail, I found myself following a dirt alleyway behind a row of homes, with close-set backyards and driveways to my left and an eight-foot-high chain-link fence to my right.  Suddenly I felt an electric charge ripple through me as I was greeted by two pit bulls bounding toward me out of the nearest driveway, one of them midnight black and the other sporting a brownish-black coat (for which I soon learned the appropriate term – “brindle”).  I quickly steered toward the fence and for about three. long. seconds. debated whether to start climbing.  Then I realized the animals were acting curious rather than threatening – no barking, no bared fangs, no guttural threatening growls.  Which was reassuring, given that both muscle-bound canines were now standing on their hindlegs, pawing gently but firmly at my legs and hips as my heart continued to skip beats.

Still I was too – I’ll go with “timid” here – to present a friendly façade much less a set of fingers, until with relief I glanced up to see a wiry 20-something Latino fellow wearing a black hoodie pulled over his head, leisurely following the dogs down the driveway while calling them to his side.  The dogs’ caretaker was also the owner of extensive tattoo work that radiated up his neck to his face, as well as to the knuckles on his hands.  In another time and place, this might have struck me as a menacing scenario.

But any fleeting unease was swiftly quelled as I watched the two animals rush over and zealously lick their master’s face.  He in turn patted and stroked their backs with an intensity that could only be described as – true love, I thought.  Clearly they were his pride and joy.  He smiled up at me from his kneeling position, he and I shook hands, and he proceeded to tell me at length about his two boys as I warmed up to the playful pooches, stroking and patting each one’s solid, muscular back.

Now that the warning sirens in my brain had stopped wailing, I was able to relax and appreciate the two pit bulls for what they were – beautiful, august creatures built like furry brick walls.  It seemed inappropriate at that moment to think of them as dogs, the same catch-all term used to describe dachshunds, chihuahuas and labradoodles.  Their owner told me how he’d brought the animals with him to California from Harlingen, a town at the southern tip of Texas, close to the Mexico border.  He spoke softly, but the pride in his voice was loud and clear as he talked of his companions – how he’d raised them from puppies, how one of them had been featured in a photo shoot for Life magazine, and how he had a sweet-tempered female lounging around inside the house as well.

After several more minutes spent admiring and amusing his sturdy canines, we exchanged our goodbyes and I continued on my way, though I already knew the rest of that day’s run would be a dog by comparison.

  On urban animal encounters: Running through a neighborhood just north of Berkeley, I swung a left turn from a residential stretch onto a bustling, four-lane avenue.  Lost in thought, I absentmindedly glanced over at a busy gas station on the corner, then looked up again just in time to avoid a head-on collision with a 4-foot-tall and prodigiously round turkey.  I hesitate to say which of us would have gotten the worst of a collision, but the turkey seemed to take it all in stride.  He jerked his head up at me, looked back down, looked back up, then strolled past as though I’d just stopped him to ask for directions and he had somewhere to be.

Sheepishly I glanced around to gauge whether any bystanders had witnessed this exchange… only later did I learn that a whole rafter of wild turkeys lived across that bustling street, in a fenced-off area dedicated to sustainable urban agriculture and appropriately known as “Turkeytown.”  Turkey sightings in Berkeley aren’t uncommon – I’ve seen several around town and in the hills.  But after 42 years of life experience including four in college and several more in graduate school, this was the first time I’d ever had to tell myself to back away from the Wild Turkey.

  Orange you glad that bridge is there: I could list it first, or last, or anywhere in between… but the Golden Gate Bridge will always be the gravitational field around which my Bay Area running routes orbit.  My favorite road course in the East Bay, up along Grizzly Peak and Skyline Blvd, owes much of its allure to its panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline and the city’s defining international orange landmark.  Even Oakland Airport officials publicly acknowledge on which side of the bay their bread is buttered:

OAK ad

(photo credit wedistill.com)

And with that, for now at least, I bid farewell to the Bay Area as my primary residence.  I’m eager to probe the untapped running potential of Southern California, with its beaches and coastline as far as the eye can see, and weather that hasn’t required long pants since our arrival two months ago.  Eager to see new places, meet new running buddies, explore new opportunities and generally feel a new vibe that’s still very much California.

I think, therefore I am going to like it down here.  Let me know if you’re ever in the L.A. area… I’d be happy to offer a guided tour of my favorite SoCal running routes!

Looking back: Mt. Tamalpais in Marin overlooks the East Bay and Mt. Diablo (standing tall in the distance)

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Paul Butler is to marathons what Ryan Seacrest is to hair — not one out of place.

I met Paul and his wife Sharon on our recent Antarctica Marathon adventure.  Actually, I met a lot of people on our trip, a dizzying array of endurance types with remarkable racing résumés.  Some older runners had completed over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons in their lifetimes, while several less veteran runners were clearly headed down that same path.  As the temperamental ocean swirled around us, so too did stories of marathoning exploits that circled the globe, in some cases more than once.  These were restless minds and bodies forever in search of The Next Big Challenge.

So why, on a ship full of hyperaccomplished running juggernauts, did my focus gravitate to Paul Butler?  After all, Paul — a 61-year-old dentist from Center City, Philadelphia — had run “only” 56 marathons prior to boarding the Akademik Sergey Vavilov bound for Antarctica.  Compared to some of his fellow passengers, whose medal collections could be melted down to build a life-size Optimus Prime, Butler’s own collection of race bling is relatively modest and could reasonably hang from both sides of one sturdy doorknob (my preferred method of showcasing medals).

Speaking of juggernauts…

No, it wasn’t necessarily the quantity of his marathons that attracted my attention; it was their quality.  Because Paul may be, without exaggeration, the most efficient marathoner in the history of the sport.  His pre-Antarctica total of 56 marathons incorporated all 50 states plus Washington D.C., as well as six different continents.  He’s never run two marathons in the same state nor — aside from North America — on the same continent.  He’s run his hometown Philadelphia Marathon only once (although he has competed at shorter distances in the city).  Unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t choose a marathon based on what his friends are running, or its proximity to his home, or because he’s easy prey for modern-day race organizers who promise a one-of-a-kind finisher’s medal to anyone who completes all three races within a series.

So it was that on the morning of March 30, only 26.2 miles in Antarctica stood between Paul and a résumé that would make even the most dehydrated marathoner salivate: membership in both the 50 States Marathon Club and the Seven Continents Club, as well as one of the more compelling personal stories in a sport rife with fascinating characters and amazing accomplishments.  Antarctica would appropriately serve as the coup de grâce to his marathoning career.

At least, that was the plan.  But as we all quickly learned on the Last Continent, sometimes the best-laid plans of ice and men…

Paul’s own best-laid plans went awry at mile 20 when, with 6.2 miles to go in a 15-year journey, his Antarctica Marathon came to a premature end.  And four days later, on the Vavilov’s stomach-churning return voyage across the Drake Passage, as most passengers struggled with the concept of “upright,” I seized the opportunity to chat with him in the ship’s library, to learn more about his meticulously executed racing past, his unexpectedly bittersweet present, and his uncertain post-Antarctica future.  I’ll let him fill in the details.

