Posts Tagged ‘Marathon Tours’

Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.
– Roger Miller

Mike Sohaskey at Tokyo Marathon expo

(Planning a trip to Tokyo? Check out my Tips for an excellent Tokyo experience at the end of this post.)

Cold, wet, and packed like sardines — the comparison felt appropriate given the steady drizzle and translucent, rain-slicked ponchos that lent many of my fellow runners a silvery sheen not unlike their oily marine counterparts.

This, I thought, gazing out over the vast sea of rain-soaked heads extending in each direction alongside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, is awesome.

The rain continued to fall, my body quickly approaching saturation as the pre-race announcements from the PA system washed over me in Japanese. (Wait, was that a “Yokoso”? I think that means “Welcome.”) As if the wide-open heavens weren’t enough, sporadic gusts of wind shot like chilled daggers through the crowd as we stood shoulder to shoulder, collectively willing the starter’s pistol to fire.

Like shooting sardines in a barrel, Mother Nature must have been thinking.

Silently I glanced around at the restless, unsmiling faces in my vicinity. Worst people-watching ever, I thought with a smile. Despite the foul weather and my own lack of natural insulation, I was feeling great. And why not? This was the Tokyo freaking Marathon, a bucket-list race for runners across the globe. I was basking in the moment and primed to appreciate every step of the 26.2 miles from here to the finish line alongside the Imperial Palace.

Tokyo Marathon porta-potty queue at start line

Waiting in the porta-potty queue with my fellow sardines

The sheer number of heads ahead of and behind me in the start corral — a seemingly endless flood of people — reminded me of the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, but on an even larger scale. Because whereas the world’s largest ultramarathon welcomes fewer than 20,000 starters, roughly double that number now waited for their cue to fill the streets of Japan’s capital city.

The logistics of the Tokyo Marathon start line contrast with other massive marathons such as Boston, Chicago and New York City, where runners are seeded into individual corrals based on speed, and start in one of several discrete “waves.” Faster runners start in the early waves and slower runners in the later waves, with each wave typically starting 15-30 minutes after the preceding wave to spread out the runners and limit overcrowding on the course.

Like its American brethren, Tokyo assigns each runner to a start corral based on recent and projected marathon finish times, with the corrals labeled alphabetically A–L (I’d be starting within view of the start line, in corral C). Unlike its US counterparts, however, the Tokyo start is one continuous wave rather than several smaller waves. Fortunately, the slick city streets would prove wide enough to accommodate 38,000 runners without excessive crowding.

All around us nondescript skyscrapers filled the bleak sky, their stark gray facades mirroring the weather if not the mood of the morning. My eyes flicked downward at my Garmin, tiny rivulets dripping from its own face. 9:05am. Hurry up and wait, I thought. Pre-race instructions had urged us to arrive in our corral by 8:45am for a 9:10am start, lest we be denied entry and shunted to the back of the pack. Glancing back again at the shapeless sea of bobbing heads stretching down the street, around the corner and out of sight, I shuddered at the thought of further prolonging this wait as much as at the persistent chill now gripping my body.

Mike Sohaskey with Louann & Shilpa at Tokyo Marathon start

Shilpa, Louann and I couldn’t be happier to be standing in the rain

Unlike Boston or New York City (but much like Chicago), getting here on this Sunday morning had been relatively easy despite the weather. After a short walk from our host hotel the Hilton Tokyo, I’d kissed Katie goodbye and made my way past the security checkpoint, where I’d immediately encountered friendly faces in fellow Marathon Tours travelers Louann and Shilpa, likewise sporting disposable ponchos and headed toward their own corrals. One “before” selfie later, we’d wished each other well and parted ways, and I’d stopped to pack away my rain gear and check my drop bag.

Following posted signs toward bag check, I’d spied a curious sight I’d not seen since Berlin in 2014 — a separate Smoking Area where runners congregated for a last-minute charring of the lungs and hardening of the arteries in preparation to run 26.2 miles. And if that doesn’t convince you that nicotine is addictive, well…

I’d relinquished my drop bag and claimed my spot in — where else? — one of the lengthy queues for the porta-potties. A British fellow next to me in line wore short shorts and a fur-collared jacket, which I imagined to be getting heavier by the moment as the steady rain suffused it like a sponge. Impatiently I’d waited in line until finally I’d arrived at the front, only to be greeted by the announcement that the start corrals would be closing in five minutes. Yikes.

Smoking area at Tokyo Marathon start

When running 26.2 miles is just too easy…

Faced with the specter of being the last runner to cross the start line, I’d been in and out of there like Superman in a phone booth. Fast-walking my way down the street toward my corral, I’d surveyed the scene of last-minute chaos, poncho-clad runners zigging and zagging across the street in all directions. I’d half-expected to feel a shadow engulf me and to find myself staring up at Godzilla’s massive clawed foot blotting out the sky.

Safely passing my checkpoint, I’d followed the frenetic stream of runners up a flight of concrete stairs to the street’s upper level, where a row of both Western- and Japanese-style porta-potties stood unoccupied. Dammit, shoulda waited. The desire to duck inside one of the plastic boxes even momentarily to escape the rain had been strong; instead, though, I’d joined my corral in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where 38,000 runners (37,500 marathoners, 500 10Kers) now stood eagerly awaiting the last of the pre-race announcements.

At last the elite runners were introduced, followed a moment later by trails of smoke launched skyward alongside the start line. And with that, the first World Marathon Major of 2019 was underway.

View of Tokyo Marathon start line from Hilton Tokyo

Awaiting the start of the 2019 Tokyo Marathon (view from the Hilton Tokyo)

Off and raining running
Established in 2007, Tokyo is the youngest member of the World Marathon Majors, a select group of six of the world’s most popular marathons that includes (in chronological order) Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City. The series was launched in 2006 with a mission to “advance the sport, raise awareness of its elite athletes, and increase the level of interest in elite racing among running enthusiasts.” Since then, the popularity of the series has continued to grow as amateur runners from around the world pursue the goal of completing all six marathons in the series to earn the coveted Six Star Finisher Medal. To date, 6,133 runners have earned this award, fewer than the number of summits of Mount Everest.

Aside from qualifying for Boston (the only marathon in the series which requires a qualifying time), one of the most challenging and frustrating aspects to completing the World Marathon Majors is accessibility. Tokyo and London are the most difficult marathons in the world to get into, and demand shows no signs of abating. For this year’s race alone, 330,271 Tokyo hopefuls submitted applications for fewer than 37,500 slots. And if you think those sound like tough odds, they’re downright favo(u)rable compared to London’s. This year 457,861 people submitted applications to run the 2020 London Marathon, a world record total that eclipsed the race’s own record number of 414,168 applications set just last year.

What not to bring into Tokyo Marathon start corrals

Restrictions a-plenty on what you can bring into the start corrals

Not surprisingly, the past several years have seen both the Tokyo and London lotteries treat me like Lucy’s football treats Charlie Brown. And so, with rejection emails piling up in my Inbox, this year I decided to secure a Tokyo entry the easy (if more expensive) way — through a tour operator, in this case Marathon Tours. With 40 years in the business and deep connections within the sport, Marathon Tours is the single largest third-party provider of official entries for both the Tokyo Marathon and London Marathon. This would be our fourth time traveling with the company internationally, having first joined them on our life-changing trip to Antarctica in 2013, during which their Seven Continents Club had inspired a new goal of running a marathon or ultramarathon on all seven continents.

Tokyo would earn a special high-five as my fifth World Marathon Major and (in the case of Asia) my fifth continent, with only Oceania and South America remaining. It would also be the first time I’d run in rain since… when? I couldn’t remember. I’d run in nasty heat on several occasions, but never in steady rain. So this would be another change of pace in an already memorable weekend.

And speaking of steady rain, here 6,700 miles away I’d witnessed first-hand the lingering effects of last year’s Boston Marathon, where icy rain and howling headwinds had left many runners battling hypothermia throughout the race. Faced with the harsh reality of another cold, wet and windy race day, the anticipatory looks on the faces of those who had suffered through Boston 2018 had been nothing short of PTSD.

Fortunately, “icy” and “howling” weren’t in the forecast for Tokyo.

Sensoji Temple in Tokyo

Sensoji Temple

In bleachers alongside the start line sat a number of happy faces — presumably marathon alumni of some sort — wearing green Tokyo Marathon shirts. Many of them smiled and waved as we crossed the start mat, our feet crunching on a slushy white substance underfoot. Was that snow?? I thought, before quickly deciding it was more likely salt or some similar substance to improve footing in the starting blocks.

Making our first right turn, I waved upward at the glass windows of the Hilton Tokyo many stories above, where Katie presumably sat watching the stampede start of the race before venturing out onto the course herself (she’d actually left moments before to try to catch me at the 10K mark). I ran comfortably — which usually means “too fast” — on the initial downhill, exercising caution and letting other runners pass me as I gauged the traction on the wet asphalt.

My goal for the day would be more ambitious than in recent marathons, but then again where better than Tokyo to get ambitious? I’d be targeting my fastest marathon in nearly two years, as I’d trained to run (in more favorable conditions) in the 3:30-3:35 range, meaning an average pace of 8:01-8:12/mile. In any case, I wanted to run well and start to regain some of the speed I’d lost to a slower 2018, a busy year of work and running which had included two 50+ milers at the Comrades Marathon and JFK 50 Mile.

Aiding me in my pursuit would be a brand-new pair of vermillion Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit shoes. Despite its terrible name, the 4% is the hottest new running shoe in recent years, having hit the market with the pricey promise of improving your running economy — if not necessarily your finish times — by an impressive 4%. (Notably, this claim gained credibility thanks to two third-party studies featured in The New York Times.)

Mike Sohaskey sports the Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit shoe

Originally designed for Nike’s Breaking2 project in May 2017, the shoe — along with considerable talent and support — propelled Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge to within one second per mile (2:00:25) of the two-hour marathon mark at that unsanctioned event. Kipchoge would follow up that gem with another dramatic effort, crushing the world record in a time of 2:01:39 while wearing the shoe at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

As a full-time running nerd and part-time shoe geek, I’d been intrigued by the 4% since it had first arrived on the scene with its curved, full-length carbon-fiber plate embedded in a layer of lightweight foam, a construction designed to act much like a spring underfoot, reducing energy usage while increasing propulsive forces. And yes, if you’re wondering how running on springs can be deemed legal by the sport’s governing bodies, you’re not alone. Which is why so many elite runners can be seen wearing the 4%.

Thanks to a generous Christmas gift from Katie’s parents, my fluorescent orange feet with the familiar gray swoosh now propelled me along the wet streets of Tokyo. Not knowing how much their lightweight springiness would be negated by the slick footing (based on reviews I’d read, traction isn’t their strong suit), I’d hesitated to wear them in the rain. In the end, though, I’d opted to give ‘em a go; certainly I wouldn’t be chasing a PR or BQ today, but dammit this was Tokyo, and we hadn’t crossed the Pacific Ocean so I could play this conservatively.

Fire-breathing dragon on side of Tokyo building

Breathing fire or spewing lunch? It all depends on your point-of-view

My Garmin struggled to find consistency amid the city’s soaring skyline. At one point in the opening mile my watch read a 6:45/mile pace, a number I knew to be a figment of its imagination. Luckily, the voice of experience had warned me to be ready for GPS issues, since tall buildings tend to block satellite signals. And in any case, I’m rarely a Garmin gazer; I generally prefer to run by feel and enjoy my surroundings rather than being a slave to my watch — which admittedly is one reason I run so many positive splits (i.e. second half slower than the first).

Looking at the downloaded data after the race, I was right not to trust my Garmin — whereas my total time was correct, total distance (27.3 miles), elevation (1,285 ft of gain??) and individual mile splits were all wonky, including a 6:26 mile 19 and 6:39 mile 20 that I only wish I could have credited to my new Nikes.

That said, the shoes felt good — comfortable, lightweight and bouncy. Having only run 6½ miles in them before this, and having never worn Nikes in a marathon before, my hope now was that they’d be kind to my feet for the full 26.2 miles.

Katie and I had visited this area two days earlier, and so at about the ¾-mile mark I knew to glance to my left and — sure enough, there was Tokyo’s favorite monster peering out over the top of the Shinjuku Toho Building at the end of the block, the one with the “Captain Marvel” movie poster taking up much of its façade. Godzilla!

