Posts Tagged ‘Marathon Maniacs’

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
– Muhammad Ali

Gallopalooza — the horses of Louisville

Gallopalooza — a celebration of Louisville artistry & community

(If you’re here because you happened to Google “Hatfield McCoy race reports”, feel free to scroll… the race starts about 1/3 of the way down the page)

In a more lucid moment, I might have found my situation ironic—that in a state renowned for its moonshine, one of my lasting memories would be its sunshine. The cooling shade had largely abandoned me, and my current progress could best be described, not as “mile by mile” or even “step by step”, but as “sponge by sponge”. With my legs growing increasingly sluggish, I reminded myself that every step taken was one step closer to the next aid station and the next icy sponge. And with temperatures creeping toward 90°F, I knew revival = survival, at least for my chances of a sub-4 hour finish.

For the first time in a long time I’d reached the start line of a marathon feeling anxious, unsure of what to expect. Sure the heat, humidity and lack of sleep were all partly to blame. But the truth was, I hadn’t expected to be here at all.

Hadn’t expected to be in Kentucky, of all places. Hadn’t expected to make my first visit to the Bluegrass State this weekend, to run a hilly marathon four weeks after my first 50-miler, to drive 800 miles across the state and back in just over 60 hours, touching three other states in the process. This was supposed to be a low-key weekend at home back in SoCal, part of my ongoing recovery from the previous month’s a-May-zing Ice Age Trail 50.

Then The Greatest died.

Muhammad Ali career record sign

I’d never been a student of Muhammad Ali’s life, never been a zealous fan or devoted follower. In fact, by the time I was old enough to express my distaste for boxing, he was well past his pugilistic prime.

But Ali was one of the first professional athletes I’d encountered as a child, in the same place I’d encounter most of my early heroes—in the pages of books. My elementary school library carried a series of biographies on famous athletes, the entire series of which I devoured like a great white shark after a weeklong fast. Three names from that series still stand out in my mind nearly 40 years later: Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali.

By the time I picked up his biography in the first grade, Muhammad Ali was already a legend in and beyond the world of boxing. For a sports-obsessed white kid growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, the life story of a black boxer, heavyweight champ and Olympic gold medalist who’d brashly declared himself “The Greatest”, disavowed his “slave name” Cassius Clay and converted to Islam (what did that mean?) was a fantastic tale. Dragons and wizards had nothin’ on this guy!

In the years to come, I read at least two other biographies of the Louisville Lip. And while Ali’s life after boxing was progressively slowed by the neurodegenerative effects of Parkinson’s, his stature as a humanitarian — and the world’s need for his message of peace and tolerance — only grew. The mere mention of his name was enough to draw my attention, because unlike other athletes I’d looked up to as a kid, I knew he’d never disappoint. This was never more true than in 1996 in Atlanta, when a visibly trembling yet calmly dignified Ali inspired a global audience by accepting the torch from swimmer Janet Evans and lighting the flame to open the Centennial Olympic Games. Go ahead, try to watch the footage without getting emotional.

Ali lived in our hometown of Los Angeles for nearly a decade, and between 1975 and 2002 the city declared no fewer than five different dates to be “Muhammad Ali Day”, including his birthday on January 17. And his is the only star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that’s never been stepped on — it sits embedded in a wall on Hollywood Blvd because Ali reportedly didn’t want anyone to “trample” the name of the prophet Muhammad.

Over the years, the name Ali came to represent far more than the man himself — an almost superhuman manifestation of beauty, power, spirituality and compassion. He was arguably the most recognizable and revered figure of our time, a charismatic athlete whose superior punching power was exceeded only by the strength of his convictions, at a time when standing by those convictions cost him three prime years of his career and nearly his freedom. Yet at the same time Ali was unfailingly down-to-earth, with a sharp wit and a poetic tongue. And he was a reporter’s dream come true, always quick with a memorable sound bite. Before his 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman, he delivered this crowd-pleasing quip:

“I done somethin’ new for this fight! I have wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; I done handcuffed lightning, throw thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

You can’t spell “personality” without “Ali”.

Muhammad Ali tribute collage

Scenes from the Muhammad Ali tribute (clockwise, from upper left): video board outside the KFC Yum! Center; Louisville commemorates its favorite son; a fan pays his respects on Muhammad Ali Blvd; exhibit inside & memorial outside the Muhammad Ali Center; The Greatest remembered in his own words

So when I read on Tuesday—four days after his death—that he’d arranged (in typical Ali fashion) for the funeral ceremony in his hometown Louisville to be open to the public, I knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor an American icon. Never would Kentucky be more relevant in my lifetime, seizing the national spotlight as the birthplace of a man who dedicated his life to making a positive impact on his nation and the world—rather than as the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Unfortunately, I also knew the only way to rationalize the expense of the trip would be to find a nearby marathon to run as part of my 50 states quest, since two separate trips to Kentucky would be untenable. But what were the odds of the state hosting a compelling marathon—one I actually wanted to run—that same weekend?

Here the running gods smiled down on me. Using our best-in-class race finder over at RaceRaves.com, I found one marathon happening in the entire state that weekend, and it just so happened to be the one Kentucky race that piqued my interest: the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, held 250 miles east of Louisville on the border of West Virginia. In fact, the race starts in Kentucky and finishes in West Virginia, a bonus for 50 states runners who can count the race for either state.

Things moved quickly from there. On Wednesday we secured flights, lodging and rental car, and I checked the Hatfield McCoy Facebook page to ensure that, despite projected weekend highs in the 90s, there’d be no threat of the race being canceled due to heat. Then on Thursday, as our flight taxied down the runway for takeoff, I submitted my online race registration ahead of the midnight deadline.

And that’s how a white guy and a Chinese-American gal with no interest in the “Sweet Science” ended up catching a last-minute flight to a place we’d never been, to pay our respects to a black Muslim boxer we’d never met.

Muhammad Ali tribute collage2

Ali memorialized at his boyhood home (top & bottom right) and on the streets of Louisville (bottom left)

Honoring “The Greatest” (Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016)
Touching down in Nashville (our cheapest travel option) shortly before midnight, we hopped in a car for the three-hour drive to Louisville. As if our night weren’t already short enough, we lost another hour somewhere along I-65N as we transitioned from Central to Eastern Time, stopping only to secure a dinner of trail mix and Naked Juice from a highway convenience store. Not my typical pre-race diet, but then again this wouldn’t be my typical race.

Six hours after reaching the Louisville city limits, we rolled out of bed and threw open the curtains on a brilliantly sunny day — and a scene that felt “Truman Show”-esque. In a city poised to star on the global stage, an eerie sense of normalcy accompanied us along the steamy sidewalks of Kentucky’s largest city. Until, that is, we reached the animated throngs lining Muhammad Ali Blvd.

