Posts Tagged ‘RaceRaves’

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

What does a popular trail race in Northern California have in common with the New York City Marathon—besides a start and finish line?

Looking around the small grass-and-dirt staging area adjacent to El Dorado County Fire District Station 72, you’d have been hard pressed to come up with the answer. The Way Too Cool (WTC) 50K is annually—and it’s not close—the biggest and most exciting show in town for the residents of Cool, CA, a sleepy community of ~4,100 in the Sierra foothills. In contrast, while the New York City Marathon is a big deal to runners, it’s hardly a blip on the radar to its sleepless host city of 8.5 million.

Not only that, but the hundreds of Camelbak-carrying runners waiting to descend on the Auburn State Recreation Area looked much more relaxed than the tens of thousands of type-A road marathoners who fill the streets of New York every November. Not surprising, given the amount of time and effort required to reach each start line: WTC’s easy car ride and (at most) five-minute walk was a far cry from NYC’s epic “by foot/by subway/by ferry/by bus/by foot” route I’d followed just to reach the start line in Staten Island—a journey that had taken nearly as long as running the next 26.2 miles to Central Park.

With no Brazen Racing event scheduled the same weekend, their regulars convened in Cool

And unlike the raucous crowds that line the streets of the five boroughs, the spectators on hand here in Cool would be largely limited to any locals that may be watching from the trees and foliage, most of them too preoccupied with the start of their mating season to worry about a bunch of heavy-footed humans running away from—what, exactly?

But like New York City is to so many road runners, Way Too Cool is to many trail runners a “must run” race. And just as New York is the largest marathon in North America, so too is WTC its biggest ultramarathon.

That may be where the similarity ends, though, because unlike NYC’s historic 51,000+ finishers, Way Too Cool saw a whopping—brace yourself—818 runners cross triumphantly under its green finish arch in 2016. And that was 9% more than the next largest ultra, the JFK 50 Mile.

Start – mile 8: A speedy start
Only one number mattered, though, as the start line announcer’s countdown and “GO!!!” directive sent the first wave of runners charging down the narrow paved road: 31.1 miles. The distance between us and the finish line.

Cool temperatures and mostly cloudly skies meant perfect running weather, with the rain that had threatened all week long now looking increasingly like tomorrow’s concern. Northern California had already seen more than its share of winter rain, and though the week leading up to the race had stayed dry, the trails still promised to be a sloppy, soggy adventure. Luckily for us, messy footing is a happy alternative to running in the rain.

The first mile+ of the course is a gentle downhill on asphalt to help the legs loosen up and lull you into thinking “Hey, maybe I can run a sub-5:00 50K today”. Before too much false hope could set in, though, a left turn onto the dirt took us down a damp and rocky slope where my progress slowed immediately. Rocky downhills are my least favorite terrain, and I felt like a water buffalo cautiously working my way downhill as my fellow runners flew by me with smooth, confident strides. Better safe than sorry this early in the race—I really didn’t want to land awkwardly, pitch forward face first and end my day before it had even begun.

The eight-mile “warmup” loop at WTC teasingly takes you back to the start and under the green finish arch before sending you on your way for the next 23 miles. This was a fast loop with only minor elevation changes, and unlike most of the trail races I’ve run, everyone here seemed to be running to stay ahead of the person pushing them from behind. With the pack bunched up in the early miles and moving like a fast-flowing stream, I felt pressure to keep up and not be the bottleneck. This made for a faster start than I would have run on my own, but rather than pull back on the throttle I decided to go with the flow, knowing the herd would thin out and my pace would slow after this first loop. Besides, running fast is fun, and I was having fun.

We reached the first stream crossing early in this loop, soaking our feet and getting that initial dunking out of the way quickly. There’d be—I’m guesstimating here—10-15 actual stream crossings along the course, places where I’d have no choice but to wade through shin-high (or deeper) water. Not to mention countless other instances where the path of least resistance required me to hurdle small streams or slog through soft mud. In many places, the trail had been obliterated and replaced by a muddy swamp of sunken footprints.

Returning to the staging area at mile 8, I saw Katie for the first and only time and briefly checked into the aid station for a quick sip of water and a bite of banana. One of the best things about ultras is the food at the aid stations, and WTC was no exception: offerings included bananas, pretzels, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, boiled potatoes, M&Ms and Rice Krispie treats as well as “energy” (i.e. sugary) options like Clif Bloks and various GU flavors. Not to be outdone, the drink menu featured water, Coke, Sprite, GU Roctane and even warm chicken broth.

As I learned at the Ice Age Trail 50 last May, one of the keys to ultra success is getting in and out of each aid station—inviting though they may be—as quickly as possible, because time spent noshing and stretching at aid stations adds up in a hurry.
> Average pace (miles 1–8): 9:46/mile

Looping back thru the staging area in mile 8

Miles 9 – 14: A river runs through it
WTC may be the nation’s largest ultramarathon, but it’s a far cry from the world’s largest. That distinction belongs to South Africa’s finest, the 90-km (56-mile) Comrades Marathon which each year accepts 20,000 entries from around the world. In fact, I’d signed up for WTC in part as a well-timed training run for Comrades, which I’ll be running this June.

Headed north away from the staging area, the herd thinned and I decided to let any determined faster runners behind me forge ahead. While the first loop had been a nice way to knock out a few miles and get the blood flowing, my idea of an enjoyable 50K wasn’t going to be acting as someone else’s hare for the day.

Mile 10

For the next two miles the dirt, grass and mud trail followed a gradual downhill trajectory into the WTC “bowl”, crossing Hwy 49 before meeting up with the gravel Western States Trail for a smooth six miles along the American River. This for me was the scenic highlight of the course—being able to focus my attention on the tranquil river rather than the technical singletrack was a nice change of pace, one that allowed me to relax and bask in the beauty of my surroundings. And my legs responded, clocking an 8:35 mile 12 before the trail headed uphill away from the river and I wisely dialed down the pace again.

Owing to the cool temperatures I’d opted to wear my hydration pack minus the hydration, simply as a means of carrying my own nutrition including the baby food pouches that had served me so well at Ice Age. Every so often I’d pop a Clif Blok in my mouth while running, just to keep my blood sugar levels up. And despite still feeling fully charged at the mile 14 aid station, I took the time to down another bite of banana and a packet of GU before charging on. Blood glucose, check!
> Average pace (miles 9–14): 9:37/mile

Middle Fork of the American River

Miles 15 – 21: Up and out of the Bowl
Road marathoners quickly learn that while mile 13.1 may be the actual midway point of the race, mile 16 or even 18 represents its practical (i.e. psychological) midpoint. Not so with ultras, at least not for me—as soon as I hit the midway point at WTC (mile 15.5), I quietly celebrated my “halfway to home” status and started counting down to the finish.

In mile 16 we traversed yet another type of terrain: a river bar, a gray and brown field of water-polished rocks of all sizes, reminiscent of the moraines in Alaska and Montana left behind by the slow movement of glaciers over time. More than any other race I’ve run, WTC scores an A+ for the diversity of its terrain. Over the course of 30+ miles we encountered asphalt, dirt, red dirt, mud, short grass, tall grass, gravel, dead leaves, roots, pine needles, toppled trees, foot bridges, water crossings—you name it, we probably ran on (or through) it. A kick-ass choice for my first trail run of 2017.

Starting at around mile 17, the course took a severe upward turn and the pace slowed significantly as we climbed out of the Bowl. Miles 17–20 were an uphill struggle, penance for the easy descent that had led us down into the Bowl.