Godzilla atop building on Godzilla Road in Tokyo

The King of the Monsters surveys his kingdom on Godzilla Road

Getting to know Tokyo
In fact, in our three short days here we’d already had a chance to visit some of the city’s most vibrant, quirky and photogenic neighborhoods. On Friday we’d joined our Marathon Tours group on a half-day driving tour of Tokyo. There we’d been reunited (and it felt so good 🎵) with Louann, one of our favorite people whom we’d met in Antarctica in 2013 and whom we’d seen most recently in Kansas City last year. Tokyo would be the final stop on her own incredible 12-year journey to run a marathon on all seven continents, and so Katie and I had devised a fun plan to help her celebrate, which we planned to unveil on race day…

One of the coolest things about traveling with a group like Marathon Tours is the opportunity to meet interesting, like-minded folks, and Tokyo would be no exception. Louann immediately introduced us to her travel buddy Shilpa, whom she’d first met at the Petra Marathon in Jordan, generally considered one of the world’s toughest marathons. Coming from Oklahoma City, Shilpa was looking forward to 2019 as a victory lap of sorts, with Tokyo being her 6th World Marathon Major followed by her 7th continent at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia in July. She and Louann made an always entertaining pair, as they kept each other (and the rest of us) honest and amused.

Louann is the type of person who can find cherry blossoms in the winter

Our Friday morning tour included a stop at Tokyo’s oldest temple, the colorful Sensoji Temple, where we learned Buddhist history and rituals as well as the proper Buddhist prayer stance. Inside the temple’s outer gate, a centuries-old street market sold a wide variety of Japanese snacks and souvenirs. The sights, sounds and smells of the bustling market all commingled, creating at once a sense of both indifference and intimacy that seemed to say, Welcome to Tokyo.

Fun fact: According to our local tour guide, sushi was invented in the 17th century by busy Japanese dock workers who needed to eat quickly so they could return to work.

Our second stop for the day would be a demonstration of Taiko drumming techniques, which although initially interesting (in part because we were able to participate), ended up feeling like an overly long group version of “Simon Says” in which we’d simply follow the lead of the head drummer, whose verbal descriptions were difficult to understand on the suboptimal sound system.

After lunch our group visited the race expo, which this year was held for the first time in an outdoor tent city located at the Odaiba-Aomi Event Area, across the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay. This change in venue had been necessitated by ongoing construction projects as the city prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics. As it turns out, our timing was optimal — Friday afternoon’s dry weather was a marked improvement over Thursday’s rain, which had made life uncomfortable for expo visitors and exhibitors alike.

Packet pickup, which happened at the expo entrance, was amazingly efficient with the volunteer scanning my passport to verify my identity before securing a plastic bracelet around my wrist. And with that, I was street-legal and ready to run the Tokyo Marathon.

Entering the expo was like walking into a shopping mall, game show and video game rolled into one. I felt like a character out of Ready Player One. Voices, alarms, bells and whistles assailed my ears from all directions, many of them repeating themselves with unnerving regularity. Like high-pitched carnival barkers, young women played the role of enthusiastic hosts, attracting curious visitors who couldn’t resist the urge to stop and either watch or participate. Meanwhile, life-size Pokémon-style characters greeted visitors at several booths, hawking everything from tourism packages to athletic gear to cell phone plans. Even Pac-Man had his own booth and hey, who doesn’t love Pac-Man?

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Pac-Man booth at Tokyo Marathon expo

Now, racing through a steady drizzle that seemed in no hurry to abate, I was thankful for the one preemptive purchase I’d made at the expo — a pair of moisture-wicking gloves to keep my fingers warm in the event of… well, weather like this. Likewise, I was grateful for my RaceRaves cap which kept a steady stream of water out of my face. Overall, things were going swimmingly, pun intended.

That is, up until the 10km mark when, scanning the crowd in vain, I missed my first Katie sighting. Turns out she was trapped on the right (far) side of the street which, as luck would have it, happened to correspond to the 10km finish line. Trying to find her in a seemingly endless sea of raincoat-clad Asian faces would (luckily) be my only stressor of the day, as I quickly realized that the needle in the haystack analogy was maddeningly appropriate here in Tokyo.

Crowds outside Shinjuku station in Tokyo

Just another Saturday on the streets of Tokyo

Jiāyóu! Jiāyóu!
My inability to read signage motivated me instead to focus on my fellow runners. At one point my attention settled on a woman running ahead of me who wore a shirt that read, in large letters on the back, “Mexico is the” with the last line covered by her running belt. My mind raced along with my body: “Mexico is the… Mexico is the what??” In the end, I lost track of her without learning what it was she wanted me to know about our southern neighbor. On an otherwise satisfying day, it was a wholly unsatisfying interaction.

Another fellow won my “least motivational message” award with his shirt that read, “Don’t finish last.” And why not? I thought. Unless you’re planning on going home with prize money, we’re all running this for the same medal. Besides, wouldn’t the final finisher enjoy a better dollar-per-minute value than the rest of us?

For better or worse, running 26.2 miles gives you plenty of time to think.

Besides its soaring buildings and life-size Godzilla head, Tokyo’s defining feature was its raucous crowds and high-energy community support. Even in the cold and rain, smiling faces and enthusiastic throngs greeted us at seemingly every turn, many of them wielding umbrellas against the elements. I’d not experienced crowd support like this since my last World Marathon Major in Boston in 2016, and I could only imagine what these streets might look like in more ideal weather.

The occasional “Go! Go! Go!” was the only English I could make out from the crowd, though happily I did recognize cries of “Jiāyóu! Jiāyóu!” (literally “Add fuel!”), an all-purpose Chinese cheer with which Katie’s Mom encourages me before each race.

Jiayou sign at Tokyo Marathon expo

Jiāyóu!! Jiāyóu!!

Bands played, dancers performed, and at one point we were treated to a version of “YMCA” that had the runners ahead of me shaping their arms into each letter without breaking stride. And even 5,500 miles from home we couldn’t avoid the universally popular theme from “Rocky,” which I heard not once but twice along the course, the first time on a plaintive-sounding horn which made me think this must be the “rainy day” version.

Even with my eyes closed, though, I would have known I wasn’t running in the United States by the absence of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” along the course.

I’d be lying if I were to look at a map of the marathon course and rattle off a list of Tokyo landmarks, as though I remember seeing them along the way. With all signage in Japanese and the rain dulling my sense of our surroundings, few distinct highlights stuck with me. Two that did, though, waited in close succession at the route’s northernmost boundary in mile 10. There we passed the Thunder Gate (Karinarimon) to the Sensoji Temple we’d visited two days earlier. And turning to return the way we’d come, we were immediately greeted by a majestic if hazy view of the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world and the second-tallest structure behind only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Mike Sohaskey running near Sensoji Temple during Tokyo Marathon

Running past the Sensoji Temple (background), mile 10

It was a memorable moment along what, for me as a Westerner, felt like a largely homogeneous urban course.

Near the halfway point the course opened up somewhat and would stay that way for the duration. With wider roads than Berlin, the route was never too crowded to be comfortably runnable. Though make no mistake, 38,000 runners never thin out too much.

Marathoners like to say that mile 18 or so is the real halfway point. Once I pass 13.1 miles, though, I feel like I can flip a mental switch and focus on running a solid half marathon. The key to the marathon is to stay mentally sharp, as I learned the hard way in Tucson in 2015. Once you clock out and lose that competitive edge, the finish line starts to feel increasingly far away.

Luckily I was feeling good, and why not? I’d slept well — actually, better than well; I’d slept great. Falling asleep immediately, I’d awakened 7½ hours later raring to go at 5:53am, seven minutes before my alarm. Unusual for race day, to say the least.

We interrupt this marathon race report for a snow monkey intermission:

For once, the toughest part of race morning hadn’t been getting out of bed; rather, in a uniquely Japanese twist, I’d had to coerce myself away from the electric toilet in our room, the one with the comfy heated seat and other options such as the privacy setting that introduces white noise while the user, um, takes care of business. I’ve yet to own a car with heated seats, much less a toilet. If I were a cat I would have curled up on that seat and gone to sleep, and especially on a day when a cold and steady drizzle awaited us outside.

Making a bold escape from our room, we’d joined the hotel breakfast buffet 12 hours after a full carbo-load session at the pre-race pasta dinner hosted by Marathon Tours. There our friend whom we’d first met at Comrades 2018, Coach and “Marathon Whisperer” Denise Sauriol from Chicago, had been the guest speaker.

(By the way, if you or someone you know is looking to run their first marathon, do yourself a favor and check out Denise’s excellent primer Me, You & 26.2. Yes, I read and enjoyed it despite being nine years removed from my first marathon — it’s that good, and so is she.)

Me, You & 26.2 book by Denise Sauriol

At breakfast we’d checked in with Louann and Shilpa. There’d be no downplaying the significance of this day for both, and they were ready. Not taking any chances, Shilpa would be packing — in her case, potato chips along with tater tots smuggled out of the buffet as in-race salty snacks, plus a few yen to buy herself a Coke along the route. This was a woman who’d done this before (118 times before, but who’s counting?). Clearly, though, she wasn’t alone in her thinking — descending to the hotel lobby in an elevator full of runners, we’d overheard one woman confess to her friend, “I have a pantry around my waist.”

Occasionally along the out-and-backs, I’d glance over to look for familiar faces — Louann, or Shilpa, or maybe our speedy new friend Eric from Kansas City whom we’d met on Friday evening, when the five of us along with Eric’s friend Kenny had spent the evening out on the town, sampling the tasty menu at a standing sushi bar (where a friendly Japanese businessman had treated Louann and Shilpa), carbo-loading on dessert crepes, and people-watching at the iconic Shibuya Crossing intersection.

Unfortunately, with a steady stream of runners always coming in the opposite direction, I never saw a familiar face… though the thought of Shilpa leaving soggy potato chip crumbs in her wake like a modern-day Hansel and Gretel made me smile.

Spotting cherry blossoms in Tokyo

Here comes the rain again
The rain started, the rain stopped, the rain started, the rain stopped. After a while it became hard for me to tell whether it was in fact still raining. The reality to running in steady rain is that once you’re soaked, you’re soaked, and at that point you’re not getting any wetter. The silver lining on this day was that the rain never became heavier than a drizzle.

Volunteers stood every 50 yards or so along the course, holding trash bags to ensure that every discarded paper cup or empty gel packet found a happy home. Before, during and after the race, Tokyo’s streets were hands-down the cleanest of any city I’ve visited — a truth made more remarkable by the fact that Tokyo is also the largest city I’ve ever visited. I’ve never experienced an urban setting (and certainly not in the US) where trash bins were both unavailable and unnecessary.

As we ran, clear signs pointed down alleys along with a “Next bathroom: ___ km” message. I’d later hear complaints of long lines at porta-potties which were already a significant distance removed from the course, causing some back-of-the-pack runners to stress about making the official cutoff times. Luckily my own innards would behave well, and I was relieved not to have to relieve myself.

Tokyo Skytree, seen from the Sensoji-Nakamise Market

The Tokyo Skytree, seen from the Sensoji / Nakamise Market

Reaching the 27 km mark I began to scan the crowd as planned, until at last I heard Katie calling my name and saw her smiling face in a crowd of black raincoats around 28½ km. Quickly returning the smile, I thanked her and snatched a Maurten gel from her outstretched hand as I passed.

The gel was for insurance purposes rather than out of any immediate need, since I’d opted to carry only a single gel during the race. As in other marathons, my main concern here wouldn’t be nutrition but rather cumulative muscle fatigue in my legs — and all the gels in Japan weren’t going to change that.

I waited until the 32 km (mile 20) mark to down the gel; even at that late stage the calories had little effect. I never felt my energy levels dwindle, and in the cold rain I never felt thirsty. So I didn’t stop at aid stations, and I couldn’t tell you what the Pocari Sweat electrolyte drink served at those aid stations tastes like.

Standing Sushi Bar near Shibuya Crossing

Not an aid station, but an excellent Standing Sushi Bar

Somehow “32 km” sounded less intimidating than “20 miles” (mind games, mind games), and with 10 km to go I resolved to bear down, focus on the ground a few steps ahead of me, and keep pushing along the final out-and-back. Despite the sense that I was still giving my all, I knew I was starting to slow — though I’d long ago given up on trusting my Garmin’s pace calculations.

Glancing to our left as we passed Shiba Park and the Zozoji Temple, the distinctive orange-and-white Tokyo Tower (Japan’s second-tallest structure) provided a splash of eye-catching color in an otherwise achromatic sky.

Approaching 35 km, a momentary pang of nausea chased away any thoughts I might have had of force-feeding myself a second gel.

Tokyo Marathon finisher times decorating Metro trains

A cool touch: finisher times decorated Metro trains on Monday

Seeing a fellow with “# Run Your Own Race” printed on the back of his shirt, the only thought my marathon-muddled brain could formulate in the moment was a drunken, Hey waitaminnit, that hashtag won’t work AT ALL…

With around 6 km to go I began to notice nice, big signs counting down the distance remaining rather than counting up the distance already run, similar to the signage at Comrades. I’ve found this shrewd strategy to be a motivational pick-me-up near the end of races, and especially when the distance is in km since, well, they’re shorter than miles.