Paul&Sharon_Vavilov

Paul and Sharon Butler, aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov

(The following conversation took place on April 3, 2013; the original transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity)

Mike S:  What motivated you to start running in the first place?
Paul B:  I was a runner in elementary school, in the 5th and 6th grade, and then I gave it up until I was in the Army, in Germany.  I was married with three children, and I wanted to get myself into shape and be job-worthy before I came back home to the States and looked for a job.  So my wife Sharon and I started jogging around the American base in Germany.  We both lost about 40 pounds and got back in 1980 in great shape.

MS:  So you came back from Germany and settled down in Philadelphia?
PB:  Yes.  And then sort of forgot about running until my youngest son was going to be bar mitzhvahed.  In our congregation, you then do something charitable.  I got something in the mail from the Leukemia Society — you raise money, and they’ll pay your way to a marathon.  So I chose the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in June 1998.

We sent out letters to raise money, and our whole family went — the six of us, Sharon and I and our four children.  I think we raised about four or five thousand dollars for the Leukemia Society.

That got me hooked, to do a marathon.  And I was disappointed – I think I did it in 5 hours 45 minutes.  I expected to finish, but I developed blisters.  So then after that was over, and I was disappointed in my time, I said “I’m going to try this again somewhere.  Hey, there’s one in Las Vegas, let’s go to Las Vegas.”  And I actually finished that in under 5 hours, like 4 hours and 59 minutes.  I really ran hard at the end and all my muscles spasmed, and Sharon had to take me back to the hotel room in a wheelchair.  That’s how horrible it was.

So then I decided, I like doing all this stuff but I’m not going to kill myself anymore, I’m just going to finish.  I had 3,600 frequent flyer miles built up from my credit card, and I took all six of us to Vermont.  And I ran pretty good, just missed five hours by under a minute.

And we said, let’s go to some different places, doing these marathon things.  When I got to about eight or nine, I saw something about the 50 States Marathon Club.  That got me really motivated, and I ran over 40 marathons between 2002 and 2009.  Sometimes I did 12 a year, and one time I ran two marathons on consecutive weekends.

So that’s what I did — I decided just to finish, not to hurt myself, not to worry about whether I finished in five hours or seven hours.  And I just kept doing them.

San Diego, 1998: the race that began a 15-year marathoning journey

MS:  And always used your running as a reason to travel with the family and visit another state?
PB:  Well, the kids went with us to Vermont and then to Alaska — the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage in June.  We made it a family vacation where we did the marathon first and then flew up to Barrow, took the train down to Fairbanks, and did the whole thing for a couple weeks.  It was great.

The trick was planning everything, because I only did one marathon in every state.  My last one was supposed to be in Atlantic City.  So my whole family, all my friends came out… and that year they canceled the race last minute because they didn’t have a sponsor.  Luckily for me there was another race that weekend, the Asbury Park New Jersey [Relay] Marathon.  I’d never been to Asbury Park, so that was a new place to see, and it was their inaugural run.

But the bad news was, there was a nor’easter that weekend — it was 40 degrees, the wind was sort of like this [indicates the lurching ship], and it was raining heavily I’d say 90% of the time.  It was a horrible day to do a marathon.  I wouldn’t want friends and family to come out in that weather, but a lot of them did.  So a lot of my family was able to see me finish, but the odd thing was… less than a minute before I crossed the finish line, two of my kids were swinging my oldest grandson back and forth and dislocated his shoulder.  So when I crossed the finish line hardly anybody was there, they were all worried about him.  Luckily, a family member who’s a physician was able to reset my grandson’s arm, so everything was ok.

After that, I didn’t think about running marathons anymore until February or March 2010.  I had built up a ton of frequent flyer miles to run all these places in the states, and I discovered you could fly from Philadelphia to Dublin for 20,000 miles.  That was a really good bargain, since it was in October during low season.  And the weekend I picked out, the Dublin Marathon was that weekend.

Even M.C. Escher would have been impressed by how Paul made all the pieces fit

MS:  So you hadn’t thought about running the continents?
PB:  No, not until that point.  And I said well, I can do a marathon in Dublin.  On the 50 States Marathon Club website, under “Membership” it has “Conquering the Continents.”  I saw that not many people had done all the states and all the continents, and I said wow, that’d be a pretty neat thing to be one of those people.

We can’t take too much time off work, so we did several of the international races as a four-day trip — leaving on a Thursday night, arriving on Friday, sightseeing on Saturday, marathon the next morning and then leave that night.  We did the same thing with Marathon Tours for their inaugural marathon in the Outback in Ayers Rock, Australia.  That one had an eight-hour finishing time — that’s my kind of marathon, I always try to get the slowest.  Dublin was also eight hours.  So I signed up for that [Ayers Rock] and it worked out great, it was a nice marathon.

And then Phuket in Thailand — I did that in 2011, and that was the worst race ever, ever, ever.  I wear orthotic inserts all day when I work and during races too, and they’d never bothered me before.  But in Phuket, it was so hot and humid that I developed horrible blisters, and the orthotics kept irritating the blisters.  I didn’t really know what was going on the whole race, until I got home and saw what had happened… I kept thinking there were stones in there or something.  But I had blisters — I peeled the whole thing off the back of my foot, from the bottom of my foot, both feet.

The bottom line was that after about 5 miles, I was limping… and I limped the whole way, 26.2 miles.  But I finished, and that was my slowest finish time, like 7 hours 15 minutes.  I crossed the finish line, and I was like the last one to finish.  I knew I wasn’t going back there to do it again — I had to do it.  So that was gratifying, the fact that I did it.

Then I ran Mt. Kilimanjaro the following February, Easter Island in June, and the Marine Corps Marathon [in Washington D.C.] was in there at some point.  And I was done last June, after Easter Island.

I signed up for Antarctica probably three years ago.  I was signed up for 2014, and Thom [Gilligan, President/Founder of Marathon Tours and Antarctica Marathon race director] called me a year and a half ago to ask, “Do you want to move up a year?”  Believe it or not, I trained harder for this race than I did any other race because I knew it was going to be more difficult.  I like to run on a treadmill, and that was probably my downfall — even though I would run 15, 16 miles and elevate it every once in a while to get used to hills, it just wasn’t like this.  You can’t duplicate this on a treadmill. [laughs]  So that was probably my downfall.  This was supposed to be 57 and done, and… now it isn’t.  But I did get a half marathon medal, I did 20 miles, I just… I would never come back here, I would never do this again.

Paul (wearing bib #20) greets the camera during the Antarctica Marathon (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  There are companies that fly into Antarctica, race immediately and fly out again.  Would you ever think about doing that?
PB:  I probably would… because it’s going to gnaw at me for a while, that I didn’t finish it.  I can’t help it — no matter what anybody says to me, it’s going to bother me.  Even though it’s the same medal, and it’s going to be up on my wall, it doesn’t mean the same in my heart.  I know there are two other races that fly in here, so I would definitely do that.  But we can’t really afford to do it this way [by ship] again.  Our house needs to be painted, the bathroom needs to be redone, and we put that off so I could do this.  Who knows, I’m only 61, there are a lot of guys here older than me who finished a marathon, so… I’ll see.