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

Residents of all ages sat on curbs, stretched out in lawn chairs, sprawled on the hoods of cars, and leaned against trees, fences and sign posts awaiting the opportunity to pay homage to their hometown hero one last time. Opportunistic enterpreneurs peddled t-shirts. Cameramen stood on ladders, multiple cameras draped around their sweaty necks and tripods ready, as police rolled out yellow “DO NOT CROSS” tape to enable modest crowd control. In this residential neighborhood just down the street from Cassius Clay’s high school, a predominantly black crowd lined the streets, in contrast to the more racially mixed crowd we’d encounter several blocks over in the downtown district.

Regardless of venue, the congregation’s heartfelt outpouring was undeniable as the funeral procession — led by unmarked police cars and Ali’s hearse — made its way purposefully along Muhammad Ali Blvd. Cheers erupted, prayers were given, high-fives and handshakes were exchanged through open car windows, flowers rained down on the motorcade. And Will Smith — who played Ali in the 2001 biopic and would be one of his pallbearers — beamed brightly like a kid on Christmas morning from the back seat of his vehicle.

The horde of enthusiastic supporters continued to grow as the procession, after a stop at Ali’s boyhood home, circled back on Broadway toward downtown. Helicopters overhead tracked its progress, and here the crowds were even more vocal in their chants of “ALI! ALI! ALI!”, as if expecting their hero to emerge in red gloves and his trademark white sneakers for one last epic battle. As the eager masses pressed in like paparazzi, jockeying for position and a fleeting glimpse of greatness (“There’s Will Smith!”), I was pretty sure someone was about to get their foot crushed under the motorcade’s slowly moving tires.

Gradually the procession faded into the distance, its destination Ali’s final resting place at Cave Hill Cemetery, where his casket will forever face Mecca. We decided to grab a quick lunch near the oddly named KFC Yum! Center, where Ali’s memorial service would be held later that afternoon. I’d been unable to secure tickets by phone for the service, since all 15,000 tickets had been distributed (for free) on a first-come, first-served basis two days earlier. But I certainly wasn’t alone in my futility: many locals who’d stood in line for hours had themselves left empty-handed.

Instead we strolled the area outside the center which was abuzz with activity, including an appearance by former heavyweight champ Larry Holmes. Then, with a marathon the next day and a 250-mile drive still ahead of us, we hit the open road and set our sights on Pikeville in far eastern Kentucky. Vast swaths of rolling green countryside flew by on either side as we listened to the memorial service on the radio. As a highlight of the memorial, I’d recommend Billy Crystal’s funny and poignant eulogy, delivered at a time when laughter really was the best medicine.

Unfortunately we weren’t laughing when an accident on the highway sent us on a lengthy and circuitous detour along the state’s backroads. Throw in a longer-than-planned dinner stop in Lexington, and we finally rolled into Pikeville around the time most Hatfield McCoy runners were entering REM sleep. Quickly I laid out my gear for the next morning and we dropped into bed, hopeful for another 5+ hours of sleep before our 5:00am wake-up call.

Yeah, right.

The road to Hatfield McCoy Marathon in South Williamson

The road to South Williamson

No Feudin’, Just Runnin’
My brain was wound tighter than a pre-med on Red Bull as I lay in bed, reliving the day and unable to sleep. I was almost relieved when my iPhone sang out to signal the start of our day, since I could at least get up and do something. But rather than exhausted I felt strangely energetic, neither drowsy nor lethargic as we dressed, prepared breakfast and made the sleepy, sinuous drive to South Williamson where the day’s fun would begin. It was an almost mystical ride, an exhilarating start to the day, with the first shafts of sunlight illuminating fog-shrouded valleys and majestic rock walls blasted out on either side of the highway.

That sense of awe, though, faded quickly 25 minutes later as we pulled into the parking lot of the Food City supermarket that would double as the race start. Luckily, what the venue lacked in ambience it made up for in convenience, and 10 minutes later — having claimed my bib and made one last pitstop at the vacant porta-potties — I was chatting with a nervous first-time marathoner from Arkansas. This seamless, relaxed process was much appreciated, since given our whirlwind 36 hours and lack of sleep, I was already feeling something I hadn’t felt at a marathon start line in quite some time — anxiety.

Taking inventory of the running faithful, I guesstimated the percentage of Marathon Maniacs, Half Fanatics and Double Agents at 20%, give or take. Given its remote & strategic setting (the closest city is tiny Charleston WV, 80 miles away), Hatfield McCoy is clearly appealing to 50 Staters looking to “knock out” either Kentucky or West Virginia.

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo, which I missed during my pre-race pitstop

Case in point Fran & Tom, who we originally met on our Antarctica trip and who are currently on their third — or is it their fourth? — tour of the states. Glimpsing them in the crowd, we had just enough time to exchange “how are ya?”s before Tug Valley Road Runners Club President Alexis Batausa gathered us together and sent us on our way across a makeshift start line hastily chalked on the asphalt parking lot.

With Food City in our rearview mirror and only ~500 marathoners and half marathoners, I was soon running with plenty of elbow room. The cool morning air urged me onward as if to say Hurry, before the sun comes up! Wisps of morning fog like smoke signals peeked above the trees to our right, and I found myself already stopping for photos in mile one.

My loosely formulated “plan” would be to bank time (typically a terrible strategy) in the first half of the race, hoping to leave myself enough cushion to push through the soaring mercury in the later miles and still finish in under four hours. Realistic? It was impossible to know how my legs would hold up to the heat, humidity and accumulated fatigue. ‘Cuz 26.2 miles, you know?

Mile 1 fog at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The morning fog watches over its domain

Along US-119 we ran past tree-lined hills and blasted rock walls. The camber on the shoulder of the road was pronounced, like a gentler version of those “anti-gravity” rooms typically seen at low-budget amusement parks.

Turning off US-119 in mile 2, the course changed dramatically as we entered thickly wooded neighborhoods on a two-lane road. Colonial-style homes and the occasional chapel flanked the narrow road, the sporadic resident wishing us good morning with a jovial wave from their front porch. A well-fed dachshund dragged its belly through the grass to confront me, its frenetic yapping suggesting that were it not for the chain-link fence between us, my ankle would have all it could handle.

We’d entered the heart of feud country. And yet contrary to its ornery origins, at every turn and every aid station the Hatfield McCoy Marathon distinguished itself as one of the friendliest races I’ve ever run, with its focus clearly on making its runners feel welcome. For instance, something I’d never seen: all along the course, and especially in the first three miles, handwritten “Welcome Back {Runner’s Name}!” signs with motivational messages were posted on trees, rails and sign posts, shouting out to repeat runners. There must have been over 50 signs distributed along the course, and I’m sure this was a welcome distraction for many runners keeping an eye out for their sign.

Mile 2 rock walls at Hatfield McCoy Marathon
Those first five miles remained temperate thanks to the early hour as well as dense tree coverage that blocked the rising sun. I even clocked a sub-8:00 mile in mile 5, one of only two I’d manage on the day.

Also in mile 5, the course adopted a gradual upward trajectory culminating in our first real test of the day, a steep 0.8-mile climb to the base of Blackberry Mountain that stopped many runners in their tracks. Not wanting to crank up my heart rate I slowed to a jog, passing quite a few walkers on my way to the top where we were rewarded with an aid station and immediate 1.3-mile descent. Down through a verdant world my momentum carried me to my second sub-8:00 mile of the day. And somehow I resisted the impulse to fling my arms out and let loose with “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!!!”