I shadowed one seemingly tireless woman in these middle miles, both of us clearly determined to run as much of the uphill as possible. Passing a fellow runner catching his breath on the side of the trail with his hands on his waist, she glanced over at him and said, with what sounded like a smile in her voice (I could be wrong), “Tired?” With that one word, and without pausing, she blew by him with me in close pursuit.

River bar, mile 16

Reaching one particularly high creek crossing, I momentarily lost sight of the orange visor and dark ponytail before spying a flash of movement just downstream. I turned to see my rabbit crossing a wooden plank spanning the creek with the help of a rubber garden hose tied between two trees on either side of the water. I followed, grateful for not having to wade through cold, waist-deep water.

The pattern continued unabated: slop through mud, wade through water, slop through mud, wade through water. I could only imagine the sheer joy of navigating this course during the steady downpour of 2016.

On the bright side, the swampy conditions meant the locals were out in force, and their croaking resonated at several points along the course. We were, after all, intruding on their mating season—hence the frog theme of the race. Their throaty calls evoked childhood memories of warm spring nights in Texas, and distracted from my mounting fatigue.

By the time I reached the mile 21 aid station, I’d lost my rabbit—or rather, she’d lost me. I drowned my sorrows in a packet of baby food and another bite of banana, threw back a few sips of caffeinated energy drink and set my sights on Goat Hill.
> Average pace (miles 15–21): 11:34/mile

Miles 22 – 26: Gunning for Goat Hill
Miles 22–26 of any 50K are sort of the dead zone.

Despite the psychological boost of knowing you have single-digit miles to go, you still have an appreciable distance to cover, plus you’ve yet to reach the marathon milestone at mile 26. And depending on the terrain, your quads and knees are probably starting to stiffen up, making it increasingly tough to speed up and negotiate technical footing. Especially when you’re constantly wading through shin-high water or trying not to sacrifice your shoes to the mud gods.

And speaking of technical footing: as the miles wear on, the mental focus and vigilance needed to constantly be scanning three steps ahead for rocks, roots etc. start to take their toll. As the body tires, the mind wanders and the odds of a misstep grow with every footfall.

Mile 23

So yeah, 21–26 may be my least favorite miles of any 50K—they’re challenging mentally and they’re challenging physically. And in the case of WTC, I’d been warned that at the end of this relaxed, gently rolling stretch awaited Goat Hill.

Welcome to the Way Too Cool 10K, I thought as my Garmin beeped to signal mile 25.

Way Too Cool wasn’t a target race for me—rather, it was a timely opportunity to run some beautiful trails with some excellent friends, at a time when I had no other races on the docket. So there’d been no taper for this, no gradual decrease in training mileage to ensure my legs were at their well-rested bestest. Nope, WTC in effect would be a slightly longer version of my usual weekend long run. Plus, we’d returned from a work conference in Florida earlier in the week, just in time to hop a plane to the Bay Area. So sleep hadn’t been a priority, either. And now, as I chugged through the woods on cruise control, the bill came due for my pre-race nonchalance as a wave of fatigue washed over me.

The good news: the mile 26 aid station now lay less than ¾ of a mile ahead. The less good news: in that intervening ¾ of a mile stood Goat Hill. Someone would later tell me the course’s most intimidating hill had been extended this year, making it longer than usual. In any case, Goat Hill was a tragedy in three acts—where I’d been expecting one brief but nasty ascent, instead I got triple my money’s worth. Brief stretches of level ground—just long enough to make you think you’d reached the top—twice transitioned into another short but steep incline. On the bright side, there was no sense in even trying to run this, so I opted for the tried-and-true hands-on-quads strategy to power-hike my way uphill.

“Passing… on… the… right,” I laughed as I slowly trudged past another runner who’d stopped to catch his breath.

But like all good things, all bad hills must end, and finally I emerged at the top to find the mile 26 aid station awaiting. This, I thought, would be an awesome place for the finish line of the Way Too Cool Marathon.
> Average pace (miles 22–26): 12:34/mile; 18:45 for mile 26

Goat Hill, part one

Mile 27 – finish: Are we there yet?
One more baby food pouch, one more bite of banana and one more sip of energy drink later, I did a few knee raises to loosen my quads and hip flexors, took a deep breath and pointed myself down the trail toward home.

I soon realized there’d be no relief in these last five miles. A series of wet, rocky downhills followed as the trail seemed to get even more technical. Not wanting to do anything stupid (well, stupider than running 31 miles), and with my quads and knees feeling increasingly like stone pillars, I switched gears to “slow and steady” mode. 26+ miles into a long and enjoyable training run, this was no time to go hero on the course and do something stupid.

My only real time goal for the day was simple, and hardly a stretch: anything better than my current 50K PR of 6:33:45, set four years earlier at the Harding Hustle where temperatures reached 100°F. That effort in turn had eclipsed my first 50K finish time of 7:39:51 at the 2012 Brazen Diablo Trails Challenge (my first-ever blog post)—there too temperatures had peaked in the 90s, and I’d nearly left a kidney on the course owing to overheating and dehydration. Talk about rookie mistakes and learning the hard way…

One of the course’s many DIY shoe washing stations

I figured with today’s cool temperatures I’d have a legit shot of breaking six hours, thus giving me one seven-hour 50K, one six-hour 50K and one five-hour 50K on my résumé. Hard to argue with that rate of improvement.

Right now, though, as I trudged along feeling more tortoise than hare, I sure didn’t feel like a man in pursuit of a sub-six finish. Gently flowing rivulets that I would have vaulted in stride earlier in the day became three-step exercises in pause-plant-leap.

Ever helpful, my Garmin chirped to indicate the end of mile 28. Easy peazy, I told myself. Welcome to the Way Too Cool 5K. Suddenly, three miles felt like an absurdly long way.

Crossing Hwy 49 once again, I flashed a weak smile at the folks directing traffic just ahead of the final aid station, which I passed without stopping. Not now, no more time to waste, not with the finish line so close.

“Half a mile to go!” a couple shouted as I passed. “You’re everyone’s best friend!” I responded. Several spectators in the last mile commented on the fact that I was still smiling. I’d heard that in Louisiana too… and why wouldn’t I be smiling? With everything that’s going on in the world right now, how lucky am I to be able to run 31 miles just for fun? It’s something I’ll never, ever, never never take for granted.

At the same time I was confused. Half a mile to go? My Garmin hadn’t even reached 30 miles, so this was probably another case of spectator overzealousness, something I’ve seen more times than I can count—like the fellow at mile 20 of a marathon who shouts “ALMOST THERE!!!”. And yet now that the seed was planted, I felt one last burst of energy kick in, propelling me onward.

Luckily in this case, the spectator was right. As the inflatable green finish arch came into view once again, I glanced down at my wrist and was amazed to see a time of just over 5h30m. As much as I’d slowed after my speedy pace in the early miles, I thought for sure I’d be pushing six hours. Even if the course had been a full 31.1 miles, I still would have had plenty of buffer to break six hours.

With a final turn and a wave at Katie, I hopped one last patch of mud and crossed under the arch with a shiny new 50K personal best of 5:35:39. Yes the course had been roughly a mile short (according to my GPS and many others on Strava), but I figured that was a fair tradeoff for all the stream crossings and mud I’d lugged on the soles of my shoes for the past 5½ hours.