MS:  So then what’s next?  Will you keep running, maybe start over?
PB:  Well, I’m going to still run, but I have no marathons planned.  I signed up for the Broad Street Run in May — Philadelphia has a Broad Street 10-mile run which is the best, most successful and most popular 10-miler.  They have like 40,000 runners, and it’s a lottery like the New York City Marathon.  It’s a nice easy run, and I’ll do that.  And then I’ll see.  I’ll look into… I know I’m not going to not look at the website for those two other [Antarctica] marathons.  But I have to find out, is there a time limit on that one?  I don’t want to go there and get yanked off the course in 6 hours 15 minutes if they’re only giving you six hours.

I’ve been emailing my daughter, who’s a professional trainer.  She’s done a couple marathons with me in Hawaii and Florida, and she was a professional basketball player.  When she was in high school, in the state semifinal game, her team was behind by two, and as the point guard she was dribbling down court for the tying or winning basket with five seconds left.  She was dribbling down, and the ball dribbled off her knee, went out of bounds, and that was the end of her high school career.  She said, “Dad, that haunts me all the time.”  Not every day — she has three boys of her own now, she’s got a nice life, great husband, but every once in a while she thinks about that ball dribbling off her foot, just like I’m going to think about me stopping at the 20-mile mark and not finishing this race.  She says things happen: “You know, whatever caused you not to have the energy to go on, it happened.  Just like I dribbled off my foot, I can’t go back to change it.”  Like the guy who makes the last out in the World Series, you know, or the guy who drops a perfect pass in football.

MS:  So you decided to stop the Antarctica race yourself, you said?
PB:  Yes, it was my choice.  I guess I looked ok, and Thom said “Paul, I’m stopping all the runners after you, and we’re going to monitor you.”  I was on that harder loop [out to the Uruguayan base and back] at the 20-mile mark, and I saw a hill.  At the 20-mile marker there was a big dip right there, and I had already fallen twice, I’d really hurt myself [indicates his wrist].

I said to myself, I’m going to fall if I try to go over that hill, and I’m never going to get back up to go the other way.  And there were still hills beyond that.  I just felt that I was going to hurt myself.  I’d already fallen twice, and I didn’t want to really cause any problem for me or anybody else getting me out of there.  I just didn’t feel confident… I lost my confidence.  Because I wasn’t out of breath, I just didn’t have the inner strength.

MS:  So… you mentioned Phuket, but would this qualify as your most challenging race?
PB:  The course in Phuket wasn’t crazy hard, it was just the feet that got me in trouble there.  I never professed to be a great marathon runner, but this is the first I had to drop out of.  I always finished every race — even if I had to walk it, I always had that strength to finish.  This one just… like I said, I trained for this one more than any other marathon, and I didn’t take it seriously enough, even at that point when Thom sent that email about “You’d better train for the hills.”  The ice and the hills just got to me.

For 18 runners, crossing the finish line in Antarctica secured their place in the Seven Continents Club

MS:  Do you have a most memorable race?
PB:  I like Vermont because it was a tough course that I finished pretty well, for me — a little over five hours.  Actually, that was a beautiful course.  Marine Corps I liked also because I did a pretty good time on that, and once you do that, you feel like you’re a real Marine, you know? [laughs]  Every race I felt really good about because I’m not a super athlete.  I’m sure I’m 20 pounds overweight.  In my mind it’s hard to even walk a marathon, and I usually would run more than half of it, then run and walk the rest of the way.

But I always felt that I was able to pick my races.  I couldn’t pick this one, this was it — this was the one, I couldn’t change it.  I always thought I could do what I had to do with this one.  Because I talked to a few people who had done it, and they said “Thom will let you finish as long as he sees you’re going at a good pace.”  And he did… he was going to allow me to finish.  I made the choice to stop.  And that’s not like me.

Bob [a fellow runner] picked me up when I fell.  He saw me go down the second time, and I didn’t get up right away. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was like in shock, like where am I?  He yanked me up and asked me if I was ok, and I said yeah I’m fine, and I kept on going at that point.

MS:  What’s been your favorite destination, not necessarily for the race itself, just a place you visited?

PB:  Actually, believe it or not, Mount Rushmore.  There’s actually two marathons there, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse [MS note: the Mt. Rushmore Marathon was discontinued after 2008].  I chose the Crazy Horse Marathon because it’s more downhill.  If I can go fast on the first half — I usually walk a lot of the second half — I’ll finish in a good amount of time.  I love that course, and Sharon loved to see Mt. Rushmore.

These races have given us chances to see the whole country.  When we went to do the Lake Okoboji Marathon in Iowa, we took a three-hour side trip and saw the Field of Dreams, from the movie.  Every time we went somewhere we tried to see an attraction.  Even if we had to drive a long distance it was worth it, because you never know when you’re going to go back to these places.

MS:  What’s your PR?
PB:  It’s like 4:59:02 I think, something like that.  That was in Las Vegas.  I figure there’s no way I’m ever going to get under four hours, so that’s fine for me.

MS:  Have you run any trail races, or do you stick to roads?
PB:  No, I don’t do any… in fact, I would consider this a trail race, I think it should be advertised as a trail race.  Whether it’s muddy or icy, it’s still a trail race.

This definitely has the look of a trail race (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  Do you run any other distances?
PB:  I’ve done the Broad Street Run many times, the 10-mile one, and I do a few half marathons in Philadelphia.  But not much lately.  I really just tried to do marathons, and now it’s a new part of my life, so I haven’t really figured out what I’m going to do next.

MS:  Do you do any other sports besides running?
PB:  I played basketball with an adult league for ten years.  When I decided to do this running thing I gave it up, because in this league guys like you – younger guys – would come in and play, and they would play for real real.  I was scared I was going to get hurt… so I decided just to make sure if I was going to hurt, I was going to hurt myself [running].  So I might try that, I might go back and do the basketball thing.

MS:  Have you sustained any injuries through all of this?
PB:  Yes, this happened about two months ago — I switched shoes, I didn’t do it right away, but I did a 15-mile run, and after the run this big toe got totally black.  I had to go to this podiatrist who saved me many times in my running career.  He gave me some shot and had to slice between the nail and the thing, and the thing bled out.  I was able to still run, and it finally eased up, but that sidelined me for a couple weeks about eight weeks ago.  So that’s the worst of my injuries.

MS:  Wow, so no shin splints, no stress fractures, no tendinitis, no plantar fasciitis, nothing too serious?
PB:  I did… in 2001 I had a problem with plantar fasciitis, and I didn’t run for about a year.  I must have bought three or four different gadgets to try to cure that, and the orthotics finally helped.  That was all my injuries.  It wasn’t all easy, but I never had knee problems, I never had shin splints, never really had hip problems.

Yeah, I was pretty fortunate.  And I always say to myself that if I could lose 20 pounds and keep it off forever, I probably would’ve been a really good runner.  Because I had no knee injuries, no problems — but I didn’t have the self-control, I enjoy eating too much.  I’m a vegan, but I eat a lot of that too.

MS:  If you were to start on day one and do this all over again, would you do it the same way?  Would you do anything differently?
PB:  For my whole running career?