Luckily this would be the case for most of the hills on the rolling 26.2-mile course, with each uphill closely followed by a congratulatory downhill.

The Hill at mile 8 - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Top o’ the world — the base of Blackberry Mountain (mile 8)

Near the base of the hill we passed Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses, which certainly sound like a cute addition to the county fair, but which had the geneticist in me wondering how many generations of inbreeding had conspired to bring us these tired-looking creatures.

More entertaining was the fellow playing the trumpet at one of the early aid stations. As I approached he deftly transitioned from the “Superman” theme to “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Thinking back first to “Sweet Caroline” in Boston, then “Chariots of Fire” on the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, and now this… it had been a solid two months for on-course entertainment!

I smiled as we passed the McCoy Funeral Home, thinking about how lucrative business must have been back in the day. And skirting the Hatfield McCoy Park, I imagined rifle-toting young’uns mounted on mini-dwarf horses chasing each other around the colorful plastic jungle gym. And this was before any of the heat-induced hallucinations set in.

Hatfield McCoy Mini-dwarf horses at mile 10 of Marathon

Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses (mile 10)

The course was surprisingly beautiful in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Sure it lacked the coastal grandeur of a Big Sur, the majestic red sandstone cliffs of a Moab or the secluded, one-with-nature feel of Ice Age. But its tree-lined backroads and tranquil green countryside, sprinkled with southern style and patrolled by a softly babbling river, were the very definition of charming.

Starting at mile 10, I began to douse myself with cold water at aid stations, saving a sip from each cup for my insides. I’d chosen to wear white arm sleeves to a) protect my pale skin from the sun and b) soak up my sweat and any water I poured on them, thus slowing evaporation and keeping me cool longer. I also began to pop a Clif Shot Blok every 30 minutes or so, only to realize by the third one that my body wasn’t really in a sugar state of mind. Fuel wouldn’t be my nemesis on this day — my primary concern would be lack of sleep.

Given the choice of poor nutrition or poor sleep on race day (nice choice, I know), I’ll take poor nutrition every time. The body is amazingly adaptable when it comes to its fuel sources, especially younger bodies—some elite East African runners, for instance, have been reported to subsist on dietary staples of Uji (porridge) and french fries, the latter for its fat content. Over time I’ve trained my body to run long distances on primarily its internal fat stores, and these days I can run 20 miles after fasting for 12-16 hours. And that’s me, who is to an elite athlete what mini-dwarf horses are to thoroughbreds. So clearly, for runners at least, there’s significant flexibility where diet is concerned.

Mile 3 chapel at Hatfield McCoy Marathon
Sleep, on the other hand, is indispensable. There’s no substitute for sleep, no scientifically proven shortcut, no alternative path to mental and physical recovery. Critical physiological processes are activated only during REM sleep, and plenty of scientific studies attest to its importance. And though they may not read the scientific literature, elite runners know this to be true, with many of them logging ten hours of sleep per night plus one or more naps during the day. Kenyan runner and women’s half marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat insists on 16 hours of sleep per night. That’s more than some new parents get in a week!

A live band blasting ZZ Top greeted us as we crossed over the Tug Fork (known as “America’s Bloodiest River”) and into tiny Matewan, West Virginia. After a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it loop of the town, I passed the half marathon finish in 1:48:24, leaving myself over two hours to complete the second half. With the mercury rising steadily and fatigue waiting in the wings, I just hoped it would be enough.

Crossing into West Virginia at Hatfield McCoy Marathon halfway point

Crossing the West Virginia border at the halfway point

Kentucky fried runner
Crossing the Tug Fork back into Kentucky, we immediately turned onto a crushed gravel bike path. After the halfway point, the already sparse flock of runners thinned significantly, and I’d end up running solo for most of the last 13.1 miles.

For much of the race, a river ran through it — the Blackberry Fork in the first half, the Tug Fork with its many branches in the second. For some reason I neglected to take a picture, which was unfortunate since the quietly babbling river was maybe the most soothing aspect of the course.

Loose gravel trail at the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, mile 18

The course transitions to loose gravel in mile 18

Miles 14-18 began on crushed gravel before transitioning onto looser gravel, and from there onto a dirt road with sparse muddy patches. These few miles rolled quite a bit but were largely shaded, and despite the rising heat and mounting fatigue I began to see a (sun)light at the end of the tunnel. Though as I trudged up another roller, it entered my mind that Damn, I pity the fool who comes here trying to run a BQ.

Mile 18 ended on the grounds of the Tug Valley Country Club. Here the unshaded course followed a paved cart path alongside the golf course before crossing a charmingly rickety wooden suspension bridge, its widely spaced slats reminding me of a hillbilly’s teeth.

Back and forth across the Tug Fork we ran — into West Virginia, then Kentucky, then West Virginia. And though this sounds dizzying, I wouldn’t have realized any of it without consulting a map post-race.

Wooden foot bridge_mile 19 of Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Crossing the wooden suspension bridge into West Virginia (Tug Valley Country Club, mile 19)

Based on my trial-by-fire experience at the Mount Diablo 50K and Harding Hustle 50K, I knew as the day grew hotter I’d need to pay close attention to my breathing — inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 2 steps, otherwise I’d end up panting like an overheated dachshund. Not an image any runner wants to emulate.

At one aid station a stuffed figure clad in overalls and a straw hat hung in effigy from a gallows, a noose around his neck. Seeing him hanging there, it crossed my mind that he may be the lucky one, at least he’s in the shade.

I could feel my energy reserves dwindling as I exited the golf course, so the timing was perfect for my first Katie sighting. Like the world-class support crew she is, she came armed with a full bottle of ice water, and after drinking a few sips I poured the remainder on my head and arms and down my neck. The refreshing shock awoke my overheated muscles and brought me back to life, propelling me along this exposed stretch and past other shuffling runners for nearly a mile.

Mike Sohaskey approaching mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Approaching…

Departing mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

… and departing the mile 20 aid station

The life-affirming shade — my closest ally for the first 20 miles — was now largely behind me, and my ability to endure these final six miles would be the litmus test for a sub-4 hour finish. As the ruthless sun exacted its toll, Katie and I would repeat the ice-water drill at miles 22 and 24, with help from the icy sponges provided by aid station volunteers.

Speaking of which: the Hatfield McCoy volunteers were some of the nicest and most genuine folks I’ve met anywhere, and in this respect they reminded me very much of another event in the Deep South, the Mississippi Blues Marathon. A couple of them asked amiably where I was from as they handed me a cup of water, seeming both surprised & delighted to hear me say California.

I was able to maintain a reasonable pace until around mile 22 when, realizing I resembled more zombie than runner, I slowed to a brisk walk, marching with knees high to loosen my quads and hip flexors. After a short stretch I forced myself to pick up the pace and run to the next aid station or the next Katie, whichever came first.