Two friends I’d met through Brazen Racing, Patricia and Yoly, were the first smiling faces I saw on crossing the finish—Patricia hung the finisher medal around my neck while Yoly greeted me with her usual huge smile. Way Too Cool mission accomplished!
> Average pace (miles 27–30.1): 13:29/mile

I briefly chatted with Yoly and some fellow finishers before reuniting with Katie, who once again had somehow found enjoyment in hanging out in the middle of nowhere while I ran in circles for nearly six hours. We diffused over to the vendor tents where a nice post-race spread awaited, including warm soup to warm my innards. As I stood sipping at the soup I missed another Brazen buddy, Mike B., finish strong with his own PR of 6:05:xx. Dammit, I’d had no idea he was that close behind me.

Mike and I shared congrats and then made our way toward the Sufferfest Brewing beer tent. There we met more friends before Katie and I eventually found our way to the most important tent of all, where volunteers stood handing out the race’s signature frog cupcakes. I still remember my brother and sister-in-law, after running WTC back in 2012, showing up at our place in Berkeley with a gift of frog cupcakes, the dashboard of their car smeared green where one rogue cupcake had tried unsuccessfully to make its escape.

And with that, our work here in Cool was done. Saying our farewells, we made the long three-minute walk back to the car before putting the Sierra Foothills in our rearview mirror. For now. Hopefully I still have many memorable road and trail races ahead of me—throughout the state, across the country and around the world. But will I ever find a more welcoming yet challenging race on a more diverse and beautiful course than Way Too Cool?

Frog-et about it.

Way Too Happy finishers (photo Yoly P.)

BOTTOM LINE: Way Too Cool earns its name, from the awesome scenery to the race day temperatures to the chilly water that awaits at every stream crossing. As the largest trail race in the country, it’s a bucket list event for serious dirtbags. And you may never find a more scenic and diverse course than the network of trails you’ll follow on your 30+ mile journey along the Middle Fork of the American River Canyon and through the Auburn State Recreation Area.

The North Face Endurance Challenge, my benchmark for trail races in California, is a much different course than WTC—its jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge notwithstanding, the trails and scenery at TNFEC are less varied than at WTC.

The reasonably challenging course (4,000 ft of elevation gain/loss) is predominantly single-track with no two-way traffic, so slower runners need never worry about the possibility of colliding with speedier oncoming elite and sub-elite runners. There’s even significant overlap (roughly 12 miles) with the iconic Western States 100 Trail. Along the way you’ll have the occasional croaking of the locals (it’s frog mating season in Cool) to relax your mind and remind you that you’re far away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of urbania. Plus, in early March you can be confident of cooler race day temps—the real variable when it comes to the weather is how wet you’ll get.

The icing on the cake at WTC is… well, the icing on the cake. Cupcake that is, since you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the race’s signature frog cupcakes at the finish line festival. What better way to quickly normalize blood sugar levels?

Yeah, I know you’re green with envy right now

PRODUCTION: Smooth sailing with no real complaints. Pre-race packet pickup gave us an opportunity to support the local Auburn Running Company, which feels like a shrine of sorts to the iconic Western States 100 Endurance Run.

Race day itself flowed seamlessly: the course was well marked with ribbons, leaving no chance for a wrong turn even after my mind switched over to auto-pilot mode in the later miles. And the finish-line festival offered one of the more interesting assortment of vendor tents, with the presenting sponsor Clif Bar joined by GU, Camelbak, Dickey’s BBQ, Red Bull, Sufferfest Brewing, Salomon, Rock Tape, KaiaFit, Squirrel’s Nut Butter (great to prevent chafing!) and Monsters of Massage.

Aside from the number of stream crossings, the only real issue for most runners will be the sparsity of aid stations, which were few and far between at miles 8, 14, 19, 26 and (I think) 29. Thanks to the cooler temps I didn’t need to carry my own hydration, but I did bring my own baby food pouches just in case I felt my blood sugar dropping.

A note about parking: At our pre-race dinner the night before (at La Fornaretta, a comfy Italian restaurant in nearby Newcastle), there was anxious discussion about how early folks—including several WTC veterans—were planning to arrive the next morning to secure a good parking spot. Many folks planned to show up over two hours early and nap in their cars, just so they’d be assured of a parking spot as close to the start line as possible. Not willing to forego that much sleep but wanting to play it safe, Katie and I decided to show up just over an hour before the start (way early for us)—and we ended up parking easily in the empty “overflow” lot of the local Holiday Market, no more than a five-minute walk from the start line. Other cars continued to park near us for the next hour or so as we sat waiting. In other words, parking is easy no matter what time you get there. Cool is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town so there’s no traffic, even on race day. Many runners park directly adjacent to the fire station (start line) on St. Florian Ct, which the race organizers close to traffic an hour or so before the race, But there’s no need to park that close unless maybe you’re expecting heavy rain and want immediate access to your car after the race. And you’ll benefit much more from the two+ hours of extra sleep than from the primo parking spot.

SWAG: Not much to recommend here. Honestly, the shirt was awful—a thin, poorly fitting Greenlayer tee that went immediately into the donation pile. Luckily the finisher medal was better, small and simply designed with the race name and frog logo (apparently the medal is the same every year, the only difference being ribbon color). The swag was the only aspect of the race that wasn’t way too cool, though trail races get the benefit of the doubt since trail runners tend not to be swagophiles like the typical road runner. If only cupcakes counted as swag…

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
March 4, 2017 (start time 8:00am)
30.14 miles in Cool, CA
Finish time & pace: 5:35:39 (first time running Way Too Cool, 3rd 50K overall), 11:08/mile
Finish place: 201 overall, 52/159 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 700 (419 men, 281 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy (start temp 46°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,029 ft ascent, 4,023 ft descent

A boy’s story is the best that is ever told.
– Charles Dickens

Louisiana Marathon start
State 15 would beckon from

a land of purple & gold,
The next chapter in our story
and each chapter must be told…

The scene felt eerily lifted from a dystopian sci-fi film. As if of one mind, bodies like drowsy ants moved slowly but purposefully toward the start line. The hulking shadow of the nation’s tallest state capitol building loomed in the background, its dimly lit tower shrouded by the gray morning fog.

This was race day weather different than any I’d experienced before—foggy and yet strangely humid. Anyone who didn’t keep track of such things wouldn’t have guessed that just seven days earlier and 175 miles to the northeast, the Mississippi Blues Marathon in that state’s capital city of Jackson had been canceled by freezing rain and icy conditions.

Welcome to winter in the Deep South.

Louisiana Marathon start line shrouded in fog

Into the fog: One minute to “go” time (the state capitol is out of the picture behind us)

By contrast, here in Baton Rouge we’d apparently lucked out. Cloudy skies were expected to prevail until at least noon, and all signs pointed to ideal race day conditions. In our customary fashion Katie and I had arrived—after a ten-minute walk from our hotel—within 15 minutes of the official 7:00am start. That left me plenty of time to sidle my way to the front of the loosely packed start corral, where I found new friends James and Joey lined up ready to roll. Literally.

James and Joey (Team JoJo) would be taking part in the Louisiana Half Marathon as Ainsley’s Angels, a group that “aims to build awareness about America’s special needs community through inclusion in all aspects of life”. I’d first been introduced to Joey online and learned of his story through Mike B, a Bay Area friend who’d met the boy through “I Run For Michael”, a Facebook group that pairs able-bodied and special needs athletes.

Mike runs for Joey because Joey can’t run for himself. Joey has cerebral palsy but—as Mike likes to say—it doesn’t have him. He recently underwent Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy (SDR) surgery to reduce the spasticity in his lower body, a breakthrough procedure that has enabled him to walk and even run short distances. Nevertheless, his is a daily battle fought with the love and support of his dad James, mom Jessica and sister Abi.