At 38 km I willed myself to dig deep as I wished for one more second (or third, or fourth) wind to carry me to the finish. In response, a stiff headwind rose up and blasted me in the face. Wrong wind! I thought bitterly as I put my head down and leaned in.

Carbo-loading on crepes before Tokyo Marathon

Crêpe-loading! (Clockwise from bottom: cameraman, Louann, Kenny, Eric, Katie, Shilpa)

Our final km of the day led us along the glistening stone surface of Marunouchi Naka-Dori Ave, a seemingly high-end retail district where bougie shops lined the street on either side of us. After 25 miles on asphalt, the potentially slick stones presented a new challenge, and I could feel my legs wobbling and my form disintegrating as I shortened my stride to gauge the footing. I wanted to finish strong, and so I tried to savor this final stretch while continuing to pound as hard as I could.

Hearing Katie’s shouts of encouragement was like divine intervention, and I knew at last that the glorious ending to another painful blog post marathon was near. Oh, what a feeling.

Mike Sohaskey in mile 26 of Tokyo Marathon

Hanging on in mile 26

With a final left turn and the sprawling red-brick Tokyo Railway Station at our backs, I emptied the tank with one last burst of energy and crossed the finish line all by myself…

… or so it seemed. Because despite this being one of the largest marathons on the planet, I felt in that moment as I crossed the blue mat that I was running solo, the finish line belonging to me and me alone. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such an ironic sense of solitude. And it drove home a universal truth — that even here among 37,499 other runners in a city of 13+ million, the marathon is at its core a solitary endeavor. You can’t reach the finish line without the support of many others, but success or failure as you define them are ultimately your own. And in an era when individuality feels increasingly hard to come by, isn’t that why we do this?

Looking back at the photos, I was genuinely surprised by the number of runners surrounding me at the finish. For one exhilarating moment time stood still…

… before the world sped up again, and I stopped the clock in an official time of 3:37:14, missing my 3:35 goal while still recording my fastest marathon in nearly two years.

Glancing down at my Garmin, I was momentarily confused by its message of “Fastest marathon!” and its perceived time of 3:27:xx. Then I realized it had registered a total distance of 27.3 miles, which by interpolation would indeed have put my marathon time in the 3:27 range. If only.

Finding Mike Sohaskey at Tokyo Marathon finish line

What the finish line actually looked like (that’s me circled in green)

A soggy mile 27
Moving unsteadily through the finish chute, I paused to collect my finisher’s medal, race-branded towel (not particularly useful in the rain), snack bag and heat sheet. To one side, newly minted Six Star Finishers claimed their well-deserved hardware at the Abbott booth. I congratulated my fellow finishers as we strolled, including one emotional woman from Iceland who’d just earned her own Six Star. If you think running six World Marathon Majors is challenging (and expensive) as an American, try doing it from Iceland.

Then I turned and breathed it all in, shivering as I watched the crowd of fatigued faces drift toward me, their bodies beaten and minds spent, chilled by the weather yet warmed by the journey. And ready to get the hell out of the rain.

And that’s when we discovered the worst thing about the Tokyo Marathon — the 27th mile. With my heat sheet wrapped tightly around me and the wind fighting to wrest it from my grasp, I reunited with Katie for the long, cold, wet, 25-minute stroll to the Tokyo International Forum, the post-race meeting area for friends and family. I know many runners objected to the absurd distance — hypothermia’s no joke — but with a high-octane cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins coursing through my bloodstream and warming me from within, I actually treated the long, slow walk as my personal victory lap.

Mike Sohaskey finishing 5th World Marathon Major at 2019 Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo = 5 continents & 5 World Marathon Majors

Reaching the International Forum at last, I happily changed into dry clothes in the men’s changing area, which included an acupuncture care area and foot-soaking stations. Then Katie and I compared notes while we waited for Shilpa, who would be the next of our group to finish.

She entered the building sometime later looking like a drowned rat, exhausted but triumphant with her Six Star Medal but with no dry change of clothes. I gave her my Boston Marathon jacket to wear and pointed her toward the hotel shuttles so she could get back and warm up. The road to the Six Star is costly enough without tacking on a hospital bill for pneumonia.

Then Katie and I left the comfort of the International Forum and headed back out into the rain. Because our day was not yet done, and one of the best parts was still to come…

Marathoners making long post-race walk after Tokyo Marathon

Hypothermic technicolor zombies

Six Stars and Seven Continents
Completing a marathon on all seven continents is a long and arduous undertaking, and so it’s important to embrace both the journey and the destination. Louann had certainly done that — after all, embracing life in all its possibilities is how she rolls. And having first met her in Antarctica in 2013 midway through her own seven continents quest, we now wanted to help her celebrate its finale in a fun and fitting way. Though the truth is, nothing short of a Disney-style electrical parade feels sufficient to recognize such an epic achievement.

With that in mind, we’d created and brought with us to Tokyo a custom “Cheerleader Louann on a stick,” i.e. an oversized cutout of her face, mounted on a wooden rod and adorned with its own blue ribbon and paper Seven Continents Club finisher medal. Like the trooper she is, Katie had carried Cheerleader Louann — wrapped in plastic to protect her from the rain — with her throughout the day, though unfortunately she’d missed seeing the real Louann out on the course.

With Cheerleader Louann at mile 26

Walking a straight line from the International Forum to the course (a much shorter distance than the walk from the finish line), we arrived on Marunouchi Naka-Dori Ave and planted ourselves between the 41 km and 42 km markers. There we waited, scanning the oncoming crowd as we cheered and encouraged soggy runners. Some glanced over at us with dull eyes, their minds and bodies on the brink of exhaustion as hypothermia nipped at their heels. Arms pumped furiously, presumably trying to offset the loss of momentum in depleted legs.

Soon we saw Louann approaching, eyes cast downward and still smartly sporting her disposable poncho. She glanced up in response to our shouts and cheers, and the look that flashed across her face as she locked eyes with — well, herself — was priceless. Nothing captures the sheer elation, pride, appreciation, and even relief at a 12-year journey successfully concluded quite like Louann’s reaction in that moment. And I like to think the last-minute surge of adrenaline was just the oomph she needed to propel her to a sub-6-hour finish.

Louann spies her (literally) biggest supporter

Congrats Louann! As our mutual friend Rory would say, love your work. So happy we could be there to witness and share in your awesome accomplishment first-hand.

That evening we attended the Marathon Tours post-race party, held in The Ballroom on the 39th floor of the Park Hyatt, the hotel where “Lost in Translation” was filmed. As post-race parties go, this was easily the best I’ve attended, with a wide assortment of hors d’oeuvres and drinks to pep up even the most exhausted runner.

And both Louanns clean up beautifully, too!

Jeff Adams, the President of Marathon Tours, said a few words of welcome and congrats. Then he called up Louann and another Seven Continents Club (SCC) finisher to recognize their achievement, though admittedly the finisher’s medal he hung around their necks was significantly smaller than the one modeled by Cheerleader-Louann-on-a-stick. Nonetheless, with fewer than 800 SCC marathon finishers in the world, theirs is a feat that makes summiting Everest look like a paint-by-numbers exercise.

Next the group acknowledged over 100 new Six Star Finishers, including Shilpa and our new buddy Eric. Tom Grilk, the CEO of the Boston Athletic Association, said a few words of congratulations, as did the fellow in charge of the Six Star initiative at Abbott. It was a fitting ending to a terrific weekend. Though when Jeff mentioned the possibility of Singapore as the 7th World Marathon Major, skeptical groans arose from the room… and did I see a couple of finishers grip their new medals just a bit more tightly? Clearly six stars is plenty for most folks.

Six Star Finishers at the Marathon Tours post-race party

Six Star Finishers at the Marathon Tours post-race party

With 119 marathon finishes to her name, including all 50 states and six World Marathon Majors, Shilpa has her sights set on completing her 7th continent at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia this July. After which she claims she’s done with marathons. Quite a résumé for someone who professes not to enjoy running.

And since you can’t spell Tokyo without “Kyoto” (or vice versa), on Monday we bid sayonara to Tokyo and boarded the bullet train to Japan’s former capital city. With 1.5 million residents, Kyoto felt more manageable and less intimidating than Tokyo, and the city is what most Westerners think of when they think of Japan — ancient Buddhist temples, colorful Shinto shrines, serene Zen gardens, women clad in elaborate kimonos. We even caught the start of cherry blossom season and scored an audience with an entertaining troop of Japanese snow monkeys (macaques).

Mike Sohaskey's Kyoto collage

Scenes from Kyoto (clockwise from top left): Imperial Palace; Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion); Arashiyama Bamboo Forest; Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine to the god of rice and sake; dinner is served; kimono-clad women; a few of the 10,000 torii (gates) which line the walkways of Fushimi Inari-taisha; Uji Matcha, a Kyoto specialty; pensive snow monkey (macaque)

And with that, we closed the book on Japan and World Marathon Major #5, with only London remaining. But not before Tokyo had left its mark on my heart and on my psyche, and had made clear why it hosts a World Marathon Major. It’s a vibrant, soaring, imposing, boisterous, exhilarating city. It buzzes with pressurized neon and crackles with human electricity. It’s distinctly cosmopolitan yet decidedly traditional, serious-minded yet unabashedly whimsical. It’s a palette of infinite color on a backdrop of functional gray. Tokyo is New York City on Red Bull. It’s a global city unlike any other. And as a country, the United States could learn a lot from the Japanese about cleanliness, respectfulness, civic pride, and a comfortable toilet experience.

Upon exiting the changing room in the International Forum, we’d been greeted by exuberant, yellow-jacketed volunteers who had formed a congratulatory chute, applauding and high-fiving appreciative marathon finishers as we passed. A smile spread across my tired face. One volunteer held a sign that read, “Congratulations! Tokyo loves you.”

Arigato gozaimashita, Tokyo. The feeling is mutual.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho after Tokyo Marathon

Tips for running in the rain:

  • Once you’re wet, you’re wet, and so as long as you’re dressed appropriately and generating enough body heat to avoid hypothermia, don’t let Mother Nature throw you off your game.
  • Avoid stepping on metal manhole covers, bridge expansion seams, painted lines, or other potentially slick surfaces.
  • Wear a hat with a brim to keep the rain out of your face — this makes a huge difference and especially over the course of 26.2 miles. I recommend a comfortable and stylish RaceRaves running hat!
  • Apply an anti-chafing salve liberally to any region of the body that stands even the slightest chance of chafing. If you think you chafe badly on a dry day, you ain’t seen (or felt) nothing ‘til you’ve chafed in the rain.

Tips for an excellent Tokyo experience:

  • Tokyo is an amazingly clean city with highly respectful residents, so don’t be freaked out by anyone wearing a hospital-style face mask. The air in Tokyo is perfectly breathable, and so some folks will wear a mask to avoid allergens or, if they have a sniffle, as a courtesy to others to prevent the spread of germs.
  • The Metro/Subway and JR (Japan Railways) transit systems are much more intuitive to use than their maps — which resemble a plate of rainbow spaghetti — would suggest, since they smartly use colors, numbers and symbols as well as words to indicate routes and directionality. With that in mind, I wouldn’t waste your time trying to figure it out from afar before you get here. The easiest way to ride the Metro and JR commuter trains (which operate on separate lines) is with a prepaid PASMO card that you can easily buy when you arrive. Train stations do tend to be much larger than their American counterparts, so build in time to navigate their maze-like corridors. Here’s a helpful article on the Tokyo train and subway system.

Tokyo Subway Route map

  • The bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto (and other cities in Japan) is a sweet ride, and on a clear day you can glimpse Mt. Fuji in the distance from your train car.
  • Cabs in Tokyo are super-expensive; we made that mistake once.
  • Japanese fluency is helpful but not essential when dining out; many restaurants feature an English menu, and most waiters/waitresses know enough English to get by. As pescatarians, we had little trouble avoiding the abundance of meat. Trying to locate a specific restaurant based on map directions, however, could end up being an adventure.
  • Speaking of food, even if you’re not typically a fan of sushi, you have to try it in Japan (when in Rome…). I’m not a seafood lover myself, but the difference between Japanese and most American sushi was striking even to my unrefined palate.
  • The Google Translate app does a very rough job of translating Japanese to English for both text and photos.
  • Tokyo is an expensive city in many ways; at the same time, there are plenty of opportunities to eat well at reasonable prices, and especially if you like ramen or soba noodles. Not surprisingly, some of the ramen is incredible — in particular, one noodle dish that was recommended to us and which I’m now recommending to you is abura soba, which uses oil instead of broth to lightly coat the noodles. Simple but brilliant.
  • Vending machine selections are color-coded to indicate hot (red) and cold (blue) drinks.
  • Credit cards are widely accepted, so don’t feel like you need to carry much cash.
  • Spoiler alert: Tokyo is a big city and, as in other big cities, it can feel like it takes at least 30 minutes to get anywhere. Plan accordingly.
  • Those bumpy surfaces found on sidewalks, crosswalks, and transit boarding platforms in subway and train stations? They’re actually tactile paving (or “Tenji blocks”) developed by inventor Seiichi Miyake in the 1960s to assist the visually impaired.
  • Unlike the United States where tip jars are now ubiquitous, gratuities are neither expected nor, in some cases, accepted in Tokyo. And boy, is it nice.
Tokyo's replica Statue of Liberty stands ~13% the height of its US counterpart

Tokyo’s replica Statue of Liberty stands ~13% the height of its US counterpart

BOTTOM LINE: Tokyo is big, it’s bold, it’s bonkers. It’s eclectic, electric, hypnotic, frenetic. And it’s a heck of a place to run a marathon. As the most populated metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo feels like New York City — on steroids. Coming from Los Angeles, I felt strangely at ease with Tokyo’s vast urban sprawl, which others may find unsettling (though if you’re only in town for the marathon, you may not experience it). And speaking of unsettling, the city is remarkably clean — never would I have expected to find myself in an urban setting of 13+ million residents where trash bins are both unavailable and unnecessary.