Like a wind-up toy powered by icy sponges I moved from one aid station to the next, getting off to a brisk start at each one before inevitably slowing under the sun’s onslaught.

Hatfield McCoy Marathon elevation profile

It doesn’t look like much compared to miles 5–8, but that innocuous-looking spike in mile 24 is a gut check

Funny thing about hills: their impact during a race can depend as much on placement as on steepness. So a smaller hill in mile 24 can feel just as draining, if not more so, than a longer steeper hill in mile 7. Such was the case here — glancing at the course elevation profile, I’d been so focused on the monster in mile 7 that I’d failed to notice the more modest speed bump in mile 24. Now though, in the moment, that molehill felt more like a mountain.

It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe. – Muhammad Ali

One last Katie sighting at mile 24. One final dousing of ice water, two squirts of Powerade and I was off again, slowing just before the mile 25 marker to gather myself and harness my residual energy for the final stretch. My Garmin chimed to signal mile 25 and I glanced down for the first time since mile 2, seeing an overall pace of 8:49/mile staring back at me. In my haziness I realized I could still break four hours, though doing so (I told myself) meant I’d need to hustle, which meant no more walk breaks.

The mile 24 hill looms ahead - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The mile 24 hill looms ahead

A wave of exhaustion washed over me as I picked up my pace again — just over a mile to go, surely I could draw motivation from that? As I chugged along my brain kept telling itself, I’m fine, I can stop to walk anytime, just run a few more steps first. One step at a time I strung my steps together at a slow but deliberate pace, seeming to gain momentum with every step. Not much momentum, but enough — and the finish line was getting ever closer.

With half a mile to go we re-emerged onto US-119, passing the last and most tempting aid station yet — the local Dairy Queen — followed by the ultimate mile 26 landmark, the Marathon gas station. The end was near, but not before one final crossing of the Tug Fork back into West Virginia. Visions of Hill City at the Run Crazy Horse Marathon came rushing back as I sped up ever so slightly over the final 200 yards through “downtown” Williamson, barely registering the red-brick facades and mom-&-pop store awnings as my eyes locked on the official time hanging below the finish line arch.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Hatfield McCoy Marathon
I’d done it, sleepless night and all — and I tried to savor those final few steps before sharing an exhausted low-five with Mr. Hatfield and Mr. McCoy in a finish time of 3:53:23. I paused just over the finish line to regain my wits before shuffling forward to accept a bottle of water and collect my medal. The LED display on the bank across the street read 87°F.

Reuniting with Katie, we joined the post-race party already in progress in the parking lot of the Community Trust Bank, where I collapsed in a chair under a shaded tent. There I rehydrated, refueled with chocolate milk, devoured a few defenseless orange slices and compared notes with other Maniacs and 50 Staters. One finisher commented with a weary smile that she wished she’d had her own Katie out on the course to bring her ice water. Truth is I’m the luckiest runner at every race, and I’ll never dispute that. And it’s doubtful I’d do some of the crazy things I do without Katie by my side — because what fun would that be?

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving Hatfield & McCoy at finish

As it turned out, every finisher also received a mason jar emblazoned with the race logo. It may sound odd but I’m a sucker for mason jars, and as a bonus this one could be used to sample the local “white lightning” moonshine. Unfortunately, in my depleted state whiskey sounded as appealing as 800m repeats.

We also needed to get back to Pikeville before check-out, and we still had a 250-mile drive ahead of us back to Louisville. There we’d use our remaining time to pay further tribute to The People’s Champion, visiting Muhammad Ali’s boyhood home as well as the Muhammad Ali Center, before driving north 120 miles to Indianapolis for our flight back to Los Angeles.

But what a weekend it had been — 800 miles driven through four states in less than 72 hours. Marathon #22 in state #13 completed, a hidden gem I’d recommend to any runner looking for a race that underpromises and overdelivers. And final respects paid to one of the most revered figures of our lifetime, a man best memorialized as “the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest that we can be”.

Mike Sohaskey at Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line

Happy to mediate a finish-line truce

For those who ask and for those who wonder, Kentucky exemplified why I want to run a marathon (or longer) in all 50 states and around the world. Not to “knock out” states as fast as possible like a speed-dating session, or to chase elusive self-esteem across finish lines, or to validate my journey as measured by the amount of hardware and the number of “likes” on Facebook. I do this to meet people I’d otherwise never meet, to see places I’d otherwise never see, and to open myself up to new experiences that challenge my values and make me question my truths.

Because as contentious as the world has become, in the end we’re all in this together. And in our hearts we are all Muhammad Ali. Ask me “Why?” — Why visit Kentucky? Why travel there of all places to run a marathon? — and my answer will inevitably be “Why not?” So while others may say I “knocked out” Kentucky on my 50 states quest, I think all the judges in this case would agree.

It was Kentucky that won by a knockout.

Sunset outside Lexington, Kentucky

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t sleep on Kentucky — Hatfield McCoy is a hidden gem of the marathon (and half marathon) scene. Even if you’re not a 50 Stater, I’d recommend the race for its low-key ambience and peaceful, bucolic course that thumbs its nose at the modern, anxiety-ridden American lifestyle. Hearing only your own breathing and footfalls on the quiet, densely wooded back roads will relax your mind and make you feel like you’ve run back in time to a simpler era. The rustic setting is surprisingly scenic & beautiful, with the least appealing part being the start in the Food City parking lot. Plus, the people are among the friendliest you’ll meet anywhere, from the organizers to every volunteer who selflessly donated their time to stand out in the heat so the rest of us could run — especially the two good-natured fellows who played the roles of Hatfield and McCoy, wearing long sleeves + long pants and agreeably standing under the sweltering sun for HOURS to greet finishers and pose for pictures. Every man, woman & child was amazing.

The ever-changing course is challenging in that it rolls quite a bit, with notable hills in miles 7 and (ouch) 24. Luckily the first 20 miles are well shaded, since heat was a definite factor this year as indicated by a winning time of 3:13:22. In an age of ever-escalating registration fees and new events that don’t merit the expense, the HMM is also a tremendous value — I paid only $80 (plus a $6.20 inconvenience fee) two days before the race.

Granted the race’s remote setting — the closest “city” is Charleston WV, 80 miles away and we stayed in Pikeville KY, 25 miles away — works against it, making it difficult to attract first-timers and the more casual runners targeted by large urban marathons. On the other hand, that remoteness is a huge part of its charm. So if you’re willing to travel a bit out of your way, and unless you’re a runner who absolutely needs screaming spectators and rowdy on-course entertainment, do yourself a favor and check out the Hatfields & McCoys.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho - Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line selfie

Maybe the best photobomb ever — and no, we didn’t plan it

PRODUCTION: On point, from pre-race to post-finish. Race-day packet pickup couldn’t have been easier, though as a courtesy I’d avoid parking in the Food City lot if you plan to leave your car there all morning. But at 6:30am there was plenty of parking there as well as in the nearby lots recommended by the organizers. And while “More porta-potties!” is typically the race-day rallying cry of runners everywhere, there were more than enough of those at the start as well, with a relatively small group to accommodate.