MS:  Yes, from San Diego, 1998.
PB:  No, it was such a great run.  I spent so many hours planning to make sure I could get all the states at a certain time to finish up Saturday [in Antarctica].  It was all planned out, and it took so much effort — enjoyable effort.  It was a good part of my life, 15 years.  And who knows what the future’s going to bring.  I swore to everybody this was going to be my last marathon… I said “This is it, I’m not doing anymore.”  It takes up a lot of time; I wake up at 4:00 in the morning on the treadmill, I’m running two hours before I go to work, and then I’m falling asleep at 7:00 at night.  I know if I were to say to Sharon right now, “Let’s not paint the house, let’s not fix this,” then she would go with me, she would do this again… she would.  But it’s not fair.  She’s given up enough at this point, and she was at every finish line, every finish line.

Reunited at the finish: while Paul raced, Sharon provided support as a volunteer (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  As far as advice for other runners who look at you and say, “Wow, 56 marathons, I couldn’t even run one,” or really anybody who’s looking at some kind of daunting challenge, would you have any guidance for them?
PB:  Yes, I would.  I think anybody could do it, could do what I did.  I don’t consider myself a great athlete.  But I bought this book called The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, written by two professors from the University of Northern Iowa who taught a course about training for a marathon as part of their college curriculum.  It was a 16-week course, and they gave you eating advice and training advice so that any non-athlete could get through a marathon.  So I read and followed the training guidelines in that book for the first three or four marathons.  And it worked.  So anybody who’s not a real athlete, buy that book.

MS:  Is there any other race that you really want to run, that you have in mind?
PB:  No, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on in my life right now.  But I’ll be thinking about Antarctica… definitely that’s going to be on my mind, and who knows what’s going to happen.

A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
– William Shedd

Continued from Act 1:

The 14th Antarctica Marathon (Saturday, March 30)
Race morning arrived in the usual manner, with Andrew’s comforting voice reminding us over the Vavilov‘s PA that it was time to run a marathon on the coldest, highest, driest, darkest and windiest continent on Earth.  Hooray!  Fortunately the day promised to be optimal (in the Antarctica sense of the word), with temperatures hovering around a balmy -5°C (23°F).  More importantly though, wind speed was a near-negligible 12 knots (14 mph), assuaging my concerns that I’d be stumbling 13.1 miles through an unforgiving headwind (and the other 13.1 with a brisk tailwind).

I inventoried my gear one last time.  All race-day nutrients – energy bars, gels, etc. – had to be removed from their original packaging and all paper wrappers left on the ship, in accordance with the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.  This wasn’t a problem, since for convenience sake I always liquify my race-day nutrition in my water bottle.  Per Thom’s instructions I’d prepared two such bottles, which I planned to leave at the start/finish area.

In a dining hall alive with the clatter of breakfast dishes and the buzz of pre-race jitters, I waited as long as possible to eat my usual stomach-sanctioned meal of granola and peanut butter, which I’d brought with me from California.  Several steps stood between us and the starting gun – the donning of the tomato-red Wet Skins that would keep us warm and dry, the loading of the zodiacs, the short ride to King George Island, the process of funneling everyone from zodiac to start line – and with 4+ hours of running ahead of me, I wanted to maximize the nutritional payback of my carefully choreographed breakfast.

blue iceberg

The first zodiacs launched at 7:15am, with 12 passengers per zodiac.  After a short 5-minute ride under gray skies and across smooth water, we beached near Bellingshausen Station and stepped ashore for the first time in 3½ days.  Two Gentoo penguins splished and splashed in the water nearby.  Stepping out of my Wet Suit, I could still feel the ground swaying underfoot as I tried to coax out my land legs.  Moreover, the residual effects of the Transderm patch that I’d removed 36 hours earlier continued to wreak havoc on my short-range vision.  Discomforting as my still-dilated pupils were, I was confident they wouldn’t upset my ability to run in a straight line for several hours.

How does a warm-weather Californian train for a marathon in Antarctica?  Much as I hate to divulge trade secrets, here it is: I bought stuff.  More specifically, windproof stuff.  Compared to my typical all-season California running attire, I felt like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in my three upper-body layers (REI wool base layer, synthetic Under Armour mid-layer, Columbia wind- and waterproof outer jacket) and two lower-body layers (REI fleece-lined tights, Pearl Izumi lightweight running pants), plus balaclava that I was hoping to shed early in the race.

Talk about happy feet… Rich’s own have carried him through over 300 marathons

Katie – who as a spectator would be doubling as a volunteer – was even more polar-ready, given that she’d be standing around for an indeterminate amount of time.  She wisely wore her Wet Suit and rubber boots at all times, together with her Arctic Parka from The North Face that was so down-filled and poofy, I entertained the thought of hanging bricks from her sleeves so she wouldn’t blow away.

As Thom announced two minutes to start, the One Ocean crew hurriedly set up plastic buckets lined with green trash bags to serve as makeshift latrines.  Fortunately I’d been able to attend to my most pressing needs on the ship, and after a lightning-quick stop at the latrine I jogged to the start line.  For many of the bundled-up runners gathered beneath it, the unassuming white canvas banner represented the culmination of a lifetime of marathon-inspired blood, sweat and tears (with more to come).  For others of us, this would be continent #2.  And for two runners, this would be their first marathon on any continent.

This is how I envision an Antarctica Walmart on Black Friday (footage courtesy of Anita Allen of Marathon Tours):

Regardless of what road you’d taken to get there, Thom’s starting-gun cry of “GO!” triggered a collective release of whole-body tension, as the slow-moving stampede of runners – including members of the Russian and Uruguayan bases – followed the leaders along the dirt and up the initial ascent.  And almost immediately, I dismissed all thoughts of a sub-4:00 finish.  The first mile (which, given the course layout, we would be running six times) was an absolute mess.  This was trail running at its damnedest.  The deep, hardened ruts carved by the Bellingshausen ATVs, combined with the sporadic patches of ice, brought to mind the frozen-over ribcage of a recently excavated T. Rex.

Footing in places was unpredictable at best.  Trail running typically demands that your eyes constantly scan the ground two steps ahead for your next foothold.  But on King George Island, it also became necessary to anticipate several steps beyond that, as the course at several points became an exercise in “Choose Your Own Adventure”: foot-deep powdered snow to your left, slushy ice straight ahead or a seemingly frozen-over stretch to your right.  The demand for constant vigilance gradually took a mental and physical toll and led to lapses in attention, resulting in either (best-case scenario) choosing the more difficult and treacherous route, or (worst-case scenario) a hard and jarring fall on slick rocky terrain.

Mike Sohaskey running Antarctica Marathon 2013

Just a boy and his balaclava, out for a springtime jog

And fall people did: this edition of the Antarctica Marathon might appropriately have been subtitled “There Will Be Blood”.  Many runners fell multiple times, sustaining scrapes and bruises of varying severity.  Two women broke their falls with their faces, yet soldiered on with impressive battle wounds that testified to their toughness.  And post-race rumors circulated that one runner had even suffered broken ribs (yes, plural).  I was among the fortunate few to speak of “fall” rather than “falls” – I got too aggressive and lost my footing during my second loop of that first out-and-back, landing on my backside and bouncing right back up again.  No blood, no foul.  But in homage to March Madness going on back in the states, I adopted a mantra of “survive and advance” that served me well at all remaining icy stretches.