But if you think having special needs earns him your pity, you’d be wrong. Joey is like any other 7-year-old boy—bursting with energy and eager to show off. When Katie and I met him and has family at the expo on Saturday, he kept us laughing with his infectious smile and carefree goofiness.

Mike Sohaskey, Joey and James D at the Louisiana Marathon expo

Joey shows off his Iron Man-like abs at the pre-race expo (dad James is at right)

And as it turns out, Joey loves to race. Apparently, after seeing an Ironman competition on television one day, he let it be known that that’s what he wanted to do. So at the urging of his son (and because that’s what awesome dads do), James trained his body into triathlete shape and now regularly pushes his athlete-rider son in a specially designed racing chair reminiscent of Boston’s legendary father-son duo of Dick and Rick Hoyt.

With start time fast approaching in Baton Rouge, Team JoJo looked ready to roll alongside a couple dozen other teams of Ainsley’s Angels. I wished them both good luck before falling back to take my place among the 3:45 pace group.

The Mayor/President-elect of Baton Rouge said a few words of welcome over the PA, and with five days to go until the inauguration of our 45th President, who can say whether she was referencing the current political unease when she quoted Kathrine Switzer: “If you are ever losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

Horace Wilkinson Bridge over the Mississippi during Louisiana Marathon weekend

The Horace Wilkinson Bridge spans the mighty Mississippi, with the USS Kidd in the foreground

Under cloudy humid skies this day
there’d be no winter cold
(All the details that matter
to the story must be told).

After a National Anthem sung by a fellow runner whose goal is to sing in all 50 states, we were off on what for most of us would be our first marathon of 2017. The first few miles flew by quickly, as the first few miles of a marathon typically do. With little to see thanks to the lingering fog, I took the opportunity to gather my thoughts and plan out my strategery for the next 3+ hours.

My goal for the day was simple: my training plan called for 13 miles at a pace of 8:08/mile, meaning I’d give myself three slower miles to warmup before kicking it up to an 8:08/mile pace. I’d then maintain that pace until mile 16, where I’d re-evaluate and hopefully take the last 10 miles to pat myself on the back. No pressure.

The fog persisted as though it had something to hide, and it struck me how little of Baton Rouge I was seeing. We’d begun our visit 36 hours earlier in a similar manner, entering the town under cover of darkness after making the late-night drive from New Orleans. All I’d been able to spy in the way of scenery had been the shadowy skeletons of trees lining both sides of the highway, and my brain had conjured up spooky imagery to fill in the gaps created by the blackness. In our rental car “Far From Any Road”, the haunting theme song to HBO’s gritty True Detective, served as our soundtrack welcoming us to Louisiana.

Back on course, I was feeling great despite the odd winter humidity, and was having no trouble holding an 8:08/mile pace. In fact, on several occasions I had to consciously slow down to avoid dipping down into the 7:40s. Given that 2016 had been a slowdown year for me with zero sub-3:30 marathons, it was comforting to be able to hold an ~8:00/mile pace easily.

Running south in a literal haze we passed The Book Exchange, one of the few edifices I could make out and the most dilapidated building we’d see all day. The store looked abandoned to say the least, as though it had exchanged its last book sometime during the Eisenhower administration.

Team JoJo at mile 9 of the Louisiana Marathon

Team JoJo looking strong in mile 9

Teams of Ainsley’s Angels were out on the course providing plenty of inspiration, and I clapped and cheered as I passed James and Joey on a slight incline in mile 3. James ran with a smile on his face while Joey stared straight ahead, keenly focused on the task at hand. And though I’d miss seeing them again as they’d finish an hour before me, father and son would celebrate their 13.1-mile accomplishment with Joey crossing the finish line on his own two legs—legs that I have no doubt will cross a lot more finish lines in the future. Congrats, Team JoJo!

Continuing along Park Blvd, the sprawling oaks lining each side of the street formed an extended “tree tunnel” that would have offered much-needed shade on a warm day. The green expanses of Baton Rouge City Park swept by, followed by City Park Lake, which seemed to morph almost seamlessly into the creatively named University Lake that borders the Louisiana State University (LSU) campus.

We hit the mile 5 marker outside what I’d guess is the centerpiece of the campus and the most popular center of worship in Baton Rouge—Tiger Stadium, which hosts the football team and undoubtedly as many LSU faithful as it can fit during the football season. I’ve said it before—I’m a sucker for a good college campus, and certainly the opportunity to run around and through the LSU campus may have influenced my choice of Louisiana marathons (that and not liking New Orleans). Like Austin, Baton Rouge is a college town moonlighting as a state capital.

Louisiana Marathon running by Tiger Stadium at LSU

The church of college football: Tiger Stadium (aka “Death Valley”) at mile 5

The highlight of the marathon route, had I not been distracted by the massive football monolith on the opposite side of the street, would have been the 15,000-square foot outdoor tiger enclosure, constructed in 2005 for a reported $3 million. The enclosure’s sole inhabitant is the campus mascot, Mike the Tiger—since 1936 there have been a series of “Mikes” who have called the campus home. Sadly its most recent occupant, Mike VI, lost his battle with sarcoma (soft tissue cancer) in October, and so the habitat currently sits empty.

I’m not an advocate of zoos, and so I was glad not to see another regal animal cooped up in a small space. And I’m not alone—after Mike V’s death in 2007, PETA had apparently urged the LSU chancellor at the time not to bring in a new tiger, a request that was roundly rejected in favor of Mike VI. But in LSU’s defense, Mike VI had been a rescue animal donated by an Indiana-based large cat and carnivore rescue facility, so it’s not like the chancellor sent a campus task force out to the Serengeti to poach a Bengal tiger. Nevertheless, the thought of such a magnificent beast living alone on—of all places—a college campus left me with mixed emotions, and I was admittedly relieved not to see it for myself.

Making a brief detour away from University Lake, we ran on narrow streets that read like a “greatest hits” of U.S. higher education—Cornell, Harvard, Emory, Stanford—past well-maintained homes with immaculately groomed yards and patios set off by white balustrades. Telltale signs of faculty housing.

By the time we rounded the campus and reached the opposite side of the lake, now headed north the way we’d come, the fog had lifted and I could finally appreciate our surroundings. Nutrition-wise I was sticking to a schedule, downing one Clif Shot Blok every 20 minutes and one gel on the hour, a strategy that seemed to be keeping my energy levels stable. I was feeling good, and I continued to pull back on the throttle as I regularly dropped below an 8:00/mile pace.

Mile 9 of Louisiana Marathon around University Lake

Fog-free mile 9 around University Lake

But no matter how good I felt as I pulled alongside the 3:35 pace group on the narrow lake path, it was tough to appreciate Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasting its time-tested chorus of “WHOAAAAAA, we’re halfway there…” in mile 9. With 17+ miles to go. (This is the running equivalent of an “alternative fact”.)

Entering double digits at mile 10, I passed the bizarre “Supreme Race selfie station”. From what I recall based on a fleeting glimpse, this featured a wooden cutout of a large bag of race primed for picture taking. And you’ll probably be shocked to learn there was no one waiting in line when I passed. No offense to Supreme Rice, I’m sure they make an awesome grain and I appreciate their sponsorship of this event since we couldn’t run without them—but how high on endorphins or Insta-crazed do you have to be to pose in the middle of a race with a fake (or real) bag of rice?

The miles flew by on a fantastic day for running, with long stretches of residential roads featuring pockets of cheer zones, though never any oversized or overly raucous groups of spectators. And now that I think of it, though they’re referenced on the website I don’t recall hearing any live bands along the course, either.