If you’re an American planning to run the Tokyo Marathon, odds are you’re doing so in your quest to run all six World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin, NYC) and earn the coveted Six Star Finisher Medal. Either that or you love banging your head against the wall, because Tokyo (along with London) is the most difficult marathon in the world to get into; last year alone, the race received 330,271 applications for fewer than 37,500 slots.

With that in mind, if you’re determined to run Tokyo then your best bet is either to run for one of the race’s approved charities or to travel, as we did, with a tour operator like Marathon Tours — though be aware that given the high demand, Marathon Tours conducts its own mini-lottery to distribute its available Tokyo and London entries. And though you will pay a premium through Marathon Tours (this is their business, after all), it’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker for runners with Six Star fever on the brain.

Plus, the company hosts a Friday city tour and pre-race pasta buffet, as well as a terrific post-race party replete with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, the latter held in the swanky 39th floor ballroom of the Park Hyatt, the hotel where the movie “Lost in Translation” was filmed. (Apparently the Park Hyatt was also destroyed by a UFO in the movie “Godzilla 2000,” but hey you can’t win ‘em all.) As part of the post-race festivities, two Seven Continents Club finishers (including our friend and fellow Antarctica adventurer Louann) as well as over 100 Six Star Finishers were recognized. It was a unique opportunity to meet fellow traveling runners, and the perfect ending to an amazing day.

Rainbow Bridge across Tokyo Bay

Rainbow Bridge across Tokyo Bay

As for the race itself, Tokyo is quite possibly the most high-energy marathon you’ll ever run (I can’t speak for London yet, though apparently it holds its own). It’s a sporting event on a global scale, hosted by folks who know how to throw a party. Even in the cold and rain, the streets of Tokyo were lined with spectators and supporters holding signs and cheering loudly. If you’re the type of runner who’s motivated by community support, Tokyo will inspire you from start to finish. And being able to see fellow runners coming from the opposite direction on the out-and-backs was a nice distraction, as I scanned the soggy crowd for familiar faces. One word of warning: the combination of soaring skyscrapers and frequent turns may cause your GPS to betray you at times (mine claimed a final distance of 27.3 miles, along with a 6:26 mile 19 and 6:39 mile 20 that I’m confident I didn’t run).

Like the other World Marathon Majors, Tokyo is decidedly unique in the way it carries and presents itself. It’s the very definition of a well-oiled machine, professional and buttoned-up without sacrificing its luster and charm. After the race we were greeted back at the Tokyo International Forum by smiling volunteers holding signs that read “Congratulations! Tokyo loves you.” And the feeling was mutual.

No scene epitomizes Tokyo like the iconic Shibuya Crossing intersection:

PRODUCTION: Tokyo Marathon 2019 production can best be described in terms of pre- and post-finish. From the start line alongside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to the finish line on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, race day production didn’t miss a step or skip a beat. Similar to Chicago but unlike Boston and New York City, the start corrals were easily accessible and within walking distance of the host hotels. And volunteers posted every 50 yards or so along the course held trash bags to ensure that every scrap of trash found its happy home.

To be able to organize and mobilize 38,000 runners (including 500 10K runners) from around the world through the streets of a densely packed city like Tokyo without incident is an extraordinary accomplishment, one for which the organizers deserve huge props.

The only downside to race day (aside from the challenge of finding Katie amid throngs of raincoat-clad Asian people) was the long walk from the finish line to the Tokyo International Forum building, where friends and family waited for finishers. Fortunately I was wearing gloves and wrapped in a heat sheet; nonetheless the 30-minute walk in the cold drizzle was a bizarre end to such an impeccably organized event. But in the words of every pro athlete who’s ever been interviewed, it is what it is — and honestly I was too busy basking in my post-race high to focus on much of anything else, which made the lengthy stroll feel more like a slow victory lap.

As far as nutrition goes, with the weather virtually eliminating my thirst I didn’t take advantage of the plentiful aid stations, so I couldn’t tell you what Pocari Sweat (the on-course electrolyte drink of choice) tastes like — no reason to try something new on race day if I didn’t need it. And understandably given the sheer size of the race, post-race food was limited to a bag of munchies, the best of which was an odd custard-like peanut-butter sandwich which most runners seemed to agree hit the spot. That, and I always bring my own supply of Tailwind Rebuild for after the race.

Characters at Tokyo Marathon

Some of the locals you might meet at the expo

The pre-race expo was unlike any I’ve experienced in the US or abroad. Strolling the expo was like stepping into a game show/video game, with high-pitched voices, alarms, bells and whistles assailing the ears from all directions. If you’re generally not a fan of busy expos or high volume, you may not appreciate the Tokyo expo; admittedly, though, I found it oddly fascinating and difficult to leave. Luckily, few of the booths were of real relevance to me (in part because, well, language barriers), though we did visit our friends from INKnBURN whose headquarters is located near us in SoCal. Due to ongoing construction as the city prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics, this year’s expo was held in a new outdoor venue, a tent city set up at the Odaiba-Aomi Event Area, across the Rainbow Bridge and about an hour subway ride from the marathon start line in Shinjuku City. Whether the expo will return to this same venue in 2020 is unclear.

One note of warning: I’m not much of an expo shopper myself, but I heard several folks say the official marathon jacket sold out quickly, so if that’s your angle you’ll want to hit the expo on Thursday to beat the crowds.

Not surprisingly, Tokyo’s race photos were expensive — in fact, the most expensive of any of my 40 marathons to date. Even so, $39 per picture or $195 USD (21,600 yen) for the entire set felt like highway robbery. So if you have your heart set on buying professional photos of your Tokyo Marathon experience, be sure to factor that cost into your budget.

Tokyo Marathon medal against cherry blossoms

SWAG: Much like the other World Marathon Majors, Tokyo swag for me was all about the finisher medal, which is colorful and distinctive. On the other hand, I’ve yet to remove the short-sleeve white race tee from its plastic wrapper, since having seen it on others I know I’m unlikely to wear it. Cooler than the tee, though, is the full-size towel emblazoned with the race design and logo that we received at the finish line and which will come in handy.

In the end, completing the Tokyo Marathon is not only an awesome experience and a humbling achievement; it’s also one step closer to the ultimate prize of the Abbott Six Star Finisher medal. Five down, London to go!

RaceRaves rating:

Mike Sohaskey's Tokyo Marathon review on RaceRaves.com

FINAL STATS:
(distance and elevation change may be inaccurate due to tall buildings)
Mar 3, 2019 (start time 9:10 am)
27.32 miles in Tokyo, Japan (continent 5 of 7)
Finish time & pace: 3:37:14 (first time running the Tokyo Marathon), 8:17/mile (assuming 26.2 miles)
Finish place: 6,068 overall, 1,182/6,328 in 40-49 age group (men & women)
Number of finishers: 35,440 (27,238 men, 8,202 women)
Nationality place: 232/1,039 (USA)
Race weather: cold (43°F), rainy & windy at the start & finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,285 ft gain, 1,320 ft loss
Elevation min, max: 0 ft, 254 ft

Mike Sohaskey's mile splits at Tokyo Marathon

One chance is all you need.
– Jesse Owens

Berlin Marathon - runners finishing through Brandenburg Gate

Soon-to-be Berlin Marathon finishers stream through the Brandenburg Gate

(A BC&H early happy birthday to fellow scientist/runner/blogger Jen over at Running Tangents… I tried to take your blog title to heart in Berlin, I really did…)

Realization often strikes in retrospect.  Sometimes, though, you know when you’re facing a moment of truth.  With the Brandenburg Gate rising imposingly behind and the Victory Column looming straight ahead, the start line of the 41st Berlin Marathon felt like that moment.

In recent years, Berlin has achieved a singular level of cachet among hardcore runners.  This is due in part to its status as one of the six World Marathon Majors, alongside Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo.  That, and Berlin has practically become the home court of the world marathon record – prior to this year, the world record had been set in Berlin five times in the past eleven years, most recently in 2013 by Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang (2:03:23).  Amateur runners from across the globe come each year to race Berlin’s famously flat and speedy course, and to check another World Marathon Major off their bucket list.  For many of these runners, Berlin offers a golden opportunity to qualify for another celebrated six-letter marathon that starts with a ‘B’ and ends with an ‘N’.

Admittedly, this was my own rationale in designating Berlin as my target race for 2014.  With all due respect to the granddaddy of all marathons in New York City (which I’ll be running next month), Berlin would offer me the best shot at setting a new PR and qualifying for Boston in 2016, when my age group qualifying time slows by ten minutes, from 3:15:00 to 3:25:00.  Killing three birds with one stone, it would also represent my second World Marathon Major and third continent, alongside North America and Antarctica.

Berlin’s standing as one of the most historically and culturally relevant cities in the world (and sister city to our own L.A.) didn’t hurt my decision.  And Katie, who’s always happy to use my running to advance her travel agenda, immediately and enthusiastically green-lit Berlin for 2014.

That was when the race organizers launched Operation: Buzzkill, a.k.a. the Berlin Marathon lottery.

Mike Sohaskey at Berlin Marathon Expo

Peace, Berlin!  And thanks for being my second World Marathon Major

Granted it came as no surprise… Berlin was the last of the World Marathon Majors to move to a lottery (or in the case of Boston, qualifying) system, wherein interested runners submit their name in the hopes of being chosen at random to participate in the race.  But its “overdue and imminent” status didn’t make the institution of a lottery any less frustrating, particularly since several of us had already made plans to run Berlin this year.  So when none of our names were among those chosen from the pool of 74,707 applicants, two of my friends opted to head for the wine country and run the Donostia-San Sebastian Marathon in Spain instead.

With my head and heart still set on Berlin, Katie and I decided to hitch a ride with our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel, with whom we’d traveled to Antarctica and who offer packages (including race entry) for the Berlin Marathon.  And I persuaded myself that bypassing the frustration of future lottery selections would be well worth the added expense.  Besides, I’ll still have the fun of the London, Tokyo and potentially Boston lotteries to look forward to, with others sure to follow.

Let him that would move the world first move himself. – Socrates
I’d positioned myself at the front of the start corral, and as the official starter’s countdown hit zero I surged forward toward the Siegessäule (Victory Column) 600 yards ahead.  Immediately I found myself running in open space.  Adrenalized runners shot by me like cartoon Road Runners {meep meep!}, and despite my brain’s protests I dialed back my own effort to avoid the hair-on-fire mistake of going out too fast.  I had no way of knowing that in contrast to every other race I’ve ever run, those first 600 yards would be the least congested part of the course.

Also unlike other races I’ve run, I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d seen not one but two runners smoking in the staging area before a race.  I tried to get a photo of the first one with cigarette in hand and bib number in place, but he jumped up to embrace a group of friends before I could reach my camera.  And I noticed the second fellow after I’d already conceded my drop bag, when he dropped his cigarette butt on the sidewalk, stamped it out and ran to join his corral at the start line.  Probably beat me to the finish, too.

But the most important difference between Berlin and all the other races I’ve run, was that I’d arrived in the Tiergarten on Sunday to do just one thing: run.  We’d allowed time before and after the race for exploring the city, so I had every intention of running as hard as I could until either I reached the finish line or my race ended otherwise in less storybook fashion.  So I didn’t pay nearly the attention I normally would to what was going on around me, though if you think that will make this race report any shorter, well…

Berlin Marathon - Tiergarten start & finish

The start/finish area in the Tiergarten… the Victory Column and Brandenburg Gate are labeled in orange

Berlin is like being abroad in Germany. It’s German, but not provincial. – Claudia Schiffer
After arriving on Thursday evening, Friday began with a bus tour of the city organized by Marathon Tours.  I’m not a big “bus tour” guy, generally preferring to wander and explore new cities on my own.  But this turned out to be an excellent intro to Berlin courtesy of Matt, our British expat guide.  He admitted that Berlin’s sordid role in recent world history is “nearly impossible to avoid,” and stressed that the city “approaches its history in a very open, honest, responsible way”.  And he taught us much more about his adopted home than I could have learned on my own in the same amount of time.