Although the prevailing concern had been shoe-sucking stretches of gooey mud, as it turned out postponing the trip until late March (i.e. closer to winter) meant that most of the would-be muddy bits were now iced over.  Every once in a while I’d hit a slushy patch and submerge my foot, though fortunately wet feet never became a concern.  I think by mile 4, most runners – myself included – gladly would have swapped the ice we had for the mud we didn’t.

Whether it was due to the half-week spent on the ship, or my racing in lower-body layers for the first time ever, I could quickly tell that on this day my legs wouldn’t be their trail-running best.  Fortunately I wouldn’t need them to be – this wasn’t the Chicago Marathon, and the only PR to come out of this day would be Thom’s post-race press release.  I’d run (and specifically trained) on tired legs many times before… the question wasn’t whether I’d finish, it was whether I’d do so before the other 40-something-year-old males on the course.

Alan&Inez

(Top) Overall winner Alan Nawoj leads the way up another icy hill (photo credit Anita Allen);
(Bottom) Third-place finisher & women’s champ Inez Haagen appropriately sports bib #1

Whereas the first 4+ mile stretch out to the Uruguayan base and back was fairly brutal (though with a striking glacier view to distract the mind), the second out-and-back was much more manageable.  After a mile or so of smooth footing on dirt, a series of undulating hills led past the Chilean base and out to the second turnaround near the Chinese base, where yoga guru Liz sat waiting to cheer us on.  Her enthusiasm was a welcome pick-me-up.

With one iteration of the course under my belt, I shed my balaclava and passed through the start/finish area to a chorus of cheers from the most amazing volunteer contingent on the continent.  And as soon as I began my second ascent of that first nasty hill, the assorted aches and pains that had nagged me throughout the first nine miles faded – the lifelessness in my legs, the tightness in my left adductor, the overstretching of my arch that comes and goes in my Merrell Mix Masters.  Even the Patch-induced fog around my head lifted… maybe I’d succeeded in sweating out the residual scopolamine.  In any case, it all vanished.  And finally I was back to doing what I do – I was running.  On rugged trails, and up and down hills.  In one of the most mythical and breathtaking places on the planet.  Life was good.

Gentoo-men, start your engines!  Footage with narration by Martin Evans on the marathon course (thanks, Martin!):

Not that I was running every step with my arms raised and fists pumped.  To be sure, I was enjoying and appreciating the scenery of the course, stopping briefly to breathe in the views and snap a few photos along the first two out-and-backs.  But other runners did a much better job of flipping their switch to carpe diem mode.  Luckily the course layout was motivating for the frequent opportunities it afforded me to see my fellow runners.  Because everyone seemed to be having (cue Dirty Dancing soundtrack) the time of their lives – even the lead runners greeted passing runners with a smile and a wave.  Although in passing, I did overhear one of several marathoners with a cold-weather Canadian pedigree admit, “I wish I could fast-forward the next three hours.”

Some fatigued runners inevitably narrowed their focus later in the race to conserve energy; after the 17-mile mark, for example, I acknowledged and encouraged everyone I passed with the same silent thumbs-up.  But a surprising number of runners I passed during my final out-and-backs still looked like kids riding a roller coaster for the first time – eyes wide, arms raised, huge grins seemingly painted Joker-style across their faces (Why so serious?, their body language seemed to ask).  I admired and respected their live-in-the-moment mindset, in part because I couldn’t relate to it.  The faster I run a race the more I enjoy it, with few exceptions (I can’t think of one right now).  My overall enjoyment of a race is, in large part, a function of how long it takes me to get to the finish line.  I realize expectations change, often in ways we can’t predict, and I know it won’t always be this way… but for now it is.  I can live with that.

We interrupt this running program for some polar humor

Regardless of continent, no trail race would feel official without my taking a wrong turn.  Despite Thom’s clear warnings to stay watchful for arrow signs and not blindly follow the person ahead of us, I unwittingly slipped into auto-pilot mode during mile 14 and blindly followed the person ahead of me.  Ginger, who had recently passed me and was running a strong race, blew by the Chilean airstrip and had almost reached the base itself before realizing that neither the Chilean airstrip nor that large red building on her left was part of the course.  I’d just reached the airstrip when she turned to look over her shoulder, and I gestured in sweeping windmill-type motions for her to turn around.  Fortunately she did, and as I reversed course I saw yet another runner on auto-pilot heading our way.  Retracing my steps to the suspect turn, I continued on my way and within minutes was passed by Ginger again, this time for good.

And that’s how I turned this into my own personal 26.5-mile Antarctica Ultramarathon.  And yes, there was a runner named Ginger on Gilligan’s ship, as well as at least one (assistant) professor.

By my third time around the course the temperature had begun to drop, and the icy uphill stretches along miles 18 and 19 had refrozen and become even trickier to negotiate.  This third out-and-back to the Uruguayan base was the low point of my race, as reflected by the uninspired 13:07 it took me to complete mile 19.  Did you run in Crocs?, I could hear the peanut gallery back home asking.

Official "aid station" for Antarctica Marathon 2013

The official Last Marathon aid station

Once I passed through the start/finish area for the final time and approached mile 22, I could see – check that, feel – the light at the end of this tunnel.  As the course approached its final uphill at mile 24.5, I was able to push the pace enough to pass two runners (was he in my age group?) who looked – as I had felt 5 miles earlier – to be running out of gas.  Surging down the final stretch past the Russian base, I felt that unmistakable sensation of “This is why I run” wash over me as Katie and her fantastic fellow supporters cheered me across the finish line in a time of 4:29:50.

The raw, electric thrill of accomplishment overwhelmed me as I embraced Katie and then my fellow Mike from California, with whom I’d trained in Buenos Aires and who had run an inspired race, finishing fifth overall in a time of 4:20:26.  One of the younger volunteers handed me a medal still folded up in its plastic bag, which was perfectly fine with me – by that point he could have handed me a lump of frozen penguin guano and I would have thanked him giddily.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Antarctica Marathon 2013

Lookin’ for someone to hug after just missing a Boston qualifier by a mere 1:14:50

After hanging around the finish area to bask in the moment, take a few photos and cheer across the next two finishers, Thom encouraged me to change out of my wet running gear and into dry clothes.  And as soon as I pulled on a dry base layer, I could feel my body temperature start to drop.  My shiver reflex kicked in, and the feeling drained from my fingers and toes as I hurried to don my cold-weather gear.  Ewan of the One Ocean crew sprang into action, jamming hand warmers into my gloves, zipping me into my parka and Wet Suit (since my fingers had lost all dexterity), and directing Katie and me to a waiting zodiac.  As I’d later learn, Thom and the One Ocean staff were carefully monitoring all finishers after marathon winner Alan and runner-up Billy each ended up in the Russian medical tent with hypothermia.

Whether it was the warm glow of accomplishment, or more likely the dry clothes and hand warmers, by the time the zodiac reached the ship my body temperature had self-regulated.  Maybe, as I’ve referenced before, I really am chasing the endorphin dragon.  But if I could just bottle the pride and elation that gripped me as I crossed that finish line….