Speaking of spectators, my shout-out for best of the day went to an enthusiastic 4-year-old drill sergeant-in-training, with his blonde crewcut and impassioned cries of “LET’S GO RUN-NERS! LET’S GO RUN-NERS! LET’S GO RUN-NERS!” For a second I thought he might see my smile and tell me to drop and give him 10 pushups. He didn’t miss a beat or pause for breath as I passed, his boisterious chants receding in the distance behind me.

At mile 11 the marathon and half marathon courses diverged, with the half marathon course headed back toward the Capitol and the marathon course continuing east. This splitting of the two courses thinned the crowd (~75% half marathoners, 25% marathoners) dramatically and left me essentially running by myself. Just the way I like it.

Mike Sohaskey selfie in mile 10 of Louisiana Marathon

There’s always time during a marathon for a selfie (University Lake, mile 10)

To maintain an aggressive pace
whether naïve or bold,
Leads our story to an ending,

and the ending must be told.

I continued to hit my 8:08 mile paces comfortably as I approached mile 16, the end of my planned 13-mile tempo run. I decided to maintain that comfortable pace beyond mile 16 rather than intentionally slowing down, since the latter ironically struck me as the more laborious option. If I got tired I got tired, and at that point I’d slow down. All I had to do from here was maintain an 8:30/mile pace to ensure an easy sub-3:45.

Through attractive subdivisions we ran, along oak- and magnolia-lined streets decorated with homes whose distinctive architecture hinted at their antebellum roots. The city’s charming Southern architecture helped distract my mind from the mounting mileage.

The more marathons I run, the less likely it becomes I’ll see a new spectator sign that strikes my fancy—and Louisiana was no exception. “Your couch misses you” may have been my favorite of the day, though a shout-out to the lady with the “You run marathons, I watch them on Netflix” sign. And I’ve noticed in the past year that “Run faster, I farted” has become the go-to race day motivation of kids across the country.

Louisiana Old State Capitol building and Baton Rouge 200 sign

Louisiana’s Old State Capitol—used as such for 60 of the town’s 200 years—is now a National Historic Landmark

“Great job, random stranger!” is one of the more popular spectator signs at any marathon, and I couldn’t help laughing when a runner behind me responded on one occasion with an exuberant shout of “Thanks, random citizen!”

I reached mile 23 before fatigue finally insinuated its way into my quads and hip flexors. Recognizing that I’ve got a lot of racing miles ahead of me in 2017, I consciously slowed to avoid blowing out my legs in my first race of the year. Even so I continued to pass other runners, and I can only recall a single runner passing me in the last 13 miles, with that coming in the final mile. Not since last year’s Los Angeles Marathon had I run a marathon this comfortably. Good to know my legs ain’t broke.

I held off on my last gel until just before the mile 24 aid station, leaving me no choice but to accept a cup of water from a fellow dressed head-to-toe in Green Bay Packers gear. Those same Packers would jettison my Dallas Cowboys from the NFL playoffs on a last-second field goal later in the day. Unfortunately, at mile 24 of a marathon beggars can’t be choosers, so I smiled and thanked him while silently wishing a soul-crushing and season-ending defeat on his team. Apparently he was wishing just a little bit harder.

Louisiana Marathon finish line homestretch

1/10 of a mile to go with half marathoners on the left, marathoners on the right

Mile 25, and the marathon and half marathon courses merged once again as we turned back toward the Capitol. And here the organizers demonstrated the kind of keen foresight that runners appreciate (and remember), keeping the two courses separated with half marathoners on the left and marathoners on the right. Not that there were many half marathoners remaining after more than 3 hours, but it’s never fun to have to weave tiredly around a pack of shoulder-to-shoulder walkers spread out across the street and oblivious to exhausted runners coming up behind them. It’s a small thing to be sure, but small things add up—and attention to detail is what distinguished the Louisiana Marathon from some other small-town races I’ve run.

The course is almost entirely flat, the most noticeable “hill” being the North Blvd overpass located in mile 2 and—as course layout would have it—mile 26. Still feeling good but ready to be done, I ran step-for-step with another determined fellow as we crossed the overpass and approached the short-but-nasty uphill jag leading to the final turn.

One last surge of adrenaline hit me as we turned up 4th St. into the home stretch, and I could just make out the finish arch faintly visible nearly half a mile away. I’d done what I came here to do, and as I passed the mile 26 marker I soaked up the crowd’s energy and genuinely enjoyed the last 385 yards, returning to the State Capitol in much less of a haze than I’d left it and in a time of 3:31:13, my fastest marathon in nearly two years.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Louisiana Marathon

Bienvenue à la ligne d’arrivée! Celebrating a jog well run

I reunited with Katie who had been everywhere as usual, covering the course almost as efficiently as the fog. We compared notes and cheered in other finishers before slowly diffusing toward the finish festival. It’s not often I look forward to a post-race party, but I’d heard and read so much about Louisiana’s hospitality that I was eager to see what all the fuss was about.

And the festival didn’t disappoint, with food and vendor booths set up around the perimeter of State Capitol Park, giving finishers a place to stretch, lounge and munch while a live band entertained with the musical stylings of the Deep South. If you’re wondering how two vegetarians found their way in a state known for meat-heavy dishes like jambalaya and crawfish étouffée, the Whole Foods Vegan Village featured a variety of tasty options, even if they did run out of several items early. And the beer was flowing freely for carnivores and herbivores alike.

On the leisurely walk back to our hotel we stopped to chat with Jim, a fellow finisher clad brightly in INKnBURN gear, hot pink headband and rainbow calf sleeves. Jim also happened to be the singer of that morning’s National Anthem. We chatted briefly about his own 50 states quest (running and singing), and he mentioned that he celebrates every finish with a post-race headstand. Clearly the man is—in his own words—not a wallflower.

Upon learning he’d be running SoCal’s own Surf City on Super Bowl Sunday, we promised to keep an eye out for each other. And as luck would have it, three weeks later we’d reunite after crossing the Surf City finish line within seconds of each other, Jim finishing the half marathon (which started 90 minutes later than the full) while I wrapped up my second marathon of the young year. It’s a small world, after all.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Louisiana Marathon finish line
Parting ways with Jim, we’d have one last acquaintance to make before saying our goodbyes to Baton Rouge. As we strolled down 4th Street away from the finish line, I saw slowly approaching the distinctive stride of marathoning legend Larry Macon, accompanied by two other runners. His labored stride—suggestive of a man carrying a bag of rocks slung over one shoulder—betrayed the accumulated miles of a man who’s run over 1,800 marathons in his 72 years. His face, however, told a different story.

“Nice to meet you, Larry!” I called, stopping to applaud. “You too!” he smiled back as he shuffled past without breaking stride. As we watched, his blue “LARRY – 1,800 Marathons and counting” vest faded into the distance, passing the mile 26 marker en route to the same finish line I’d crossed nearly 3½ hours earlier. And the question flashed across my mind—will I still be running 26 miles at a time 26 years from now? It’s tough to imagine, but one thing is certain: I won’t need four digits to count ‘em up.

Larry Macon at mile 26 of the Louisiana Marathon

Larry Legend and friends close in on mile 26 and the finish line

Few of us will ever catch a touchdown or hit a home run or dunk a basketball—but anyone can cross a finish line. If an indomitable 7–year-old with cerebral palsy can do it, and a 72-year-old can do it over 1,800 times while still smiling, then there’s no excuse for sitting on the sidelines. You don’t have to run marathons, or even half marathons, but the cliché is cliché for a reason: Where there’s a will, there almost always is a way. In an increasingly bitter and divided country, running is everyone’s sport. As the nation continues to accumulate negative energy, challenging yourself to reach your personal finish line regardless of obstacles—physical or otherwise—will always be among the most positive things you can do to improve yourself, inspire others and make a difference.