Among the highlights of our 4+ hour tour, we learned:

  • Berlin was built on swampland, and above-ground pipe networks were established to pump groundwater away from construction sites.  These pipes – pink in some places, blue in others – are evident throughout the city, in some cases spanning intersections with no nod to aesthetic subtlety.
  • Memorials to the victims of Nazi genocide have been erected in and around the Tiergarten, including discrete monuments to the Jewish, homosexual, parliamentary and Sinti and Roma (gypsy) victims of National Socialism.  In particular, the Berlin Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) contains 2,711 concrete slabs of varying size and height, arranged in a grid-like pattern on variably uneven ground to convey a sense of unease.  Lending a grim irony to the adage “business is business,” the same company that produces the graffiti-resistant coating used to prevent neo-Nazi vandalism to the Memorial once manufactured Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide used in the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
  • The Berlin Wall (actually two walls fortified by a series of trenches and electrified fences, all patrolled by armed guards with attack dogs) was actually constructed around the perimeter of West Berlin.  So in their zeal to prevent East Berliners from escaping, the Soviets effectively encircled the free half of the city with their Wall.
  • No official signage marks the site of Adolf Hitler’s death, as nearly 70 years later German officials still fear it becoming a shrine for neo-Nazi groups.
  • A staged Soviet propaganda photo of soldiers raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament Building) in May 1945 had to be altered before its release because one of the soldiers could clearly be seen wearing a wristwatch on each arm, suggesting that he’d been looting.
  • The city is 60 billion Euros (roughly $75 billion) in debt.
Berlin Marathon 2014 - Berlin city sites

Berlin illustrated (clockwise from upper left): Charlottenburg Palace, 17th-century palace commissioned by the wife of Friedrich III; “Inferno”, sculpture created for the Dachau concentration camp and now on display in the German History Museum; the unsettling Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the German flag flies high over the Reichstag; Olympiastadion, site of Jesse Owens’ triumphant 1936 Olympic Games; modern-day remnants of Checkpoint Charlie, primary gateway between East and West Berlin during the Cold War; Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag; still-standing stretch of the Berlin Wall near the site of the former Gestapo headquarters; Brandenburg Gate

The tour bus then dropped us off at the marathon expo, held in the former Berlin Tempelhof Airport.  For any of us paying attention, the fact that the race expo was held in a former airport should have been an ominous sign – turns out it was a bloated monstrosity, filling several hangars of the airport and making the 2012 Chicago Marathon expo, held in the largest convention center in North America, feel like an intimate affair by comparison.  Like shepherding sheep through a maze, signs and arrows and SCC Events staff directed the flow of traffic, with only runners who brandished proof of registration being allowed to enter the bib pickup area. And once you exited the pickup area, security personnel ensured you didn’t try to re-enter.

Way too many booths hawked way too much gear and way too many gimmicks, with the Container Store-like promise of solving problems you never knew you had (tired of relying on burdensome free safety pins to hold your number in place?  Try our 15€ alternative!).  Free samples, a predictable feature of any reasonably sized expo, were rare commodities in Berlin, with even the PowerBar folks posting a sentry next to their electrolyte drink fountain (one booth did offer free cups of water).  At the Brooks booth, vegan ultrarunner and now-ubiquitous self-evangelist Scott Jurek signed copies of his autobiography Eat and Run.

Adding to the list of unlike other races I’ve run, Berlin provided no t-shirt with race registration, a void that the folks at the overstaffed Adidas storefront would be happy to fill for 30€ (~$39).  Judging that I needed another race t-shirt like a third shoe, I opted instead to invest my $39 in race photos, including finish-line shots with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho straddling boundary of former Berlin Wall

We thought we were pretty cool, Katie standing in the former East Berlin and me in West Berlin… until we saw the show-off in the pink tights

On Saturday morning Katie, despite a nagging cold, elected to run the appropriately named Breakfast Fun Run along with roughly 10,000 other runners, many of whom were irrepressibly cheery and proudly clad in the colors of their home country.  The main reason for doing the run was the route itself, which began at the Charlottenburg Palace and ended 6K (3.6 miles) later at Olympiastadion, where in the 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens won four goal medals and essentially gave Hitler’s notion of Aryan supremacy the double middle finger.  Ironically, Owens was able to share accommodations with his teammates in Nazi Germany, a freedom denied him back home in the segregated United States.  In response to reports that Hitler refused to shake his hand, Owens said, “Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”

In the unfamiliar role of spectator, I hopped the U-Bahn (subway) and arrived just in time to see Katie enter the stadium and finish with ¾ of a lap on the overcrowded synthetic blue track.  Amusingly, the post-6K spread with its coffee, donuts and chocolate milk would prove far superior to what awaited me at mile 27 the next day.

KT_6K finish

On the track at Olympiastadion… “Heads up, coming through, mad dash to the finish!!!”

Saturday evening we gathered at the hotel Sofitel Berlin Kurfürstendamm for the Marathon Tours pre-race pasta dinner.  There we topped off our carb stores and listened to guest speaker Tom Grilk, Executive Director of the Boston Athletic Association.  He talked about the B.A.A’s response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, as well as life in the immediate and long-term aftermath of the bombings.  And he spoke humbly and appreciatively of all the runners who year after year make Boston the success that it is.

I was surprised to learn that only 85% of runners in the Boston Marathon meet qualifying standards (the other 15% presumably being charity runners), a number that seems awfully low given Boston’s prestige and its exclusive qualifying process.  I’m all for running in the name of charitable causes, and did so myself in Chicago in 2012. But in the case of Boston, I’m also a strong proponent that qualifying standards should apply to ALL runners, particularly in light of the fact that the B.A.A. has had to turn away qualified runners in the past two years.

After dinner, with race number pinned to shirt and timing chip secured to shoe (really, Berlin? still using timing chips?), and with the next morning mapped out to avoid surprises, there was nothing left to do but call it an early night.

Tom Grilk_Executive Director Boston Athletic Association

B.A.A. Executive Director Tom Grilk addresses the room at the Marathon Tours pre-race pasta dinner

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts. – Eleanor Roosevelt
Early Sunday morning I awoke in the dark, convinced I’d heard my alarm and that it was time to rise and shine.  My iPhone told a different story: 1:27 a.m.

Some time later I awoke feeling well-rested, wide awake and ready to roll, before my iPhone again burst my bubble: 4:40 a.m.  So I lay in bed visualizing the day ahead and listening to the resonant hum of the city.  Eighty painstaking minutes later, my alarm finally conceded what my brain and body already knew – it was go time.  Berlin Marathon Day.

I donned my shiny new RaceRaves t-shirt (yes! you should click on that link and sign up), mixed the granola and yogurt I’d brought in an insulated pouch from California, and prepared my drop bag.  Bidding super-spectator Katie farewell, I joined my fellow anxious runners on the bus destined for the giant Hauptbahnhof U-Bahn station, where I sat and ate breakfast as the compression-clad masses streamed toward the staging area.  Soon I joined them – and that’s when an already edgy morning turned stressful.

With an 8:45 a.m. start time, I arrived in the Tiergarten staging area just before 8:00 a.m. and immediately hopped in line for the port-o-lets.  And there I stood 40 MINUTES LATER, as the ten available units were forced to serve literally hundreds of runners.  This was an indefensible screw-up on the organizers’ part, and my stress levels soared as I watched other runners finish their warmups and head toward the start line.  Adding insult to injury, by the time I reached the front of the line, my unit was out of toilet paper.  Luckily years on the trails have taught me always to carry my own supply, though I doubt the people after me were so lucky.  And there were plenty of runners still in line when I exited the overworked unit at 8:43 a.m.

Hurriedly I handed my drop bag to the teenage volunteer and jogged toward the start line, hearing the distant sounds of the starting horn sending the runners in my corral on their way.  Finally reaching the start line a couple of minutes later, I slipped in at the front of the next shoulder-to-shoulder wave.  With the Brandenburg Gate rising imposingly behind and the Victory Column looming straight ahead, I positioned myself three feet behind the most important start line of my running career to await the starter’s countdown.

Mike Sohaskey at 7KM marker - Berlin Marathon 2014

Almost missing Katie at the 7-km mark

Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going. – Sam Levenson
The first half of the race passed smoothly, other than my usual energy lull between miles 8 and 11.  Every once in a while I’d look up to see another km marker ahead (the 42 separate km markers were significantly more than the 26 mile markers I’m used to), and every so often we’d run through a cloud of cigarette smoke or splash through the puddles of another aid station.  And as my Garmin chimed to signal mile 13, my average pace held steady at 7:43/mile.  Nice.

Turns out this was a good race to stay focused and block out distractions, since it’s not like I could read the spectator signage or understand most of the conversations going on around me.  Other than the drawing of Yoda with German caption that I saw twice on the course, the only other sign I distinctly remember is the simply rendered black-and-white board reminding runners that “Finishing is your ONLY fucking option!”  Well said, and way to showcase the subtleties of the English language!

My only nagging concern throughout the race was that, in wanting to ensure my unusually wide Altra shoes stayed snug on my feet, I’d not only tied them too tight but also double-knotted them.  By the time I sensed them squeezing the tops of my feet like a vise, I refused to relinquish the minute or so I’d need to stop, untie, loosen and re-tie them.  That minute could be huge in the big picture… so to compound my stupidity I chose instead to suck it up and check back regularly to ensure I could still feel my toes.

Kimetto & Mutai in lead pack of Berlin Marathon at 7KM

Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Mutai (rear), on their way to each breaking Wilson Kipsang’s world record

Approaching the 12 km (7.4 mile) mark I saw the Strausberger Platz Fountain ahead and noticed at the same time that the street before the fountain was soaked with water.  My distracted brain immediately put two and two together and concluded the fountain was overflowing, before realizing that in fact I’d reached another aid station.

Unfortunately the race organizers chose to use plastic rather than paper cups at the aid stations, which may sound trivial but which meant the course was littered with cups and shards of plastic rolling underfoot.  More than once I saw a runner stop momentarily to dislodge a cup that was stuck on his foot – just what you want to be doing at mile 19 of a marathon.

Twice (7 km and the halfway point at 21 km) I saw Katie along the course, and twice – thanks to crowd density and a limited field of vision – I’d nearly passed by before noticing her.  Even at Chicago, a similarly sized race, I’d been able to locate her in the crowd and react well in advance of reaching her.

As the second half (i.e. the real race) began, I found myself dodging and weaving around slower runners to maintain pace – check out this glitchy footage of me and my fellow caravanners at 25 km/15.5 miles.  On Berlin’s narrow streets and with spectators often spilling out into the street, the course seemed always to be congested, and I’d given up trying to run the tangents (i.e. the shortest and most efficient route).  Twice I had to slow down to wait as a spectator cut in front of me, pulling a child across the street with him.  And several times I heard an “Oop!” just as a runner cut me off trying to reach either an aid station or family members in the crowd.

One thing I realized in Berlin is that during a race loud music, raucous crowds and random noises have the opposite of their intended effect on me – they seem to siphon energy away, so that every time we’d pass a boisterous stretch I’d feel a wave of exhaustion wash over me.  Several times on Sunday morning I found myself longing for a nice, quiet trail race.

Mike Sohaskey on Berlin Marathon course

When I say RaceRaves was running ads in Berlin, I mean it literally

It’s always too early to quit. – Norman Vincent Peale
Inevitably all my dodging and weaving took its toll, and sometime around mile 18 I slammed into my own sobering version of the Berlin Wall.  Like its real-life predecessor, the odds of getting over this Wall looked grim, as an extended bottleneck and mounting fatigue led to my first 8:00+ minute mile of the day (8:18).  At that point my short-circuiting brain apparently thought it a great idea to share its negative scenarios, and disheartening images of my BQ goal slipping away began to flash before my eyes.

Slowing down now would be the death knell for my BQ chances, and if I gave in to fatigue then one slow mile would certainly morph into several slower ones.  It didn’t help that the sun was now high in a cloudless sky… and though the course’s exposed stretches were brief, the sun’s 60°F heat was definitely at work.

But with 7+ miles still to go, I wasn’t ready to call it a day.  In the months leading up to this race, I’d purposefully spent a lot of time visualizing positive outcomes.  So quickly I popped a Clif Shot Blok (i.e. sugar bomb) in my mouth and refocused on picking up the pace.  Luckily I still had a surge left in me, and mile 20 ended as my fastest mile of the day (6:51).  Now my concern shifted to how much more I had left.