Instead, I settled for five blissful minutes in the Vavilov sauna, followed by a hot shower that, if it didn’t quite bring me back to life, at least made me feel a lot less undead.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at finish line of Antarctica Marathon 2013

Admittedly I was too euphoric to check, but I’m pretty sure that’s Katie inside that Antarctic sumo suit
(photo credit Anita Allen)

The Vavilov continued its spiritual rebirth as more and more runners returned with stories to tell, memories to share, and wounds to heal.  Some of these wounds would be psychological, as with the dozen or so runners who found themselves unable to complete the marathon and were credited with the half marathon instead.  And 78-year-old Wes, appropriately fearful of falling, walked off the course for the first time in his 201 marathons.  Runners – particularly runners willing to travel to the end of the earth – are understandably a proud bunch, but hopefully all bruised egos, like their physical counterparts, will heal with time.

When the dust settled, 60 of the 72 runners who started the marathon, finished.  This may sound harsh or arrogant, though that’s not my intent – but the truth is, there’s a lot to be said for a race that not everyone finishes.  Inextricably wrapped up in its unsurpassed beauty is the harsh reality that Antarctica is a brutal, unforgiving backdrop for any activity, much less a marathon.  You can admire and respect it from afar, you can agree to its singular demands, you can formulate the best-laid plan to overcome it.  But at the end of the day you don’t choose this race, it chooses you.

Joao’s prediction had been correct, of course; with the race in our stern-view mirror, the mood aboard the Vavilov lightened considerably.  But the revival wouldn’t be immediate, and the bar/lounge would masquerade as a quiet zone for one more evening while the rest of the ship surrendered itself to the inexorable force of post-marathon exhaustion.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 course elevation profile

Even without the icy patches, the undulating course would have left a lasting impression

To the victors go the handshakes: BBQ and awards ceremony (Sunday, March 31)
Official results weren’t immediately posted, so as Sunday afternoon rolled around I wasn’t sure where I’d finished overall or whether I’d placed in my age group.  I knew the top five finishers, but beyond that I was in the dark as to who finished where, much less how old anyone was.  I knew that Winter, who’d finished shortly after me, was 14 years old, but that was pretty much the extent of what I knew.

So I was looking forward to the world’s frostiest BBQ and awards ceremony that afternoon on the ship’s third deck.  The food choices – who can say no to macaroni and cheese? – were excellent, the drinks were on ice (seriously, they were on ice), and after lunch had been served Thom stepped to the microphone to present the awards.  Rather than having a prepared list of winners, he seemed to collate the overall results in his head on the fly, and there were long pauses – and the occasional incorrect winner announced – as he arranged each set of age group winners in his head before making the call.  Standing on that deck, I was glad I’d invested in a kick-ass parka.  Thanks, Patagonia.

Mike Sohaskey, winner of M(40-49) division for Antarctica Marathon 2013

Thom (center) congratulates me and Maarten Vroom (great running surname!) on winning the men’s 40-49 division

Alan Nawoj (33) from Boston was the overall marathon winner in an astonishing time of 3:29:56.  Billy Nel (27) from Australia finished second with his own crazy-fast time of 3:37:48.  And Inez Haagen (49) from the Netherlands, the first women’s finisher who has now won five marathons on five continents, rounded out the sub-4:00 finishers (and won the “non-hypothermic finishers” subdivision) with an impressive 3:41:52.  Amazingly, Inez accomplished this mind-boggling feat at age 49, a number I had to read three or four times on the overall results page and which I still don’t actually believe.  Among the runners, I particularly enjoyed watching her and Alan as we passed along the course – each has a smooth, flowing stride that even gravel-strewn patches of black ice couldn’t suppress.

Winter ran a strong race of her own, crossing the finish line in 4:49:45 and seizing the title of youngest runner to complete a marathon on the White Continent.  As such, she remains on track to conquer her larger goal of becoming the youngest runner to finish a marathon on all seven continents before she turns 15 next year.  And more importantly, she’ll raise a whole lot of money for prostate cancer research while doing it.

Despite finishing a solid hour (actually 00:59:54) behind Alan, I managed to win the men’s 40-49 age group in 4:29:50.  In fact, all three Mikes on the roster – me, Mike Hess (34) and Mike Ahrens (62) – won our age group.  ‘Tis a powerful and athletic name, that one.  As their name was called, each winner stepped to the front to receive their award: a handshake from and photo op with Thom.  This was, needless to say, the source of some playfully snide commentary from several age group winners, who’d clearly been hoping for something more, well, medal-y.

Thom with the top 3 women finishers: (left to right) Ginger, Winter and Inez

The awards ceremony culminated with the presentation of Seven Continents Club medals to those 18 marathoners and half-marathoners for whom Antarctica had been their 7th racing continent.  That was, fittingly, one proud and beaming group.  Like the Antarctica Marathon itself, the Seven Continents Club was Thom’s brainchild.  As a runner I’d known of the Club for some time, but only recently did I become truly cognizant of its existence.  My own motivation for wanting to race in Antarctica was my twin desire to (a) visit Antarctica, and (b) race in every compelling locale we visit.  The Seven Continents Club provides the appealing opportunity to race in places we’re already inclined to visit, as well as in some intriguing, out-of-the-way settings we might not otherwise consider.  I can definitely envision myself as a member of the Club someday.

The Last Great Continent (Sun – Tues, March 31 – April 2)
Once the marathon ended and the Vavilov left King George Island behind, our collective stress melted away – and for once, Antarctic thawing was a good thing.  Wes’s sweatshirt spoke for nearly everyone with its proclamation of “GOOD-BYE TENSION, HELLO PENSION”.  People animatedly recapped their race day from start to finish and swapped stories from the course.  Runner-up Billy claimed the marathon “makes Comrades look like a baby,” a comment quickly dismissed by Comrades veterans Rory and Billy’s father Pieter.  Jeff from Manhattan Beach summarized his thoughts succinctly, saying he felt “like I was beaten with a stick.”  Susan from Nova Scotia proudly labeled it her “best personal worst ever.”  And still others compared (and re-bandaged) open wounds.

For the remainder of our trip, we’d have the opportunity to stash our running shoes and immerse ourselves in Antarctica.  And for those who have yet to visit, the best description I can manage is “nature porn.” Every stark, pristine landscape looks as though it were professionally airbrushed for maximal effect – visual features, textures and lighting coalesce in seemingly unreal ways. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart might just as easily have been a naturalist talking about the Antarctic wilderness when he wrote, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”

Fournier Bay

Over the next three days we would:

  • witness unique, dramatically lit landscapes – deep blue icebergs framed against a backdrop of solid gray skies and unblemished white peaks – that looked more like Superman’s home planet of Krypton than unspoiled nature.  Staring up from the quiet of our floating zodiac at the exquisitely oriented layers of ice and snow, it was mind-boggling to think these layers had been accumulating, building to their present-day dimensions, unperturbed for… ever?  Plus or minus a few thousand years.
  • visit Gentoo penguin rookeries (and sighted Adelie and Chinstrap penguins) in Mikkelsen Harbor and on Cuverville Island.  Like most of the group I was fascinated by these goofy-looking, -sounding and -acting birds, many of whom passed their days conserving energy while waiting – in a race against time – for their swimming feathers to replace their down covering.
  • experience some of the most awe-inspiring moments of our lives in Neko Harbour and Fournier Bay, courtesy of breaching minke whales and several intimate encounters with humpback whales.  The humpbacks curiously chose to stay and socialize with our kayaks and zodiacs, either of which the whales easily could have flipped had they been of the mind to do so.  To appreciate the combination of power, grace and empathy that the humpback embodies, check out the video below that I filmed from our zodiac.
  • get up-close and personal with Weddell seals, Antarctic fur seals, crabeater seals, and even a leopard (penguin-munching) seal.  They may not get the attention afforded their whale and penguin brethren, but the Antarctic seals never ceased to amaze and amuse.
  • hear Assistant Expedition Leader Mark – check that, Maahk – entertain and fire up his audience with his account of how an encounter with a humpback whale – and looking the gentle creature right in the eye – changed his life.  Mark was like a man possessed as he told his story: he was animated, he was jazzed, he was pumped, and you couldn’t help but be inspired by his energy and sense of purpose.