Because there’s nothing like a good run to lift the fog.

The lesson learned? Keep this in mind:
though (s)he be young or old,
A runner’s story may just be
the best that’s ever told.

Baton Rouge sunset

BOTTOM LINE:
Whether you’re a 50 stater
or just seeking a great race,
I can tell you with conviction
Baton Rouge is just the place.

With Deep South hospitality
and lagniappe to spare,
you get the sense the folks in charge
do really give a care.

Logistics are easy, the course shows off
the campus and the town,
and ‘cross the finish line awaits
the best post-race fest around.

Free photos, awesome volunteers,
aid stations laid out well—
if the devil’s in the details
Louisiana gives ‘em hell.

Sure, the swag may not excite
with simple shirt and bling.
But ask me would I run again?
No doubt—and that’s the thing.

So a final word for runners
looking for a top-notch show:
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
is the place you want to geaux!

#GeauxRunLA

Louisiana Marathon medal by state capitol building

Baton Rouge wins the medal for tallest state capitol building in the nation

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves review of the Louisiana Marathon
FINAL STATS:

January 15, 2017 (start time 7:00am)
26.38 miles in Baton Rouge, LA (state 15 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:31:13 (first time running the Louisiana Marathon), 8:01/mile
Finish place: 76 overall, 8/71 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 951 (537 men, 414 women)
Race weather: cool, cloudy & foggy at the start (temp 61°F), cool & cloudy at the finish, humid throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 170 ft ascent, 173 ft descent

louisiana-splits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omaha Marathon finish shot - Dan Solera & Mike Sohaskey

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Ragnar Napa and Golden Gate Half finish lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that is a race.

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

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

Trust me, it’s going to be YUGE.

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

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

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

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

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

You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.
– Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist

Mike Sohaskey at Big Sur International Marathon bib pickup
As 2016 crosses the finish line, and as memorable a racing year as it was, I’m much more excited to look forward than back. But before we raise the curtain on 2017, there’s one glaring hole remaining to be filled in this year’s blog—a race that, while a bucket list event for most marathoners, happened to fall squarely between my two favorite races of 2016 and a busy time of the year for us at RaceRaves.

After breaking out my happy dance, the second thing I did after receiving my acceptance to the 2016 Boston Marathon last September was to throw my name into the hat for the bicoastal Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. The Big Sur International Marathon (BSIM)—which I ran for the first time in 2014 while dealing with plantar fasciitis—falls one or sometimes two weeks after Boston, with the organizers reserving several hundred entries for runners who will also be running Boston. This year Boston and Big Sur were a mere six days apart; in 2017 the recovery period will be a more forgiving 13 days.

While the race itself is the same for all runners, participants in the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge earn some very cool perks. For starters, ubiquitous ultrarunning legend and author Dean Karnazes—who runs to the start line in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park each year from his hotel in Monterey, before turning around and running back to Carmel as part of the race itself—hosts a Q&A meet-and-greet for B2B runners at the expo the day before the race. During this session, my favorite answer was the response he gave to the question of whether he’d ever consider running the Barkley Marathons, the +/– 100-mile gut check through the Tennessee wilderness that’s so difficult, only 14 different runners have completed the five-loop course in its 31-year history. The race even inspired its own full-length documentary. In any case, though Dean’s answer was more thoughtful and diplomatic—including an acknowledgement that he’d have to hone his hiking & navigation skills before tackling a course like the Barkley—by reading between the lines I interpreted him to be saying, “Ain’t never gonna happen”. And I can’t say I’d blame him, since the Barkley is more survivalist exercise than legitimate foot race.

But back from the future: B2B finishers also receive, in addition to the usual Big Sur tech tee and distinctive clay finisher medallion, exclusive B2B-specific swag (see “SWAG” below). And a special tent set up next to the finish line offers a comfortable place to sit with your fellow B2B’ers while you recover & refuel at the dedicated post-race buffet. Clearly the BSIM organizers take great pride in hosting this challenge, as do their runners in tackling it.

Having blogged about (and GoPro’ed) my first BSIM experience in 2014, I thought I’d take a different approach from my usual mile-by-mile narrative this time, and end an otherwise questionable year on a positive note by making other runners aware of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. Because I’m surprised that, $300 price tag notwithstanding, so few Boston runners (402 this year) take advantage of this unique opportunity to run two of the country’s top marathons on back-to-back weekends.

Here then is my photo-cumentary of a weekend spent running one of the world’s most photogenic races in one of the country’s most beautiful venues. Given the high winds and the fact I was trying to beat my disappointing Boston time of 3:48:36 (which I did, in 3:44:21), I didn’t stop for every photo op. But what follows should give anyone looking for an epic race experience a strong sense for the majesty that is the Big Sur International Marathon. And better late than never!

katie-in-monterey

Beautiful scenery abounds in Monterey, though admittedly I did bring some of my own

Sea lions in Monterey Bay

As in most places, oceanfront property is in high demand in Monterey…

sea-lion-sunning-in-monterey

… and sometimes you just need to find your own rock and get away from it all

newborn sea lion with parents

An amazing discovery: California sea lion couple with newborn pup

newborn sea lion

Newborn sea lion pup with milk around its mouth and placenta still attached

sea otter couple in Monterey Bay

You otter always practice the buddy system when swimming in deep water

Big Sur poster with runners names-bch

Look carefully—this expo sign includes the names of all 2016 participants, with legacy runners (“grizzled vets”) and last year’s winner in white

Dean Karnazes groupies at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Photo op with Dean Karnazes (front row 3rd from left, in case you couldn’t guess)—nobody told me to wear my race singlet for the gun show

big-sur-porta-potty_bch

The porta-potties at Big Sur have a cheeky sense of humor

No breeze at start of 2016 Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Check out that flag—nary a breeze 30 minutes before the start

Start line at 2016 Big Sur International Marathon bch

Runners take their places in the start corral—I get a jolt of adrenaline just looking at this photo

Mike Sohaskey and Krishna at Big Sur Marathon start_bch

Meeting up with fellow B2B’er Krishna (from Chicago) moments before the start—luckily he noticed me zoning out and said hi. Thanks Krishna, hope to meet again soon!

Big Sur mile 9 marker with pinocchio bch

Big Sur’s iconic mile markers have a wicked sense of humor, like this example one mile before the climb up to Hurricane Point (photo: thefightandflightresponse.com)

Base of Hurricane Point at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Mile 10, looking up toward Hurricane Point

Up Hurricane Point at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

King of the world! Reaching the top of Hurricane Point at mile 12

View from Hurricane Point at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Eye-popping view from Hurricane Point, with the Bixby Creek Bridge in the distance

Gusty winds at 2016 Big Sur International Marathon_bch

This year’s race was rumored to be the most blustery on record, with gusts up to 40 mph

Crossing Bixby Bridge at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Crossing the Bixby Creek Bridge at the halfway point

Bixby Bridge pianist at Big Sur International Marathon_bch

Neither rain nor snow nor swirling winds keeps Michael Martinez from his appointed role as Bixby Creek Bridge pianist—and thanks to the headwind, I could hear the first strains of his piano from atop Hurricane Point

Big Sur International Marathon mileage sign_bch

The “.2” subtly appended to the “26” turns this otherwise standard mileage sign (located at the finish line) into roadside awesome

Big Sur International Marathon finish

Finishing time! Note the above “Big Sur 26.2” road sign behind the spectators

Boston to Big Sur medals

One of the coolest & most hard-earned medals in road racing awaits

Mike Sohaskey and Mike Beckwith at Big Sur finish_bch

One of the highlights of the weekend was hanging with Bay Area running buddy & Brazen Racing streaker #111 Mike Beckwith

Signed Boston to Big Sur poster_bch

Autographed by all 2016 Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge finishers

us_big-sur-finish_bch

No better way to celebrate 52.4 miles of racing in 6 days on opposite coasts than with a finish line selfie

Boston 2 Big Sur medals_bch

bsim-elevation_bch

That’s Hurricane Point at mile 12

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a hardcore runner and/or California native planning to run the Boston Marathon, then the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge should be a no-brainer. Not only is it a unique bicoastal challenge, but you’ll have the opportunity to run one of California’s most highly recommended (and this year, one of its most blustery) marathons as part of an exclusive group—and I’m not sure anyone was denied entry via the lottery this year. The only drawback is the steep price of admission—at $300 this is likely the most expensive marathon you’ll run. But if Big Sur is on your bucket list anyway, why not kill two birds with one stone and ride that post-Boston endorphin high for as long as possible?