Luckily traffic was sparse on the narrow roads and so not much of a concern. The course itself was well marked for the most part — even with my subpar sense of direction I never took a wrong turn, though more signage in a couple of spots (e.g. the end of River Rd in mile 18 where the course enters the golf course) would have been helpful. Thanks to the heat I made frequent use of the aid stations, where awesome volunteers were always ready with ice water, Gatorade, and even icy sponges. Given the lack of shade after mile 20 a couple more aid stations in the last five miles wouldn’t have been unwelcome, particularly for those who didn’t have a Katie taking care of them.

I wonder if @hotmail.com political train wrecks?

Maybe simpkins_law@hotmail.com also specializes in political train wrecks

Hats off to the dedicated folks manning the post-race grills in the 90°F heat, making hot dogs & hamburgers available to hungry finishers. It being 2016 and all, a veggie option would have been a nice addition to the post-race spread, though in fairness my own stomach wasn’t ready to tackle solid food anyway.

SWAG: The finisher medal is unique in being shaped like a mason jar, even if it is an odd milky gray color (maybe that’s the white lightning?). And rather than the cheaply made, unflattering race tee I’ve come to expect from smaller races, the white HMM tee with stylish mesh side panels fits beautifully. As a complement to the standard shirt-&-medal combo provided at every road race, all finishers even received a nifty mason jar adorned with the race logo — another cool hometown detail that sets the Hatfield McCoy Marathon apart.

Muhammad Ali tee + Hatfield McCoy Marathon medal
RaceRaves rating:
RaceRaves review
FINAL STATS:

June 11, 2016 (start time 7:00am)
26.37 miles from South Williamson, KY to Williamson, WV (state 13 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:53:23 (first time running the Hatfield McCoy Marathon), 8:51/mile
Finish place: 28 overall, 4/19 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 298 (159 men, 139 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 63°F), hot & sunny at the finish (temp 86°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,881 ft ascent, 1,888 ft descent

Hatfield McCoy splits

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Walt Disney quote - BlistersCrampsHeaves.com

What if I were to tell you that somewhere:

You’d probably assume I was either making these up, or researching a book on “Life in these crazy United States”.  Except that, well, all of them happened in just one state.

Florida.

Ah, Florida – our nation’s fortress of freakery, bastion of the bizarre and theater of the absurd.  As sheer lunacy goes, Florida makes California look like Sunday morning at the bingo parlor.

Luckily though, even Florida follows the Law of Conservation of Crazy – meaning that while most of the state wallows in wacky, the rest of us will always have Walt Disney World.  And we runners looking to cross a finish line in all 50 states (even Florida) will always have the Walt Disney World Marathon.

Sorcerer's Hat in Disney's Hollywood Studios

The iconic Sorcerer’s Hat in Disney’s Hollywood Studios (though not for long, they’re taking it down!)

No other marathon elicits such fanatical loyalty and across-the-board glowing recommendations as Disney’s 26.2-miler (as I write this, it’s among the most reviewed events on RaceRaves).  Disney holds a series of wildly popular themed races at both its Florida and California parks throughout the year, but only their January edition includes the full marathon distance.

And that’s not all it includes. As a company that’s never shy to give their paying fans what they never knew they wanted, Disney has taken this mindset to the extreme with what they brand as the “Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend”.  For those runners who embrace the three M’s – miles, medals and Mickey – runDisney offers a 5K race on Thursday, a 10K race on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday.  And while you could run just one of those distances, the folks at runDisney know you better than that.  For you the Disney devotee, they’ve created two additional profit-making opportunities:

  • the Goofy Challenge, for runners who complete the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday (39.3 total miles), and which includes its own special finisher’s medal;
  • the Dopey Challenge, for runners who complete all four distances on four consecutive days (48.6 total miles), and which includes its own special medal as well as the Goofy Challenge medal

Perhaps the most striking example of the loyalty Disney inspires is that while the marathon and half marathon sold out quickly this year, the Dopey Challenge (now in its second year) sold out immediately and was the first “distance” to do so.  Never mind that when you crunch the numbers – something visitors to any Disney property should know better than to do – the Dopey Challenge with its six medals costs nearly $11 per mile, a return on investment even the folks at the New York City Marathon (at $9.73 per mile for 2014) can’t claim.

The Magic Kingdom Park collage

Scenes from the Magic Kingdom (clockwise from top): entrance; Tomorrowland; Town Square Theater; one Mike idolizing another; Pete’s Dragon in the Main Street Electrical Parade; Cinderella’s Castle

Thing is, I’ve never once heard a WDW Marathoner go all “Brokeback Mountain” on the Mouse: “I wish I knew how to quit you, Mickey.”  And I’ve yet to meet a Dopey Challenge finisher who said, “What a disappointment, I should’ve put that money toward four other races instead”.  Maybe the pixie dust sprinkled around its parks allows runners to rationalize beyond their wildest dreams. Or maybe, just maybe… that magic is real.  And maybe, like their sedentary counterparts, when it comes to Disney hundreds of thousands of brainwashed zealous runners can’t be wrong.

I was about to find out – though in my case I’d be running on Sunday only.  Disney World isn’t a place I normally equate with hardcore runners, but I used plenty of air quotes over the weekend in Orlando while talking to Goofy and Dopey Challengers, feeling the need to explain that I was running “just” the marathon.

On Friday evening, within an hour of our plane touching down in Orlando, Katie and I were strolling the halls of the pre-race expo at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.  Nearly 70 races into my running fetish, I’ve definitely reached the stage where an expo is an expo is an expo.  That, coupled with the fact that I’d seen many of these same booths two months earlier at the Avengers Half Marathon, meant that one quick go ‘round and we were out of there.

One thing that struck me about the two Disney expos I visited is that an unusually high percentage of the booths are geared toward looking good.  Yes, many runners tend to err on the side of color coordination, but nowhere else have I seen such a diverse collection of blinky, frilly, sparkly, colorful outfits and accessories designed to always keep you looking your start-line best.  Even the New Balance booth featured limited edition Disney running shoes. And as in Anaheim, there was the lonely-looking duo manning the Florida Hospital Celebration Health booth – because who among us doesn’t want to talk resort-style, not-for-profit healthcare at a race expo?

WDW Marathon Weekend Expo floor 2015

This is where the (pre-race) magic happens

Saturday afternoon we spent like all smart runners do the day before a marathon – on our feet, exploring the Animal Kingdom.  I’m admittedly anti-zoo, but I figured if anyone would do hostage-taking right it would be Disney.  So I wanted to give the Animal Kingdom a chance, simply because I think that if done correctly it has a lot to offer in the way of education and appreciation.  Granted I was still saddened and disappointed by the relatively small enclosures afforded the animals to “roam,” but to a man the employees (“crew members”) showed unambiguous awe and respect for their charges while urging environmental conservation.  And where else in their lifetime will most Americans have the chance to experience in close proximity the beauty and grandeur of a rare Sumatran tiger or endangered white rhino?