The marathon is a difficult undertaking and a daunting challenge under the best of circumstances.  But just as the elites are running a whole different race than the rest of us, those who aspire to really race are running a different event than their fellow runners who are simply looking to finish and have fun doing it.  I ran back-to-back marathons in Mississippi and Alabama earlier this year, with the goal of finishing each in a comfortable 3 hours, 45 minutes.  Certainly I was tired after each race, potty-cularly given the circumstances in Alabama – but in both states I stopped at several aid stations along the way, and by the time I crossed the finish (at least in Mississippi) I could have run another few miles if necessary.

Berlin would be a very different story.  The marathon doesn’t truly begin until your brain – i.e. your own worst enemy – gets involved, and its pessimistic chatter starts to remind you of how tired you are, telling you it’s ok to slow down a bit, you’ve gotta be hurting, you can’t possibly keep this up…

Berlin Marathon - Top 3 female finishers

Shalane poses on the big screen with winner Tirfi Tsegaye (ETH) and runner-up Feyse Tadese (ETH)

Mile 22, and with the pealing of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtnis-Kirche (Memorial Church) bells ringing through my haze, the remaining dregs of my mental reserves were laser-focused on maintaining leg turnover and cadence, to keep my mile paces as close to 7:45 as possible.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

On the bright side, escalating exhaustion overpowered the acute pain on the tops of my feet.

With roughly 5 km (3 miles) to go I doggedly fell in step behind a red-shirted fellow with sweat flying off him whose pace matched my own, and I resolved to do whatever I could to keep him within striking distance.  At mile 25 I glanced down at my Garmin, and was rewarded with the miraculous news that somehow, my average pace was holding steady at 7:43/mile.  Desperate not to let it all slip away in the final 1.2 miles, I focused on anything and everything to distract from my leaden legs and mounting exhaustion – correct my wavering stride, pick off other zombified runners, visualize the Brandenburg Gate as always being just… around… the corner…

Until finally it was.  Angels (maybe it was the winged figure atop the Gate?) sang on high as this time the raucous cheers of thousands of spectators propelled me along the final stretch, one of the most “WOW”-ly historic stretches of race course in the world.  Overcome with the emotional realization that this is it, weakly I threw up my arms as I passed through the Gate and saw…

… the finish line, still 400 yards dead ahead.  400 very. long. yards.  Feeling like a rusted old jalopy running on fumes and leaking oil with every step, I dug down as deep as I could for one last surge – and came up empty.  I had nothing left.  No final surge, no proud sprint to the finish – only muscle memory and a few carefully hoarded molecules of ATP carried me those final 400 yards and across the finish to where the happy people waited.

Shakily I wobbled to a stop, threw back my head and gulped down a few deep breaths as I stared at the sky in dazed disbelief.  Meanwhile, the MarathonFoto folks positioned above the finish line looked beyond me as though to indicate “OK buddy you’re done, move it along, more interesting runners to photograph here.”  Happily I obliged.

Mike Sohaskey - finishing Berlin Marathon through the Brandenburg Gate

On the shiny happy side of the Brandenburg Gate

High expectations are the key to everything. – Sam Walton
Glancing down at my Garmin, I was elated to see the number I’d hoped for – average marathon pace, 7:44/mile!  Beeping over to the next screen, though, my elation wilted as my Garmin stoically displayed an overall time of 3:24:14, rather than the 3:22:30 (plus or minus) I’d expected to clock at that pace.  Confusedly I checked again, and saw the number that made my still-pounding heart sink – 26.44 miles.  Despite my best intentions of running the most efficient race possible, all the dodging and weaving around other runners had cost me to the tune of an extra ¼-mile.

To explain my chagrin: since the 2013 bombings, the number of qualified runners vying to run the Boston Marathon has outstripped the number of slots available (though again, if there weren’t so many charity slots set aside this wouldn’t be an issue).  This means that some runners who achieve a qualifying time STILL will not get into Boston, and so the B.A.A. has instituted the practice of admitting only the fastest runners in each age group.  In 2014, qualified runners actually had to run 98 seconds faster than their qualifying time to get into Boston, and for 2015 the number dropped to 62 seconds.  Based on these re-jiggered times, besting my qualifying time of 3:25:00 by a mere 42 seconds won’t cut it for 2016.

So to bottom-line this convoluted tale – YES I did qualify for Boston, but NO I probably won’t get in (though I might) based on my Berlin time and two years of Boston precedents.  Talk about bittersweet.  And to make matters more bitter than sweet, if I I’d hammered out just one more 7:45 mile rather than the 8:10 I clocked at mile 26, I would have beaten my qualifying time by 67 seconds and put myself in much better (though still tenuous) position for Boston 2016.

Then again, as my high school basketball coach used to say to what if scenarios, “If your aunt had a package she’d be your uncle” (he was kind of a philosopher-coach).  What ifs aside, I’m determined to turn gators into Gatorade here – now that I’ve broken 3:25:00, I know I can run an even faster marathon.  And as much as I would have loved to score a PR and qualify for Boston at the same time (and admittedly threaten Dan’s solid PR of 3:23:12 in the process), I do understand the importance of baby steps.  But that doesn’t mean I like it.

So in the final analysis, Berlin will go down in my marathon catalog as lucky #13 – I worked my way from PF (plantar fasciitis) to PR (personal record) in less than four months and qualified for Boston in the process.  And my body felt great doing it.  Along the way we reunited with old friends, made new ones and parted with an eye toward future reunions (see y’all in NYC!).  All adding up to a kick-ass time in a kick-ass city.  Now I’m confident that the extra motivation gained from my Berlin experience will keep my training focused and ultimately get me where I need to go.  That being the start line in Framingham in April 2016.

Mike Sohaskey - at Berlin Marathon finish

Thanks to the fellow behind me for blowing me across the finish line

Ich bin ein Berliner. – John F. Kennedy
Some runners care little for race bling, while others outright scoff at the idea.  But I have to admit that after 13 marathons, accepting that finisher’s medal from a friendly volunteer never gets old… and the moment always fills me with endorphin-fueled appreciation, for my own performance as well as for all those who helped me get to the finish.  Each medal hanging on my wall at home recognizes the collective efforts of a largely nameless and faceless support crew – plus of course Katie, always the most important member of that crew.

Coincidentally, the flip side of the 2014 Berlin medal pictures Wilson Kipsang, whose 2013 Berlin world record (2:03:23) lasted one short year before falling to fellow Kenyans Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57) and Emmanuel Mutai (2:03:13).  Their record-setting duel fired up the running community and re-ignited the Holy Grail debate over the imminence of a sub-2 hour marathon.  Great job guys, and enjoy your nine months of “LAST CHANCE TO ORDER!” emails from MarathonFoto.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho in front of Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

Out of the way you two, you’re blocking a sweet shot of the Reichstag building!

Mike Sohaskey and Daniel Otto at Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

Catching up with a victorious Otter… luckily that finger wasn’t loaded

Meanwhile, only one American (Fernando Cabada, 11th overall) finished in the top 50.  Five zero.

And though no world records were set on the women’s side, Shalane Flanagan again muscled up for the U.S., earning third place by running the second-fastest marathon ever by an American women (2:21:14, behind only Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 performance at London in 2006).  Huge congrats to Shalane… her 2014 will be a tough year to beat.

Entering the finish chute I could finally collapse on the curb and loosen my shoes, as by now my badly bruised feet and shins were screaming at me.  Apparently 43 years hasn’t been enough for me to learn how to tie shoelaces.  Aside from cutting off my circulation though, the Altra The One2 shoes I wore worked out great.  Every race really is a learning experience.

With the post-race heat sheet draped around me like Superman’s cape, I hobbled a significant distance through the finish chute before reaching the first water station. There I was shunted to another station after being told the water was for medical emergencies only.  Finally quenching my thirst, I glanced around in search of post-race munchies.  Disappointed to find nothing more substantial than apple slices and bananas (and no thank you to alcohol-free beer), I hustled out of the chute and happened to spy Katie as we both converged on the grassy front yard of the Reichstag.  From her final post alongside the Brandenburg Gate, she’d had to circumnavigate the entire perimeter of the finish area before reaching the family reunion area, where we now settled down to soak up the sun.

As we compared notes and shot photos, I kept one eye on the steady stream of runners exiting the finish chute.  As unlikely as it seemed in a crowd of 40,000+ people, I was on the lookout for a familiar (I have one of my own) red 2012 Chicago Marathon shirt. Sure enough, my persistence paid off when I glanced up to see Otter and several friends in animated conversation heading our way.  In a scene that’s quickly becoming a cool “destination race” tradition, Otter and I congratulated each other (he’d run his first sub-4 marathon in nearly a year), immortalized the moment and made plans to meet the next day.  Which we did.  Given that we’ll both be running NYC in three weeks, I’ll be scanning the crowds in Central Park in the hopes of keeping this tradition alive.

Mike Sohaskey and Herzel celebrating Berlin Marathon finish

“Prost!” to a race well run, with fellow traveling runner (and Bay Area native) Herzel

At that moment, sunning myself lazily on the lawn of the Reichstag amidst a rainbow of nationalities and with unfamiliar languages swirling around me, I heard JFK’s decidedly non-Germanic accent in my head: Ich bin ein Berliner.  At that moment, beaming runners from North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania all proudly sported the same finisher’s medal hanging from the same black, red and gold ribbon around their necks.  And at that moment, we were all Berliners.

Because while soccer may claim to be the world game, running is the world sport.  Unlike other competitions, where our team plays your team and our fans sit across the stadium from your fans, running brings everyone together at the same time and on the same playing field.  Nothing says “Maybe we CAN all get along” like 56,000 athletes from 130 countries all moving in the same direction toward a common goal, like sneaker-clad iron filings toward a magnet.  More than anything else, this is what the World Marathon Major is all about.  Berlin 2014 showcased the spirit and camaraderie of the international running community, and I was both psyched and privileged to be a middle-of-the-pack part of that.

And speaking of international events, it’s time I started tapering for New York…

Berlin Marathon 2014 medal

BOTTOM LINE: “Flat and fast” is the phrase most often used to describe the Berlin Marathon, and I’d agree with the first part of that – the course is flat for everyone. And in all fairness, its obscene flatness does make it faster than just about any other marathon course out there – even the Chicago Marathon has “Mount Roosevelt” lying in wait at mile 26.  But Berlin’s fastness is deceptive because as flat as the course is, unless you’re an elite it’s also among the most crowded courses you’ll ever run (stay tuned for NYC in three weeks).  And it’s crowded for pretty much the entire 26.2 miles, with Berlin’s narrow streets allowing for only occasional stretches of comfortably uncongested running.

So race day felt a bit like an extended cattle drive, and race production – especially for a world marathon major – was surprisingly subpar (see below).  But if you’re a hardcore runner, it’s doubtful anything I write will discourage you from running Berlin.  In some ways it feels as though the organizers are saying, “Hey, if you want to go run a DIFFERENT world marathon major, be our guest.”  They know they have a captive audience of rabid runners with bucket lists written in blood, and that runners looking to run all six majors will dutifully line up each year to throw their name into the Berlin lottery hat.

And honestly, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from running Berlin, if for no other reason than to experience and immerse yourself in one of the world’s most historically and culturally amazing cities.  Despite my wanting to curl up and sleep under it by that point, running through the Brandenburg Gate at mile 26 was an indescribable thrill, and moments like that are a major reason I love running the world.  I just wish the organizers would listen to runner feedback, or that the other world marathon majors would implore Berlin to step up its game.  Because as epic a race weekend as this was, a few tweaks could have made it so much better.

PRODUCTION: I can only imagine how challenging it must be, and how much choreography and security must be involved, to organize and stage a marathon the size and gravitas of Berlin.  With that in mind I tip my cap to the organizers, since to a person every runner I spoke with had an overall positive experience.