Antarctica is a land so completely devoid of artificial noise – no distant voices, no traffic, no machinery, no hum of electric power lines – that you soon realize: every sound out here matters.  And it’s worth your time to listen.  No static, no background noise, only nature as it has been for thousands of years.  What you see is what you get, and if you don’t like what you see… well, Antarctica doesn’t care.  And it’s not changing for anyone.

When I say “Antarctica,” chances are you think “cold.”  And yes, admittedly it’s cold down here.  But if you’re willing to close your mouth, open your mind and embrace your insignificance, then air temperature won’t be your lasting memory of this place.  Because that’s what this continent asks of its guests: feel free to keep your muddy boots on, but leave your first-world problems at the door.  In subtle, sublime ways that extend beyond the forced reality of the Drake Passage, Antarctica is a land of shifting perspectives.

The many faces of penguins_MS

The many faces of penguins (clockwise from upper left): fat and contemplative, fat and curious, fat and proud, fat and frenzied

On the evening of our final full day in Antarctica, John Bingham hosted a live auction to benefit Oceanites, a non-profit science and educational foundation that collects data for the Antarctic Site Inventory.  Oceanites recently lost their National Science Foundation funding and one-third of their total funding when the Sequester kicked in.  All proceeds from our auction would go to benefit Oceanites, and runners answered the call with generous and in some cases above-and-beyond contributions.  John started fast at a decidedly un-penguin-like pace, kicked it into gear – “I told ’em I could have us out of here in 30 minutes!” – and in no time flat had found homes for mile markers 1, 13 and 26; the start/finish line banner; a “one-of-a-kind” (turns out there were two) nautical chart of our voyage; an author-autographed biography of Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right-hand man; and the opportunity to present the wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA on the final morning of our journey.

I took advantage of the silent part of the auction to score mile marker 20, a nice round number that to me signifies a key milestone in every marathon effort.

John Bingham & Mike Sohaskey at Antarctica Marathon auction for Oceanites

(Left) Auctioneer John Bingham raises money for Oceanites as Jenny Hadfield tracks the results (photo credit Maarten Vroom); (Right) The closest I’d come to taking home a penguin

Queasy come, queasy go (Wed – Fri, April 3 – 5)
During the auction and dinner that evening, the Drake Passage flexed its muscles once again as we bid the White Continent goodbye and set our sights once again on Ushuaia.  Quickly picking up where it had left off, the Drake rocked the ship with renewed ferocity – silverware clattered to the floor in the kitchen, diners had to side-step broken glass, occupied chairs slid several feet across the dining hall floor (much to the horror of the adults and the delight of the kids), and before dessert was served, half of those seated at our table had excused themselves to go lie down.

By 10:00pm the Vavilov resembled an abandoned ghost ship as people hunkered down in their cabins to ride out the “Drake Shake.”

Looking to preserve our vision during the return voyage, Katie and I both chose to forego the Transderm patch in favor of Dramamine, which worked well for me at a dose of one pill every 12 hours.  No drowsiness, no blurred vision and no seasickness.  Howl as it might outside the portholes in our cabin, the Drake would have to look elsewhere for easy prey.

Mike Sohaskey, Rory Steyn & Katie Ho on Vavilov in Antarctica

Coming together with like-minded folks like Rory, Nelson Mandela’s former chief of security and a 12-time Comrades Marathon finisher, was a highlight of the trip

But life on the Vavilov those two days was anything but comfortable.  As near-hurricane force winds buffeted the ship, the theater that played out from our front-row seats on the bridge could well have been Mother Nature’s production of “The Sound and the Fury.”  And again I felt very, very small.  Credit to the One Ocean staff, they tried to keep our minds occupied… but even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, it’s hard to keep your head in the game when the world is constantly shifting beneath your feet.  With the ship rising and falling unpredictably I felt like a human accordion: tall and stretched-out one second, short and compact the next.

But even the Drake couldn’t stifle all productivity.  Fortunately I had the opportunity during this time to sit and talk shop for a few minutes with Jenny Hadfield.  And I’m glad I did – her professional voice of experience was graciously shared and greatly appreciated.  I had questions about writing and blogging, and she shared her own story of how she’d gotten started in the exercise physiology field and had gradually transitioned to a now-successful writing career (her popular advice column “Ask Coach Jenny” offers training tips and can be found on the Runner’s World website).  She’s not only a terrific professional resource but also, like nearly everyone I met on the Vavilov, a genuine and thoughtful person.

We were all urged to submit our ten best Antarctica photos, and that evening Nate the great photographer of the One Ocean staff presented a slideshow he’d compiled (in record time) from our selected images.  Complete with its own soundtrack, the slideshow was a tour de force that alternately had the audience laughing, cheering, ooh-ing and aah-ing.  Best of all, the One Ocean staff provided each passenger with a USB jump drive containing – among other info – the slideshow, daily newsletters, staff bios, nautical briefing logs and spreadsheet of wildlife sightings from the previous ten days.  I probably should have saved myself (and you) a lot of time by just posting all the data from that jump drive in place of this recap.

They may seem bumbly fumbly stumbly on land, but… proceed to perceive a pleasing pack of porpoising penguins:

It’s been ice to meet you (Fri – Sat, April 5 – 6)
Our voyage culminated that evening with the Captain’s Dinner – salmon, hooray! – in which the Captain of the Vavilov was appropriately recognized by all and presented with a marathon finisher’s medal by Thom.  Throughout the meal glasses were raised, gratitude was expressed, egos were stroked and the microphone rarely sat silent.  Thom invited Winter to say a few words and she acquitted herself well, reminding us about Team Winter and urging everyone to commit their running to a cause important to them.

After dinner we set about trying to repack our once-efficiently crammed bags, a task that felt like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube.  And the next morning we awoke before the sun in Ushuaia, where we began the dual process of reacclimating to civilization and saying our sentimental goodbyes.  Sadly, I realize some folks I’ll never see again, though my cyber-stalking skills will stay sharp.  But the world isn’t big enough to contain these runners’ passion for their sport, and I look forward to (pun intended) running into some of them again in other states, in other countries and on other continents.