My primary complaint against the Animal Kingdom actually came outside the park itself.  As we sat inhaling the sickening exhaust of the tram carrying us back to the parking lot (thankfully this wasn’t a humid 100-degree summer day), it occurred to me that a multibillion-dollar company that preaches environmental protection should probably put its money where its mouth is and invest in some electric trams.

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom

Scenes from the Animal Kingdom (clockwise from upper left): white rhino; western lowland gorilla; okapi (more closely related to the giraffe than the zebra); Everest Expedition ride; meerkats; Sumatran tiger

Sunday morning arrived much too quickly, as will happen when you’re staring down the barrel of a 5:30am starter’s pistol.  I’d slept soundly for almost three hours, followed by a final restless hour spent trying to convince my mind it was still asleep.  Unfortunately, even on minimal sleep the mind knows when a challenge awaits, and so I had no choice but to lie quietly until my iPhone chimed in mercifully with its 3:30am wakeup jingle.

After dressing (“Where – is – my – super – suit?“) and mixing my usual race-day fuel of granola/yogurt/peanut butter, we hit the road for the short drive in the dark to the Disney campus, where after a bumper-to-bumper 45-minute wait on Buena Vista Drive, we pulled into the Epcot parking lot. Assuming I’d have minimal elbow room in the corral, I cycled through an abbreviated warmup routine and then embraced my inner moth, the harsh electric lights in the distance luring me onward.

Epcot's Spaceship Earth aglow with WDW race-day anticipation

Epcot’s Spaceship Earth aglow with race-day anticipation

Passing a jumbo screen on which the start line MC was interviewing Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray, Katie and I parted ways.  Then I picked up my pace and jogged the remaining ¾ mile to where the corrals awaited.  Along the way I passed a DJ blasting “Gangnam Style” for the migrating masses (presumably to expedite their migration) – topical no, but at least it wasn’t the “Cha Cha Slide” or “Macarena” that Dan reported hearing at the 2013 race.

Then I was sliding into corral “C”, and here my only real competitive fire of the day flared briefly – corral C?  With bib #696 and a projected finish time of 3:30?  I turned to glance back at the 13 corrals awaiting their turn behind us, the image of which evoked my favorite t-shirt from Friday’s expo:

"In a Corral Far Far Away" Disney t-shirt

Why wouldn’t Peter Pan make a good pilot?
Because he’d never never land.

Epcot to the Magic Kingdom (start to mile 7, i.e. the “Happy” miles)
My timing was impeccable. I barely had time to catch the not-so-gentle waft of Ben Gay before the final countdown (courtesy of Mickey Mouse) began, and the first set of fireworks lit up the sky to start the wheelchair race.  Moments later we slow-footed corral C types were stretching our legs along darkened Epcot Center Drive, as periodic fireworks continued to light the pre-dawn sky behind us.

One of the coolest details of the race start was the fact that the back-of-the-packers in corral P were given the same enthusiastic fireworks sendoff as the frontrunners in corral A.  It was Disney’s unmistakable way of letting every runner know, You matter.  And it was one of the small yet significant details that makes Disney… well, Disney.

Walt Disney World Marathon start line fireworks

Across the grassy median on the other side of Epcot Center Drive stood a long line of shadowy spectators, and from their ranks arose Katie’s disembodied yet unmistakable cheer.  For a moment I felt more like a professional athlete or a museum exhibit than Joe Schmo runner, with the onlookers positioned so far away from the course.

If you’re looking for a course description, the WDW Marathon can be summarized as plenty of flat, non-scenic stretches of road punctuated by theme parks and character appearances.  And while “non-scenic stretches of road” may not sound like a glowing endorsement, what made this race orders of magnitude better than Disneyland’s Avengers Half was that Disney World – with its four parks plus Speedway plus ESPN Wide World of Sports – has its own sprawling campus.  Meaning the marathon is run entirely within the boundaries of Disney World, eliminating the OC strip malls, church parking lots and neighborhoods that are a necessary evil of every Disneyland race.

So all the roads on the WDW marathon course are well-paved, peaceful and traffic-free (especially at 6:00am).  Not to mention wide open – I can’t vouch for corrals I-P, but throughout the race I had plenty of room to run, only sensing the crowds when I negotiated my way to the side of the road for character photos. Definitely preferable to the constant crush of a Berlin or NYC.

Toy Story three-eyed aliens

The starting corrals were the only crowded part of the course (yes Disney, I may have doctored this image a bit)

I ran in my comfortable bubble, determined to enjoy the moment while keeping my pace around 8:30/mile.  Even allowing for a few photo stops (iPhone in hand), 8:30/mile pacing would leave me in position to finish in under 3:45.  And there you have it – my carefully conceived race strategy for this day.  Bring on the Seven Dwarfs!

The first 5 miles between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom passed quickly, thanks to distractions from Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz to my left, and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas at the cemetery gates to my right.  In between stops my mind filtered out everything but the hypnotic sound of runner footfalls in the crisp predawn air.

Mike Sohaskey with Wreck-It Ralph & Vanellope von Schweetz

Don’t wreck me, bro!

Mike Sohaskey & Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Unfortunately Jack Skellington bailed just as I reached him and his ghoul-friend Sally

During this stretch I may even have sent a text or two to Katie and my brother as I ran.

Then we were entering the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella’s castle lighting the way directly ahead of us as screaming spectators (including Katie – hi Ho, hi Ho!), cheered us along Main Street USA.  I stopped to let her take a picture, momentarily throwing her off-guard since I’d never done that before.  This was one of the few sections of the course with appreciable spectator turnout, since it was also one of the few convenient dropoff points for the monorail that operates between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom.

As we entered Tomorrowland I remarked to the fellow running alongside me, “I expect to come out of here well rested with my medal around my neck”.  Across the bridge and through Cinderella’s castle we ran, pausing to pose with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (make it quick, he can’t be late!) before exiting the Magic Kingdom on our way to the Disney World Speedway.  Along the way I interrupted Donald Duck and Goofy, who looked to be enjoying an early round of golf at the Magnolia Golf Course.

Mike Sohaskey with White Rabbit, Donald Duck & Goofy

Why does Goofy wear two pairs of pants to play golf?
He’s afraid he’ll get a hole in one.

WDW Speedway to Disney’s Animal Kingdom (miles 8 to 13, i.e. the “Sleepy” miles)
Shortly before the Speedway at around the 12K (7.4-mile) mark, I noticed the darkness lifting as the first tinge of blue caressed the morning sky.  This sudden realization knocked my circadian rhythms for a loop, with mind and body rebelling against the notion of running 26.2 miles on three-ish hours of sleep.  Luckily the moment passed quickly (with help from Mary Poppins and her Penguin Waiters), though a general lassitude would maintain its grip on me for the next several miles.

Stopping to show off my finest conjuring pose for Aladdin’s genie, it struck me that I was one of a surprisingly few runners stopping for photos along the course.  I mentioned this to the woman immediately ahead of me who was doing the same, and we agreed that we were here with one goal in mind – to fully enjoy the runDisney experience.