That said, race production is where Berlin fell short on many levels.  In comparison to the only other marathon major I’ve run so far, Chicago 2012, Berlin was a disappointing second.  And these aren’t the isolated grievances of one bitter runner who did-but-didn’t qualify for Boston – many if not all of these issues were echoed by other runners:

  • The expo was TOO FREAKING HUGE, and was more like a trade show than a race expo.  It’s a pretty clear indication your expo is out of control when it expands to fill several hangars of a former airport.  Unlike U.S. race expos there were scarcely any free samples to be had… every item seemingly carried a price tag, and even the normally generous PowerBar peeps were carefully guarding their electrolyte drink station.  What’s more, the expo was a harbinger of things to come on race day as I felt inexorably herded in different directions, first to access each separate hangar, then to enter the bib pickup area, then to exit the bib pickup area, then to traverse (how convenient!) the Adidas storefront hawking official race merchandise, and finally toward the ausgang (exit).
  • And on the topic of the Adidas storefront, as absurd as it sounds in 2014, Berlin race registration includes NO race t-shirt – though official race shirts were available at the expo for the {ahem} bargain price of 30€ (= $39).  Do a quick calculation, and you can estimate how much money the organizers must be a) saving by not providing t-shirts, and b) raking in by charging for shirts.
  • Re: the pre-race setup, I arrived one hour beforehand and waited in line for ~40 minutes to use one of the ten port-o-lets that were serving literally hundreds of anxious runners.  This was horrific planning by the organizers, and was by far the most stressful part of race weekend – even the much smaller (and more well-organized) California International Marathon, which I ran in 2011, had roughly 10x the number of units as Berlin.  Not only that, but when I finally reached the front of the line my port-o-let was out of toilet paper.  And to top off my pre-race cortisol levels, I completed my harried pit stop two minutes before my wave was scheduled to depart, and had to hurriedly jog another ¼-mile (at least) to reach the start line where I barely arrived in time to join the corral departing in the wave after mine.  Damn, I’m getting stressed out all over again just writing this.
  • Luckily I took advantage of only one aid station on the entire course, so I don’t have much to report about their frequency or offerings.  But I couldn’t avoid noticing that the organizers chose plastic rather than paper cups – an unfortunate choice since plastic cups ended up bouncing underfoot at every aid station, as runners were forced to expend energy sidestepping carefully to avoid getting their foot caught in one.  Note to organizers: next year, when your supplier asks “paper or plastic?”, do the right thing and answer “PAPER”.
  • The post-race spread was abysmal, and in fact I walked what felt like several hundred yards through the finish chute before even reaching the first water station (at which point I was shunted to another table, since that water was only for medical emergencies).  And with apologies to Erdinger, their sponsorship was a big ol’ letdown.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that, after running a world marathon major in Germany’s largest city, the word “free” should fall before rather than after the word “alcohol”.  Chicago after all had free-flowing real beer (thanks, Goose Island!).  Alcohol-free beer after the Berlin Marathon felt like having your picture taken with a cardboard Mickey Mouse cut-out at the Walt Disney World Marathon.
  • Food-wise, the only offerings I could see were apples and bananas, with no obvious source of protein – ironic, considering that even the 6K fun run Katie had run the day before had provided its scarcely winded finishers with both regular and chocolate milk.  Later I realized that the not-so-goodie bag handed out by volunteers in the finish chute (why do I need another goodie bag?) contained a PowerBar wafer product, which like so many of their products over the years held true to the PowerBar ethic of falling just this side of “Soylent” on the palatability scale.  Accordingly, I gave up after two nibbles.

FINAL STATS:
September 28, 2014
26.44 miles in Berlin, Germany (continent 3 of 7, World Marathon Major 2 of 6)
Finish time & pace: 3:24:14 (first time running the Berlin Marathon), 7:44/mile
Finish place: 4,044 overall, 921/4,218 in M(40-44) age group
Number of finishers: 29,021 (22,226 men, 6,795 women)
Race weather: clear and calm (starting temp 52°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 485ft ascent, 488ft descent

Berlin splits

My tightest marathon splits to date: 1:42:00 for the first half, 1:42:14 for the second half

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

Roads?  Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
– Emmett “Doc” Brown, “Back To The Future”

Spyhopping humpback in Fournier Bay, Antarctica (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

(PREFACE: This is not a blog post in the usual sense.  Rather, it’s my attempt to chronicle an amazing adventure in two acts, and to – “demystify” is the wrong word – inspire an appreciation for a remarkable ecosystem that’s much more than an alien land of ice and snow.  For anyone seeking an even more detailed account of the Antarctica Marathon and its history, I’d recommend John Hanc’s book, The Coolest Race on Earth.  And for time-challenged readers who simply want the gist of our journey, I’d recommend skipping all the cumbersome words and sticking to the pictures.  Whatever your preference, thanks for reading!)

More so than any month in recent memory, March was a month of firsts.  Or maybe more accurately, it was a month of lasts.

Cut to the morning of February 26, and the last place I expected to find myself a month later was exactly where I found myself a month later: joining upwards of 100 highly motivated runners – including one celebrated back-of-the-packer with the all-too-appropriate nickname of “The Penguin” – aboard a Russian research vessel headed toward the South Pole to race The Last Marathon on the Last Great Continent.  All under the watchful eye of a leader named Gilligan.

As absurd as a “spontaneous” trip to Antarctica sounds, that’s exactly what this would be.  Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction… and even less likely.

Damn the icebergs, full speed ahead!
Rewind to the morning of February 26, a morning that began like any other: my spring racing plans were gradually taking shape as I contemplated a return to either the L.A. Marathon – one of my 2012 racing highlights – or the Oakland Marathon, site of my half marathon PR (1:34:02) last year.  Also in my sights were one or more upcoming trail races with my favorite local racing outfit, Brazen Racing.

Yep, spring 2013 was falling into place… until the following e-mail message hit my Inbox, and my best-laid plans went out the porthole:

dear Mike,

The ship that we had chartered for the 2013 Antarctica Marathon to depart in a couple of days has been damaged by an iceberg.

We have rescheduled the trip using the sister ship, the Akademik Vavilov which we have chartered many times in the past.

You are currently waitlisted or confirmed in the future for the Antarctica Marathon. Are you interested in confirming space for these new dates in 2013?

[details omitted]

It always is an adventure. Please advise as soon as possible since most of the confirmed passengers have rescheduled for the later dates. We will have a few spots available.

Please contact us immediately if you are interested.

Thom Gilligan
Marathon Tours & Travel

My immediate reaction was probably similar to yours… 101 years after the Titanic kissed the bottom of the ocean, actual operating ships are still colliding with icebergs?  My secondary response, though, was one of adrenalized bewilderment – Antarctica?  On such short notice?  Was this a legitimate option for us?

In short – yes, it was.  Due to the large number of runners vying for a limited number of slots (roughly 100 per year), the Antarctica Marathon typically requires years of advance planning and a lengthy sojourn on the Marathon Tours waitlist.  As referenced in their e-mail, we’d entered the waitlist in mid-2012 and in doing so had confirmed our spot – for 2016.  So we figured to have three more years to plan for this trip.

Take me to your freezer!

Thing is, I hate procrastination, and putting off until tomorrow what I can do today.  Paradoxically, I have a lot of patience – research science and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand.  But Antarctica promised to be the opportunity of a lifetime.  Cliché as it may sound, life really is too short, as we were starkly reminded by this past week’s tragic events in Boston.  Who knows where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing three years from now?

And although I wouldn’t classify myself as a “bucket list” runner, I do have a short list of three marathons that I consider must-do events: Boston, New York City and Antarctica.  What did it matter that neither Katie nor I owned a legitimate cold-weather jacket, or that I’d only run in tights once in my entire life?  At least we wouldn’t need any vaccinations or immunizations for this trip… I’m pretty sure penguin fever is both unpreventable and incurable.

As the nail in the coffin of March normalcy, we found ourselves in a relatively obligation-free time of personal and professional transition (another post for another time).  Thus the awesome realization dawned on us that yeah, March was actually the perfect time for a frigid flight of fancy.  And within two days, we’d committed to join 98 other adventure-seekers on an unanticipated journey to the Last Great Continent.  Thankfully, our voyage was scheduled to last a bit longer than a 3-hour tour.

And so it was that on March 21, after a highly successful raid on the winter clearance racks at our local REI, The North Face and assorted outlets, Katie and I found ourselves on a flight bound for Buenos Aires, Argentina, where our 17-day adventure would begin.  With little time for pre-trip research and little idea of what to expect (other than the obligatory requests to “Bring back a penguin!”), our ignorance was bliss.

So, just sit right back and you’ll read a tale, a tale of a fateful trip….

ARGENTINA (Fri – Tues, March 22 – 26)
Since this is ostensibly a running blog, I’ll limit my thoughts on the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires to the high (and low) points of our 5-day visit – though use of the word “concise” here would be disingenuous:

Overall, we had a lively visit to Argentina’s capital city – which wasn’t a foregone conclusion, given that I have virtually no interest in soccer, tango dancing or huge slabs of beef.  But with its European-inspired architecture, socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, thriving theatre industry and plentiful green spaces, Buenos Aires is a culturally vibrant city and a terrific place to explore on foot.  Fortunately, my sub-fluent yet functional Spanish proved good enough to point us in the right direction and keep us out of trouble.

El Obelisco in Plaza de la República, Buenos Aires (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Good morning, good afternoon and good night in the Plaza de la República:
El Obelisco stands on the site where the Argentine flag was first hoisted in Buenos Aires in 1812

Architecturally, the city is a dynamic and captivating mix of old and new.  Highlights of our bus and walking tour included the ornate mausoleums of La Recoleta Cemetary (where many notable Argentinians including Eva Perón are interred), the politically charged Plaza de Mayo (site of La Casa Rosada, mansion and office of the President of Argentina), and the recently renovated Teatro Colón (famed opera house which Pavarotti once praised for its “perfect” acoustics).  And not surprisingly, images of favorite son Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis, now adorn the city.

For a city of Buenos Aires’ reputation and importance, however, I was disappointed by the state of abject disrepair in which many of its sidewalks find themselves.  In many places it looked as though The Avengers had been filmed in the city and nobody had bothered to clean up the rubble.  With a marathon on the horizon and after several near tweaks, I felt fortunate to get out of Argentina with both ankles intact.

Photo collage of Buenos Aires highlights (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Buenos Aires illustrated (clockwise from upper left): La Casa Rosada, executive mansion and office of the President of Argentina; plaque marking Eva Perón’s tomb in La Recoleta Cemetery; tango demonstration in the Recoleta district; one of the city’s many neglected sidewalks; colorful Caminito street in the neighborhood of La Boca; steel sculpture of Evita on the north facade of the Social Development and Health Ministry; the steel-and-aluminum Floralis Genérica sculpture in Plaza de las Naciones Unidas

As a runner, I was impressed by the number of Porteños (locals) out on the weekend walking, running or cycling through the city’s many bustling parks.  The typical Porteño I saw certainly was not built like someone whose daily diet consists of at least two large servings of beef – I’d guess the average Houstonian weighs roughly the same as 1.5 Porteños.

Speaking of food, the only part of each day I didn’t look forward to were the meals, for instance the vegetarian pizza we ordered for dinner one evening that arrived smothered in ham (I assumed the pig had been an herbivore).  In addition, the extra – and not insignificant – fee that several restaurants charged for “table service,” coupled with their insistence on serving and charging for bottled water despite the potability of the local tap water, amounted to epic scams.

I don’t usually fault cities for their names, but “Buenos Aires” is a conspicuous misnomer.  Granted the city was originally recognized for its “good airs” (or more likely, its “fair winds”) way back in the 16th century, but these days it would be like changing Omaha’s name to Ocean View, Nebraska.  Collectively, the carbon monoxide-induced asphyxiation from urban traffic (particularly the large number of freight trucks headed to and from the port), the secondhand asphyxiation from the local smoking population, and the impenetrable char-grilled asphyxiation from the parrillas (barbecue grills) bordering the Reserva Ecológica where I ran on two occasions, combined to ensure that my lungs never got too comfortable in their pleura.

This was the top Google search result for parrilla, the catch-all name for the city’s popular BBQ grills.

By keeping close tabs on our cameras and backpacks, we were able to depart Buenos Aires with our wallets and all other personal belongings intact.  Unfortunately, not all our fellow runners were so lucky… we heard of at least two cameras being stolen from dinner tables, and one trusting fellow (a fellow Bay Area native, in fact) lost his wallet to an elaborate pickpocket ruse involving fake bird droppings on his head, two helpful bystanders with a towel and an immediately accessible getaway car.

We meet at last (Sunday, March 24)
Our third evening in Buenos Aires featured the Antarctica Welcome Banquet Dinner.  Here we met Thom Gilligan, the founder and leader of Boston-based Marathon Tours, as well as the four members of his race crew who would be joining us in Antarctica: Scott and Anita, respectively the General Manager and Environmental Officer of Marathon Tours, as well as the husband-and-wife team of John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jenny Hadfield, both well-known to the running community for their books and popular columns in Runner’s World and elsewhere.

John opened with some remarks about The Last Marathon, the first organized sporting event in the history of Antarctica.  Thom then said a few words about “Antarcticer” (his Boston-based pronunciation) and introduced our upcoming adventure with the brutally honest classified ad ostensibly posted in the London Times by explorer Ernest Shackleton, in preparation for his 1907 Antarctic expedition:

Ernest Shackleton

Musical accompaniment for the subsequent slideshow included Dido’s “White Flag,” with its (so we all hoped) tongue-in-cheek chorus of “I will go down with this ship.”  After the slideshow, Thom asked for a show of hands as to who had run a sub-3 hour marathon in the past two years.  Three hands went up.  He then asked for a show of hands from runners in the 3:00 to 3:30 range – three or four more hands went up, including mine.  Although I knew this wouldn’t be a typical marathon, in that the 50-59 and 60-69 age groups would be the most competitive, I knew there would still be plenty of representation by the younger demographics, and I was shocked to find myself immediately seeded so highly.