PRODUCTION: Flawless, just as it was in 2014. School buses transport all runners from Carmel or Monterey (we stayed at the uber-convenient Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay) out to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park for the start of the race, leaving plenty of time to eat, stretch, meditate, take selfies, visit the porta-potties and generally do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for the 26.2 miles of hilly Pacific Coast Highway that await. The pre-race pasta dinner is always a relaxed opportunity to convene with friends beforehand, and the post-race spread for B2B finishers is among the best I’ve seen at any race. The BSIM organizers could easily skate by on the course’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean and jaw-dropping vistas—instead, their assiduous attention to detail is the cherry on top of a very satisfying sundae Sunday long run.

SWAG: The swag for Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge finishers is among the best you’ll find anywhere. In addition to the standard clay finisher medallion (which itself is one of the best in racing) and tech tee, B2B’ers receive a second finisher medallion, long-sleeve tech tee inscribed with the B2B logo and nicely crafted, embroidered ASICS finisher jacket.

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Boston 2 Big Sur finisher swag included dual medallions and a nicely embroidered jacket (back shown)


RaceRaves
rating:

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FINAL STATS:

April 24, 2016 (start time 6:45am)
26.37 miles from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to Carmel, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:44:21 (second time running the Big Sur International Marathon), 8:31/mile
Finish place (BSIM): 366 overall, 267/2,024 M, 40/293 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers (BSIM): 4,160 (2,024 M, 2,136 W)
Finish place (Boston 2 Big Sur): 130 overall, 81/175 M
Number of finishers (Boston 2 Big Sur): 402 (175 M, 227 W)
Race weather: blustery; cool & cloudy at the start (temp 54°F), cool & partly sunny at the finish (temp 58°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,083 ft ascent, 2,366 ft descent

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He conquers who endures.
– Persius

Omaha We Don't Coast sign
The Boss dedicated an album to it. Academy Award nominee and noted ultrarunner Bruce Dern starred in a movie about it. On game days, its college football stadium becomes the second-most populous “city” in the state. And it’s widely regarded as America’s Heartland, although technically speaking relative to the nation’s geographic center in Kansas, it’s more like America’s appendix.

But if Nebraska is indeed America’s Heartland, then given the current state of the nation I shouldn’t have been surprised by the PA announcer’s words as we gathered in the first light of daybreak outside TD Ameritrade Park.

“There’s been a shooting over on Cuming, we’re going to have to push back our start time 30 minutes to an hour.”

After the initial shock subsided—a shooting? At 6:30am on a Sunday in Omaha?—a murmur of uncertainty rippled through the modest crowd. Now what do we do?

Omaha Marathon 2016 start line

Sunrise behind the start line

An important footnote for non-runners: delaying the start of a marathon isn’t the same as rescheduling lunch with a friend or pushing back a work meeting an hour. It’s not even the same as a rain delay at a baseball game.

As athletic endeavors go, marathon preparation is the most meticulous of its kind. For most runners this means 16+ weeks of dedicated training that culminates on race morning with an elaborately choreographed ritual of mental and physical preparation. Alarms chime before the crack of dawn, allowing time (but not too much time) for breakfast to be eaten and digested by a nervous gut, while leaving time (but not too much time) for the body to wake up and warm up to face the day’s daunting challenge.

More than anything, though, race morning is about steeling the mind for the 26.2-mile battle ahead, so that by the time you toe the start line you’ve mentally retreated to your happy place, poised and focused on the task at hand.

For many runners, then, delaying the start of a marathon is like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube. Don’t get me wrong—running a marathon ain’t rocket science. But as seasoned runners can testify, the key on race day is to control the process and limit the number of variables that can go wrong. The more variables that are out of your control, the more likely one of them will go haywire and short-circuit your day. And this semblance of control is one reason so many Type A personalities are drawn to running.

So then delaying the start of the race an hour introduced several new variables beyond our control, which I’ll touch on shortly. Ironically, aside from the necessarily convoluted pre-race machinations of a Boston or New York, small-town Omaha already was one of my more eventful races—and it hadn’t even begun.

Mike Sohaskey & Dan Solera at Omaha Marathon start

An hour delay at the start left me & Dan plenty of time for photos

Mission: Nebraska
Before landing in Omaha, what I’d known about Nebraska could have fit on a kernel of corn—think “Warren Buffett” and “Cornhuskers”. But then again, what does anyone know about our 37th state? “I want to askya about Nebraska,” I imagined myself saying to the young Bieber wannabe working the front desk at our hotel. But I refrained, afraid that his violently forward-combed hair may rise up like Medusa’s and turn me to stone for flaunting my ignorance.

Nebraska. The word had conjured up visions of deafening red seas of college football chaos, of sweeping golden plains and expansive green stalks of corn swaying gently in the breeze and stretching unimpeded to the infinite horizon. Wyoming would be visible to my left, Iowa to my right, with the marathon start line behind me and South Dakota directly ahead. Big-boned, salt-of-the-earth types would greet me with a firm handshake and look me in the eye when they spoke, unaware that on their smart phone at that moment, a much more interesting conversation was no doubt taking place.

So I’d admittedly been excited to leave behind, for two short days, the Hollywood pretension and urban angst of Southern California for the more tranquil open spaces of America’s Heartland. And a pre-dawn shooting to start the day definitely wasn’t sticking to the script.

Like the other anxious runners milling around us, Dan and I had no choice but to resign ourselves to the situation. We planted ourselves on the sidewalk, wandered through the crowd, hopped back in line for the porta-potties, all the while glancing frequently at our watches and hoping this watched pot would boil sooner rather than later. Because speaking of boiling, mo’ delay meant mo’ heat, and pushing the start back an hour meant we’d now be finishing closer to midday, when the mercury would top out in the mid-80s.

Finally the PA system crackled to life with the promise that the race would start promptly at 8:00am, one hour behind its scheduled 7:00am start. Unfortunately, due to the shooting—which I’d later learn involved a fellow firing a handgun at passing cars before being wounded by police—the course would have to be re-routed, meaning the organizers could no longer guarantee its certified status as a Boston Qualifier. So now, faced with the reality of qualifius interruptus, many runners had no choice but to reset their expectations. Luckily, neither Dan nor I had arrived in Omaha expecting anything more than a new race in a new place.

I’d also arrived in Omaha without Katie, the first time in four years she wouldn’t be joining me for a race. Not since the Griffith Park Trail Half Marathon in 2012 had she sat one out. With a previous commitment filling her weekend, and with no known acquaintances in Omaha, it hadn’t taken much arm-twisting from Dan to convince me to join him in coloring in Nebraska on our 50 states map.