Mike Sohaskey with Mary Poppins & Aladdin

For someone whose interest in cars rivals his interest in dustballs (“Cars” was the first Pixar movie I skipped, “Cars 2” was the second), the lap around the Speedway with its classic cars had me wondering “Are we there yet?”.  We circled the track as the awakening sun made a brief appearance, before changing its mind and retreating back behind the clouds.  Exiting the Speedway I offered words of encouragement to an older fellow sporting a “Dallas Fire Dept” shirt, and settled in for the subdued 3-mile stretch along Bear Island Road leading to the Animal Kingdom.  But not before we’d pass (pregnant pause…) the mile 11 Wastewater Treatment Plant!

In true Disney fashion, even this unremarkable landmark was transformed into a course highlight by one of the coolest photo ops of the day, the Disney Villain & Villainess Squad. Fast forward a bit, and who else would you expect to see along Bear Island Road than the Country Bear Jamboree?  And where there were no characters, signs positioned at regular intervals along the side of the road shared everything you’d want to know about Disney World’s water reuse programs.  I even downed what I think was my first real in-race food ever (a banana), to test whether this would make a difference in my energy levels in the second half.

Villain squad

This section of the course was a microcosm of the WDW Marathon experience – an otherwise ho-hum stretch of road made memorable by Disney’s attention to detail.

Then it was time for my second visit of the weekend to the Animal Kingdom.  As we passed the Everest Expedition roller coaster, I was reminded of a blogger who’d gone on the ride not once but twice during the race.  Given that its sudden & speedy reverse ascent had nearly caused my stomach to reverse gears the day before, I was happy to keep my feet under me this time around.

The Animal Kingdom also signaled the midway point of the race – two parks down, two to go!

Where does Ariel go when one of her friends is missing?
To the lost-and-flounder.

Animal Kingdom to ESPN Wide World of Sports (miles 14 to 20, i.e. the “Grumpy” miles)
The next three nondescript road miles (sans character stops) were highlighted by “Happy” blasting from loudspeakers on the Osceola Pkwy overpass, just short of mile 16.  But as obvious as this setup seemed, I was surprised to find no Dwarf of the same name here – on hearing the music I’d automatically assumed he’d be hanging out to meet ‘n’ greet runners.  In fact the entire course was devoid of Dwarfs, one of the day’s few disappointments (Dopey Challenge runners would get to pose with The Man himself in the finish area).

Mile 17 leading to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex featured the only out-and-back section of the course, and here the speedier runners could be seen approaching from the other direction at their mile 21.

The ESPN Zone is well named, because I took the opportunity to zone out as we circled the Complex.  Rounding the running track with its cushioned polyurethane surface, my brain did a double-take thinking “Wait, is it time to speed up?”  Skirting the Softball Diamondplex and rounding Champion Stadium (spring training home of the Atlanta Braves), I stopped to argue a call with umpires Chip ‘n Dale before exiting the complex just before the mile 20 marker.

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don't wear pants

I never argue balls & strikes with umpires who don’t wear pants

Mile 20!  Might seem crazy what I’m ‘bout to say, but I’d been looking forward to mile 20 for the giant character marionettes lining the side of the road, expecting a repeat performance from the race’s 20th anniversary two years earlier.  Unfortunately that was then, this was now, and hopes are made to be dashed.  Nor had the organizers simply shifted the marionettes down the road two years to mile 22.  Instead, a giant video screen was set up to let tired runners waste valuable energy trying to get a momentary glimpse of themselves on camera as they rounded the corner back onto Osceola Pkwy.

Chalk up disappointment #2 of the day – though admittedly that’s more a function of me being a thankless, impossible-to-please a**hole than any fault of Disney’s.

Mike Sohaskey with Jiminy Cricket

I’d never actually been knee-high to a grasshopper cricket before

Why didn’t the pirate take his young child to the movies?
Because the film was rated “Arrr!”

Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Epcot (miles 21 to finish, i.e. the “Dopey” miles)
The final open stretch of tree-lined road followed.  Spectators at the WDW Marathon are sporadic and appear in clusters, due to the difficulty of accessing the course by either car or monorail.  So there were few spectator signs of note along the course, aside from:

  • the supportive “Blisters are braille for ‘Awesome’ “
  • the brutally honest “What were you thinking?” offered by one Disney crew member
  • the “Go faster! (that’s what she said!)” sign notable only for its curious incongruity (and the fact that a woman was holding it) – pretty sure that one wasn’t sanctioned by Team Disney’s corporate offices.

But just as every race has to have a winning runner, so does every race have to have a winning spectator sign.  And this day’s prize for most clever signage went to the woman holding up a picture of Dory (from “Finding Nemo”) with the caption, “I’ll never sign up for another… ooh, a race!”  Few signs make me laugh on the outside, but that one did.

Incredibles

Mike Sohaskey with Sully & Mike Wazowski

By the time we reached Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the frequent starts and stops were starting to take their toll, and I could’ve used Fix-It Felix’s hammer on my upper quads.  Turns out, though, Disney had saved the best for last… and so it was with heavy legs and a light head that I struck a pose with Mr. Incredible & Elastigirl (presumably battling their mile 24 nemesis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) before taking one final detour to visit Sully & Mike Wazowski, the latter being the closest thing I have to a namesake.

By mile 24 I was the only runner around me still stopping for photos.  And as we weaved our way past Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat and along Hollywood Blvd, plenty of my comrades looked to be auditioning for the role of stiff-legged zombies.  Seeing others stop to walk late in a race is never motivating, so I focused on channeling my inner Dory: Just keep running, just keep running…

Mike Sohaskey approaching Walt Disney World Marathon finish line

I even managed to squeeze in a bit of running along the way

And keep running I did, along the boardwalk and past the charming seaside cabanas of Disney’s Yacht & Beach Club.  My brain appreciated the fact that this final 5K was run within parks and resorts, to provide a welcome distraction that wide-open roads could not.  Despite stiffening quads my stride remained comfortable, and I was passing other runners while still enjoying the experience (though I barely glanced at one final character I didn’t recognize).  The first half of mile 26 circled the World Showcase Lagoon before a hard right turn led us off the boardwalk and into the home stretch.  There, beckoning in the distance, Spaceship Earth (i.e. the Epcot golf ball) welcomed us home.  And then…

Heigh HO!

Directly ahead, the blue and gold finish arch spanned the road.  I straighted up and extended my stride to try to mask my fatigue from Katie and the other cheering spectators lining the final stretch.  And I tried to savor those last 200 yards, because the truth is I’m very lucky to be able to run, and to be able to run races like this one.  And then, in an all-too-brief 3:41:42, my 26.2-mile tour of the Walt Disney World campus was over.  Not bad when you factor in 19 photo stops.  I even managed negative splits for the first time ever in a marathon (1:52:52 first half, 1:48:50 second half), though that had less to do with the banana I’d eaten than with the fewer number of character stops in the second half.

Finish line confetti for Walt Disney World Marathon women's winner

Disney fires off confetti for every single finisher… just kidding, this is the winner of the women’s race

Why can’t you give Queen Elsa a balloon?
She’ll let it go, let it go!