But for me the most striking realization of the evening, which I hadn’t fully appreciated to that point, was the dedication and commitment of every person in that room.  True we were all headed for Antarctica, and that in itself set this room apart.  But whereas running for most people is a hobby, a way to alleviate stress and stay fit, for this group it was a lifestyle, an obsession in the healthiest sense of the word.  And while not everyone in that banquet hall may have possessed the stereotypical “runner’s body” (that’s why it’s a stereotype), I’d be reminded in the coming week that mind really does matter.

Thom

Thom Gilligan introduces an excited group of marathoners to what lies ahead

That evening I met seemingly normal, well-adjusted individuals who had run over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons.  I met several individuals who had raced in all 50 states, on all 7 continents, and yet had never run a trail race.  I met Winter, a 14-year-old Junior Olympian from Oregon who’d formed Team Winter and resolutely set a goal to run a marathon on all seven continents in support of prostate cancer awareness, after her father was diagnosed with the disease in 2008 and passed away less than a year later.  I met Wes, a 78-year-old lifelong Purdue Boilermaker who’d run 200 marathons (including 100 in the past decade) and in 23 European countries, and for whom Antarctica would be his 7th continent and final marathon.  I met Rory, a charismatic and “Jo-burg proud” South African who had completed the notoriously grueling Comrades Ultramarathon 12 times.  I met Brendan, a running coach and 50 states/6 continents finisher from Chicago who’d failed in his first bid to complete the Antarctica Marathon three years earlier, and was back to exact his racing revenge.  I met the Canadian duo of 70-year-old Georgine and her son James, and was amused to discovered that she was the runner in the family who had persuaded her hockey-playing son to join her in running the Antarctica half marathon.  And I met many others whose stories I’d hear and whose lives I’d share over the next two weeks.

As nonchalantly as most people would discuss their kids’ soccer game, conversations centered around questions like “How many continents is this for you?” and “Have you run Kilimanjaro yet?”  The Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, the Arctic Circle, even Antarctica already in a few cases – my travel companions had left their footprints, literally, on nearly every conceivable destination on the planet.

I had to admit… these were my kind of people.

Destination: Antarctica (Tues – Thurs, March 26 – 28)
Fast-forward 36 hours, and after one more day spent appreciating the many faces of Buenos Aires, we found ourselves on a flight to Ushuaia (pronounced Oos-why-uh by the locals), the southernmost city in the world and the capital of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.  As the plane touched down in Ushuaia, the cheers from the locals onboard and the sight of the woman seated next to me crossing herself suggested our adventure had begun earlier than planned.

Katie and Mike Sohaskey in Ushuaia, Argentina

It’s the end of the world as we know it… and Katie and I feel fine

After a brief layover and stroll around this sleepy port town we boarded the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, the Russian ship (and one-time research vessel) that would – barring an unforeseen iceberg encounter – carry 105 passengers, 41 crew members and 13 expedition staff to our destination across 600 nautical miles and a particularly gnarly stretch of open ocean that we’d soon come to know all too well.

With rainbows and mist-shrouded peaks dominating the landscape, we “threw ropes” (set sail) at around 6:00pm local time on Tuesday and slowly made our way out of the Beagle Channel.  From that point forward, responsibility for our well-being fell squarely into the hands of the 13-member staff of One Ocean Expeditions.

Akademik Sergey Vavilov in Ushuaia port (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

In the Ushuaia port, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov awaits its human cargo

As it turns out, we couldn’t have entrusted our safety and well-being to a more competent, experienced and entertaining group.  As the Managing Director of Canadian-based One Ocean Expeditions, Andrew Prossin would be our solidly-in-charge Expedition Leader whose soothing voice and Canadian sensibilities would greet us first thing every morning with his wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA.  In addition, at each meal he would set our expectations as to weather (always unpredictable), changes to the itinerary and opportunities for wildlife sightings.  His understated cry of “hooray” which punctuated the end of his announcements became a rallying cry for the entire ship.

His One Ocean staff would be an appropriately eclectic collection of three fellow Canadians (Derek, Zoe and Nate); one Australian (Ewan, the kayaking king); a Dane (Louise, our hotel manager); a Welshman-cum-South African-cum-Australian (Mark, passionate whale conservationist and Andrew’s Assistant Expedition Leader); one far-North American (yoga guru Liz, whose “Alaska girls kick ass!” sticker immediately attracted my attention); one Portuguese (all-important mixologist Joao); and chefs Jeremy, John and Mike who, together with pastry chef Elizabeth, embraced and conquered the unenviable task of creatively providing three meals a day, every day, while hundreds of miles from the nearest grocery store or farmer’s market.  Before this trip I’d never eaten, much less looked forward to, daily lunch dessert.

One Ocean Expeditions staff

The One Ocean Expeditions staff included Expedition Leader Andrew (with microphone), Liz, Mark, Ewan, Nate, Zoe and Derek

Katie and I spent the first hour onboard familiarizing ourselves with the ship’s layout and idiosyncracies, including the less-than-romantic bunk beds in our third-deck cabin that prevented me from sitting up straight in either bed.

The next two days belonged to the Drake Passage, the necessary evil of open water between the Beagle Channel and Antarctica that would test every passenger’s sea legs, not to mention their seasickness meds.  We both chose to use the Transderm Scopolamine patch, a nickel-sized prescription patch applied behind the ear that prevents motion sickness for up to three days.  Which it did admirably well, the main drawback being the side effect of dilated pupils that messed up our vision something fierce.  As a result, neither of us felt quite like ourselves during those two days crossing the Drake, as our literal inability to focus prevented productive behaviors such as reading or writing.

This is your brain on scopolamine (left); normal undilated pupil shown on right for comparison 

Unfortunately, all postcards had to be submitted before race day if we wanted them to be postmarked from Antarctica.  And so I found myself seated in the lounge of a wickedly swaying boat with one eye closed, squinting through my open eye Popeye-style as I tried to stabilize both hand and vision long enough to write legible quips about what an awesome time we were having at a destination we hadn’t yet reached.  Lucky family members will no doubt wonder (assuming the cards ever arrive) how many shots of tequila preceded my postcard-ing sessions.

Luckily the One Ocean and Marathon Tours staff had planned other, less cerebrally taxing distractions to pass the time.  Among these, Thom talked about the history of his brainchild, the Antarctica Marathon; John held court and lightened the mood with his entertaining perspective on life as a back-of-the-pack runner; Derek laid down mad knowledge on “Birds of the Southern Ocean”; Liz provided historical context in detailing the ill-fated Scott/Amundsen “Race to the Pole”; and Nate capped the evening with “Marine Superstitions,” after which nobody was caught whistling aboard ship.

Check out this footage of life in the Drake Passage (a.k.a. the “carbo-unloading zone”), filmed through the porthole in our cabin:

By Thursday evening we’d more or less cleared the Drake Passage, crossing the Antarctic Convergence and the 60th parallel south to enter the Southern Ocean. Soon after that we approached the South Shetland Islands and specifically King George Island, site of Saturday’s upcoming race.  At that point even our first whale (fin whale, to be exact) sighting of the trip couldn’t disguise the fact that the natives were getting restless.

As race day approached and hours spent aboard ship accumulated, the restlessness and nervous energy among the passengers continued to build.  The most tangible reflection of this mindset may have been the bar/lounge on the upper deck of the ship, which experienced two sparsely populated evenings as normally relaxed, sociable runners morphed into their water-swilling, teetotalling pre-race alter egos.  Our bartender Joao was perplexed by but resigned to this transformation, which he’d clearly experienced before.  And his voice of experience predicted a significantly more laid-back ambiance once the race was over.  I raised my water bottle in agreement, and in a toast to more carefree days ahead.

Keeping expectations at (Maxwell) bay (Friday, March 29)
With the planet’s southernmost continent within sight at last, the harsh reality of where we were and what we were about to do finally hit home.  Stepping out on the sixth floor deck to gaze upon King George Island – so close and yet so far – I was greeted by the stinging sensation of a million frozen, finely honed razors slicing right through me.  My skin and two lightweight layers were defenseless against the Antarctic wind.  And to think that tomorrow at this time, I’d be running 26.2 miles in this.  Let the mind games begin…

Despite the initial cold shock, the consensus adjective of the day to describe our first encounter with Antarctica was simply “indescribable.”  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case one would have to suffice.

The plan for the day called for Thom and his crew to make their way across Maxwell Bay to King George Island early that morning to set up the race course.  Meanwhile, the rest of us would finally make an excursion off the boat and potentially even stretch our legs on land at some point.  Ah, perchance to dream….  Instead, the Antarctic winds did what the Antarctic winds do, churning up the water and making conditions unsafe to launch the zodiacs (the rigid inflatable boats used to transport people from ship to shore).  It wasn’t until 1:00pm that the wind died down enough to launch the boats and send Thom’s crew (plus ATVs) on their way to King George Island.  Many of us watched as the zodiacs made their not-so-long yet slow voyage across the bay and toward the Russian base at Bellingshausen Station.

Thom and his crew

The zodiacs approach the Russian base on King George Island, on their way to set up the marathon course

This in itself was uplifting news, because again this was Antarctica, where even the seemingly straightforward process of getting off the boat couldn’t be taken for granted.  Still fresh on everyone’s mind was Thom’s unsettling tale of his 2001 Antarctica Marathon expedition, when uncooperative weather had seized the day(s), only to have the passengers seize it right back.  After several days of thwarted attempts to launch the zodiacs in rough waters, a consensus decision had finally been reached that the show must go on, and that the marathon would be run ON. THE. DECK. OF. THE. SHIP.  Apparently one of the passengers that year had been a qualified race distance certifier, and he mapped out a 26.2-mile course that comprised 422 laps around the upper deck.  The race was run over a 24-hour time period, and don’t ask me how each runner kept track of his/her number of laps completed.  Most strategically, the ship had been moored such that the anchor just touched the continent of Antarctica, thereby validating the venue.  Thus went the story of how the 2001 Antarctica Marathon was staged under the most challenging conditions to date, a testament to human fortitude and resolve that exactly nobody on our ship had any interest in repeating.

Speaking of human fortitude… with our plans for an afternoon expedition foiled, everyone gathered in the bar/lounge to watch “Crossing The Ice,” an intimidating/inspiring documentary about two Aussies and one Norwegian who found themselves competing against each other to become the first persons to complete the trek to the South Pole and back unassisted.  I then retreated to the basement gym to, if nothing else, get the blood pumping and stretch my legs before I’d have to use and abuse them the next day.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 pre-race briefing (photo credit: Mike Sohaskey)

A weary Thom addresses a roomful of restless runners during his pre-race briefing

After dinner – the last supper before the race, which happened to coincide with this being Good Friday – Thom stepped to the microphone for his pre-race briefing looking ruddy and dog-tired from his afternoon excursion.  He informed us that the hilly course would consist of two different out-and-backs that marathoners would run three times, with the start/finish line separating the two.  The first out-and-back would take us past the Russian base, then out to the first turn-around point at the Uruguaryan Artigas Base and back, while the second out-and-back would lead past the Chilean Eduardo Frei Base and out to the turn-around at the Chinese Great Wall Station before retracing its steps.  There would be icy (if not muddy) patches to negotiate that Thom estimated at around 5% of the total course distance.  And based on today’s course conditions, he and his crew would be strictly enforcing the 6-1/2-hour time limit – anything longer and we risked hypothermia.

Google Earth rendering of the Antarctica Marathon 2013 course (credit: Mike Sohaskey)

Google Earth rendering of The Last Marathon course – thanks to Dan, from whom I stole the idea;
my personal detour can be seen leading toward the airstrip near the yellow church
(Click on the map for a larger image)

As we’d suspected, the day had been a rough one for Thom and his crew – John predicted that if we’d had to run the race that day in those conditions, nobody would have finished.  But he concluded the briefing by injecting a shot of humor, warning the room that “Bandits (runners who race without paying an entry fee) will be pulled off the course.”

Back in my cabin I systematically organized my apparel, bottles of Cytomax/GU, Garmin (don’t be silly, of course GPS works in Antarctica!) and thoughts for the day ahead.  And I realized that realistically, I had no idea what to expect.  Cold to be sure, but beyond that I had zero expectations: could I run a sub-4:00 marathon in these conditions?  Probably not, though “probably not” wouldn’t stop me from trying.  Runners are notorious for downplaying expectations – case in point, those ultra-competitive types who qualify for the Boston Marathon and then vow to treat it as a “victory lap”.

But this time, I realized as sleep engulfed my upper bunk – this time I really was out in the cold.

Continued and concluded in Act 2… with an actual race report!