Katie Ho leading penguin line in Ushuaia

Katie knows how to pick her running battles (Ushuaia)

Clearly Antarctica was a life-changing whirlwind of firsts and lasts.  And add one more to that list: it was the first time we’d traveled with a group of highly motivated, like-minded athletes… though hopefully it won’t be the last.  Opportunities like this one don’t knock – or in this case email – very often.  My thanks to Thom Gilligan and an anonymous iceberg with paint streaks on it floating somewhere in the Southern Ocean.

Eventually, 38 hours after last waking up on the Vavilov – and following a 3-hour delay in Ushuaia, 3½-hour flight to Buenos Aires, 4½-hour layover in Buenos Aires, 11-hour flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, 3½-hour layover in DFW (1½ hours once we cleared customs and security), 4-hour flight to San Francisco, one-hour train ride to downtown Berkeley and one-mile walk with our bags slung over our shoulders or trailing behind us – we found ourselves standing, exhausted but triumphant, on the doorstep where we’d started Mike and Katie’s excellent adventure 17 days earlier.  Climbing the short flight of stairs inside our front door, I dropped my bags on the top step and exhaled for what felt like the first time since Argentina.  Then I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do next.

I went for a run.

The sun rises over Ushuaia and sets on our Antarctica adventure

BOTTOM LINE:  Assuming I’m talking to running enthusiasts here, my summary statement is simple: run the Antarctica Marathon at least once in your life.  Unless of course you’re a compulsive type-A personality (and running attracts them like no other sport) who hates surprises, then you might want to skip this race.

It’s not an inexpensive outing, but that’s hardly surprising… you get what you pay for.

Was it the most challenging race I’ve run?  No, that distinction still belongs to last year’s sunbaked Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K.  But it was certainly challenging enough.  Preparation-wise, it’s important to bear in mind that the Antarctica Marathon is a bona fide trail race, which places it outside many runners’ comfort zone.  Unfortunately, if you want to race on this continent it’s not as though you have a slew of choices – you can’t just opt for the road version of the marathon.  Sensible expectations will go a long way toward optimizing your Antarctica Marathon experience.

PRODUCTION:  Thom and his Marathon Tours crew of Scott, Anita, John and Jenny did a commendable job of orchestrating all aspects of the Antarctica Marathon – from regrouping on the fly after the Great Iceberg Attack of ’13 to their near-flawless race day execution.  I certainly didn’t envy them their pre-race field trip over to King George Island to set up the course, with subfreezing gale-force winds blasting them in the face while they struggled to pound each marker stake through several inches of surface ice.  But set it up they did, and come race day the course was well marked (my own personal detour notwithstanding) and pretty much dead-on accurate at 26.2 ± 0.1 miles.

Other companies have hurried to cash in on the demand from runners seeking to run a marathon at the bottom of the world.  But no other company can boast Thom’s breadth of experience and connections in Antarctica.  At least two companies offer a one-day Antarctica experience in which they fly into King George Island, immediately organize a marathon and then fly out the same day.  To me that would feel like scoring tickets to the Super Bowl, showing up at the stadium and then watching the game on the TVs in the concourse.  Sure you could say you were there… but were you really there?

Apparently my expert editor on all things Antarctica grew tired of penguin pictures

My main critique of the Antarctica race experience would be the post-race awards.  For example, the finisher’s medal should vary from year to year, and should always include the year of the race (or barring that, complementary engraving on the back of the medal that includes name, finish time and year).  There’s no excuse for the fact that the Antarctica Marathon medal has remained the same for at least six straight years now (dating back to the image I found online of the same medal from the 2008 race).  This is particularly true when you’re hosting a group of dedicated, goal-oriented runners, many of them 50 States/Seven Continents Club members for whom race bling is all-important, and deservedly so.

In addition, it would be nice if age-group winners merited distinct medals – for example, a penguin holding up one flipper or two to signify first or second place – to accompany the handshake and photo-op that currently await them. I’d be happy to receive one retroactively.  I feel like these are easily implemented suggestions that would enhance the race experience, even in Antarctica.

UPDATE (15 May 2013): As a runner hell-bent on maintaining forward progress no matter what, I rarely back-pedal… but in this case I’m happy to make an exception.  Yesterday I received in the mail – no doubt delayed in transit because we recently moved – a stylish plaque emblazoned with the Antarctica Marathon logo and engraved to commemorate my first-place finish in the men’s 40-49 age group.  Clearly I had no idea of this impending accolade when I wrote the above sentiment, and I certainly understand why the Marathon Tours crew wouldn’t want to lug 100 race medals plus roughly two dozen plaques down to Antarctica.  And so I stand appreciatively corrected.

Overall, given their professionalism and intimate knowledge of the running community, together with their catalog of compelling international marathons, I look forward to traveling with Thom and his Marathon Tours crew again.

Liz of OOE secures a kayaker, then requests a rowing implement with the order to “Paddle me!”

But in the end, the One Ocean Expeditions staff (and the largely unseen Russian crew members of the Vavilov) were the stars of this show.  Andrew and his 12-person staff did everything in their power to ensure our Antarctica experience met – and in most cases exceeded – expectations.  Without exception, every member of the OOE staff was highly competent, professional, knowledgeable, experienced, entertaining, happy to answer questions and just plain fun to be around.  Granted I haven’t traveled to Antarctica with any other cruise company, but I can recommend OOE without reservation.  Based on conversations with and body language of other passengers, I’m confident the vast majority would echo my thoughts.

As with any successful race, the volunteers were a key element of the Antarctica Marathon.  No doubt I wasn’t the most happy-go-lucky and responsive runner out on the course – and they had to see me six times in my 4½ hours – but Kathy and her crew (Katie, Sharon, Sally, Wayne and company) stood by the start/finish line for the ENTIRE race, and were there to cheer emphatically and shout their support after every out-and-back.  I never dreamed that Katie would willingly – and dare I say happily – stand idly outside in Antarctica for five hours.  Yet there she was, smiling broadly and cheering loudly every time I passed.  Kudos to her solid layering strategery, Arctic Parka and Wet Skin for keeping her toasty and for inspiring that kind of gumption.

Rating the Antarctica Marathon experience based on the race t-shirt feels a bit like rating a 5-star restaurant based on the embroidery of the napkins.  But since I’m clearly not one to cut corners in recapping a race, here goes:  the t-shirt is nice.  Very nice.  And colorful, as long as you’re a fan of baby blue.  It’s a high-quality tech t-shirt with mesh shoulder and side panels.  And if you happen to like the Antarctica Marathon logo emblazoned on the back, then you’re in luck, because the Marathon Tours crew has an assortment of race-related apparel available for purchase in Buenos Aires and on their website.

Antarctica Marathon medal (2013)

For other (more concise) perspectives, check out Jenny Hadfield’s “10 Reasons to Run the Antarctica Marathon” on the Runner’s World website, as well as Winter’s report on “A World Record in Antarctica, and Much More” at Athleta.net.

FINAL STATS:
March 30, 2013
26.5 miles (including an unplanned 0.3-mile detour) on King George Island, Antarctica (continent 2 of 7)
Finish time & pace: 4:29:50 (first time running in Antarctica), 10:10/mile
Finish place: 8/60 overall (73 starters), 1/10 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: penguin-pleasing cold, low winds (starting temps in the low 20s)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,023ft ascent, 2,031ft descent

For a race in which my major concern was NOT doing the splits, these aren’t so awful