Post-race afterglow (fully in-Doc-trinated after one last Bashful moment)
With shiny golden Mickey medal around my neck courtesy of a friendly volunteer, I shuffled through the finisher’s chute where I was handed water, a wet towel and a packet of acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol).  I’ve never received acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen at a race before, and this struck me as another smart Disney idea – though a surprising one, given the company’s litigious mindset.

One item conspicuously lacking from my post-race attire was the mylar heatsheet, now a standard at most marathons.  I may be mistaken, but I do believe heatsheets were reserved exclusively for the Goofy and Dopey Challenge runners.  Apparently Disney has decided runners don’t start to lose appreciable body heat until they pass 26.2 miles or $170.

3:25 pace sign in trash

My 7th grade English teacher might call this symbolism

A second friendly volunteer urged me to grab a box of snacks.  Then it was out into the Family Reunion Area to meet Katie, but not before we passed through the bag-check tent where a dozen or so volunteers cheered and applauded at the runners hobbling past.  This was admittedly embarrassing since I’d done nothing (to my mind) applause-worthy.  But like the corral-specific fireworks at the start, this was Disney’s way of creating magical moments and letting every runner know, You matter.  And in that sense it was a much-appreciated touch.

As I waited for Katie I tried to do my usual post-race leg swings, only to find that my tight quad muscle refused to cooperate – I had to manually lift my left upper leg, like a parent on the playground pulling back the swing to get their child started.  Once the leg began to swing it was fine, but the sensation of not being able to lift it without help was a new one.  Luckily, after an ice bath and good night’s sleep the leg was no worse for wear than after any other marathon.  And in the end, not getting a leg up was a small price to pay for a camera full of memories.

Mike Sohaskey with Daisy Duck

Watch where you’re putting that other hand, Daisy… I’m a married man!

Not that I’d maxed out on the course’s character meet ‘n’ greets – in fact I’d blown by several photo ops including the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion Gravediggers, two princesses with their princes, Robin Hood and his band of merry men, and the always phreaky Phineas and Ferb.  And those are just the ones I remember.

One sound I now instantly recognize and appreciate around Disney finish lines is the chime-like clinking of medal sliding against medal bouncing off medal.  RunDisney devotees do NOT mess around when it comes to their bling, and many of them have no qualms about jetting back and forth between California and Florida several times a year to ensure they claim every race medal Disney has to offer.  FOMO is powerful, to be sure – just ask Mark Zuckerberg – but the runDisney version is like FOMO on a cocktail of steroids, Red Bull and meth. I’m sure the folks at runDisney will appreciate that loose analogy.

Us_finish line

During WDW Marathon Weekend it was possible – for those light on their feet and heavy in their wallet – to collect as many as six different medals.  So there were plenty of blinged-out, beaming runners walking tall and looking like Mr T, and I pity the fool who comes between them and their swag.

One of the best things about running is its strong sense of community, its all-inclusive mindset that embraces anyone willing to accept its challenge and to show the discipline needed to meet that challenge head-on.  And runDisney embodies that ethic as well as anyone.  As silly as this may sound, the Walt Disney World Marathon is a race for the runners, and that’s honestly something I can’t say with conviction about some of the other races I’ve run.

Katie and I hung around the finish area for a few minutes until the first drops of rain began to fall, after which we escaped to our car in time to beat the resulting short-lived deluge.  Then we said our goodbyes to Epcot and pondered our next step, though as any American sports fan can tell you, our next step was a no-brainer…

 

BOTTOM LINE: Speaking of no-brainers, if you’re a marathoner then the Walt Disney World Marathon is one of them.  And if you don’t believe me, feel free to read a few of the gazillion blogs dedicated to the runDisney experience.  Nobody stages a more entertaining race than Disney, because nobody can stage a more entertaining race than Disney (Th-th-th-that’s a challenge, Warner Bros).  Whereas other races rely on “loud and abrasive” for their on-course entertainment, Disney relies on its time-honored characters and theme parks.  With a couple of well-timed exceptions (“Happy” at mile 16 being one of them), the WDW Marathon speaks softly and carries a big stick.  And if you’ve only ever run a Disney race in California, don’t think this is more of the same – Florida is a completely different experience.  It’s one of the very few (only?) instances where I’m willing to concede that Florida trumps California.  That and alligator density.

I’ve heard the complaint that Disney races are too expensive – and if price is your sole criteria for judging a race, then maybe you’d be right.  But the truth is, the next runner I hear second-guess their decision to run the WDW Marathon will be the first.  Disregarding Active.com’s processing fee, my marathon registration was $170 (compared to $255 for the NYC Marathon and $195 for the Avengers Half), which by the time I crossed the finish line on Sunday felt like a bargain.  And the fact that their most expensive option – the Dopey Challenge – is also their most popular says all you need to know about the supply & demand at work here.  So if your primary concern is the $170 registration fee, I might suggest you focus less on price and more on value.

Mike Wazowski wearing Walt Disney World Marathon medal

PRODUCTION: No one produces a race better than runDisney, and they have a whopping 68-page Official Event Guide to prove it.  WDW is a race for the runners, as evidenced in every facet of the race organization with the possible exception of the 5:30am start time.  While Disney may claim the early start time helps to beat the Florida (and California) heat, it also conveniently helps to clear as many runners out of the parks as possible before the paying customers rise and shine.

There’s a fine line between “flawless organization” and “military precision”… and I might argue that at times Disney’s organization is so good as to make the process feel devoid of spontaneity.  Who knows, maybe this is the key to producing a race of this magnitude… I’m just not sure they need quite so many crew members and volunteers directing people every step of the way, from expo to race day.  Save the stanchions for Space Mountain, Disney.

That said, my race weekend went off without a hitch.  And every volunteer I met was sincerely wonderful, wonderfully sincere and clearly drinking happy juice by the tankard. I don’t plan to run WDW again anytime soon – after two of their races in two months I’m pretty Disney-ed out, and 41 other states await before a return trip to the Magic Kingdom.  Then again, when it comes to Disney I’ll never say never, even if does bring me back to Florida…

SWAG: For us “marathon only” slackers, the t-shirt was a nice black Champion tech tee.  And the ribbon on the finisher’s medal is fastened to itself by velcro, making it easy to separate ribbon from medal if that’s your preference – one final example of Disney’s unrivaled attention to detail.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie with Russell & Dug

And they lived UP-ily ever after

RaceRaves rating:Mike Sohaskey's RaceRaves review for Walt Disney World MarathonFINAL STATS:
January 11, 2015
26.51 miles in Walt Disney World, FL (state 9 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:41:42 with 19 photos stops (first time running the WDW Marathon), 8:22/mile
Finish place: 793 overall, 123/1,760 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 20,048 (9,712 men, 10,336 women)
Race weather: cool and cloudy (starting temp 54°F, light breeze)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 58ft ascent, 54ft descent
2016 WDW Marathon Weekend registration opens on April 28, 2015

WDW splits

For those scoring at home that’s 1:52:52 for the first half, 1:48:50 for the second half