8:00am arrived at last. Restless runners took their place in the start corral as an instrumental rendition of the National Anthem played, accompanied by the presentation of colors by the Marine Color Guard. I glanced around out of curiosity, seeing nobody on one knee doing their best Colin Kaepernick impression. With a countdown and police siren we were off, running east directly into the morning sun rising inexorably over downtown Omaha. The race was on to get back here before that same sun had its way with us.

Omaha collage from Omaha Marathon weekend

Scenes from the Heartland, or What we saw in Omaha (Clockwise from top left): the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge connecting Nebraska and Iowa; TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College Baseball World Series (CWS); oversized homage to the CWS in the Old Market neighborhood; Spirit of Nebraska Wilderness in Pioneer Courage Park; cousins to the Golden Gate Bridge?

“We don’t coast, we set the pace”
Through downtown Omaha we cruised, along gently rolling streets and past quiet industrial sections, before transitioning to more residential neighborhoods. A sign proclaiming “BLACK VOTES MATTER” greeted us from the lawn of a stately looking residence. Within two miles Dan’s long, relaxed strides had carried him out to a significant lead, and I let him go.

My training since May’s Hatfield McCoy Marathon had been strictly aerobic (meaning plenty of slow runs while wearing a heart rate monitor) with minimal speed work, and so I was determined to keep my heart rate under control and my pacing in the mid-8:00/mile range as much as possible. Given the impending heat, my main goal for the day would be a nice round sub-4 hours, with a sub-3:45 in the back of my mind depending on how things played out.

Dan Solera coasting in mile 1 of Omaha Marathon

Dan coasts while setting the pace in mile 1

Looking at the course map before the race, I’d been disappointed to see the route would 1) be an out-and-back covering 13.1 miles, and 2) not pass through either the Creighton University or the University of Nebraska Omaha campus. I’m not a fan of out-and-backs, particularly in road races where there’s no shortage of potential routes, but I am a sucker for a good college campus, so this was already (maybe unfairly) two strikes in my mind. On the other hand, as we ran along tree-lined residential streets I realized the shade here would be very much appreciated on our return trip 2+ hours from now.

At every road race, amid the predictable “RUN NOW, BEER LATER” and “WORST PARADE EVER” signs, there’s typically at least one spectator sign that’s memorable for its wit. Sometimes, though, the best humor is unintentional—and my smile mile would come early in Omaha, courtesy of a spectator sign gone wrong. As we made our way north still feeling fresh, four young kids stood elbow to elbow, each holding a sign which collectively formed a message of support—or at least that was the intent. Instead, their piecemeal message read:

BE HAPPY!
THIS!
GOT
YOU

Or maybe, I considered, they’re just being honest? Unfortunately the moment passed before I could think to stop and snap a picture, and we continued on our way without further amusement, legs churning away over asphalt streets interlaced with cracks.

Miller Park section of Omaha Marathon

Cruising through Miller Park

The green oasis of Miller Park in mile 6 offered a momentary reprieve from the treadmill monotony of residential Omaha. With its block after block of bungalow-style homes and chain-link fences, the town reminded me very much of—well, pretty much every other small town in America. This could have been Jackson, Mississippi. Or Mobile, Alabama. Or my own childhood hometown in Texas. I could have sworn I’d been here before, just as I knew I’d be here again.

In mile 8 the course emerged from residential streets onto an exposed stretch of asphalt that paralleled rusty train tracks. As the sun continued its ascent overhead, the next 10 miles of unshaded trail promised a gut check for a lot of us.

Roughly half a mile later we were directed on to the Riverside Trail, a sidewalk that paralleled the main road and which led past Power Park, an unusual collection of youth sports fields overlooked by the park’s skyline-dominating power plant on a backdrop of gleaming transformer towers. One wooden footbridge later we were turning away from the main road toward the Missouri River (mile 9-11) and Carter Lake (miles 12-13), each of which doubles as the border between Nebraska and Iowa.

Life was good, I’d knocked out the “gotta get through these” early miles, and I looked forward to seeing how much ground I could make up on those ahead of me. Watching a steady stream of runners returning from the mile 13.1 turnaround, I realized there would be serious work to do. Naturally I assumed that at least a few of these runners would fade in the intensifying heat, and I just hoped I wouldn’t be one of them.

Turns out I had NO idea.

Power Park section of Omaha Marathon

The industrial centerpiece of Power Park

Everybody hurts
Approaching from the other direction and looking composed, Dan responded to my question of “How you feeling?” with an ominous “Feels like mile 22 already.” Not what I wanted to hear, but I assumed he would—as he had so many times before—find his third or fourth wind in time to rally down the stretch.

I reached the turnaround point where a few spectators waited to cheer us on, and continued back in the opposite direction at my comfortable Goldilocks pace—not too fast, not too slow, but juuuuust right. With a nod to Iowa across the water I stepped up my pace ever so slightly and focused on my mission of passing as many runners as possible.

Dan Solera at mile 14 of Omaha Marathon

Turnaround time: Dan still floating on air in mile 14

Running along the water on the exposed trail, it struck me—unlike most runners who avoid the heat of the day, I love running in peak temperatures. Most of my weekend long runs happen at midday along a shade-free beach path under cloudless skies. Granted our SoCal summers don’t compare with the heat & humidity of a Boston or Dallas, but still given the choice, few folks will choose to run 20 miles in mid-80°F temperatures without the benefit of shade. So in that sense, these 10 miles in Omaha were no different than my typical Sunday long run, minus the ocean view.

I don’t envy you, I thought as a female runner dressed snugly as an ear of corn passed in the opposite direction, reminding us all that this was the Cornhusker State. I would’ve followed, but didn’t want her to think I was a stalk-er.

Apologies for the corny humor.

Miles 11 and 16—the segment leading from the Missouri River to Carter Lake and back again—bordered Eppley Airfield and was predictably the most drab section of the course. With little more than concrete and chain-link fences for scenery, I focused instead on my breathing and on encouraging the occasional runner still approaching in the opposite direction. These are the toughest runners out here, I thought, commiting to a 5+ hour marathon on a day like this…

Passing what looked to be a concrete mixing plant, the noxious stench of petrochemical waste clashed with the soothing sound of crickets chirping in the tall grass alongside the river. Petro-triggered memories of stifling summer days spent growing up in the suburbs of Dallas rushed to my brain—all I needed to crystallize this nostalgic interlude was a few nasty chigger bites.

Mile 17 of Omaha Marathon

Mile 17, with concrete mixing plant at left and Mormon Bridge spanning the Missouri in the distance

Looking ahead as I passed the mile 18 marker just before Power Park, I saw a sore sight for eyes, one that I hoped was nothing more than a heat-induced hallucination. But it wasn’t hot enough to be seeing things, and sure enough there was Dan’s sleeveless white tee and lime green Sauconys some 50 yards ahead of me. This sucks, I thought, crestfallen to see his head drooping and his stride reduced to a labored shuffle.

Having now experienced it, I can say without a doubt that nothing I’ve endured as a runner—not the kidney-punishing heat of Diablo, nor the food-poisoning fiasco in Mobile, not even the nauseating pain of running the last 9+ miles in Nevada on a severely sprained ankle—could compare to the abject helplessness of seeing a friend struggle mightily. And especially not with 7+ miles still to go. Were it possible, I would have gladly siphoned off half of my remaining energy and IV’ed it straight into his bloodstream. But the inconvenient truth was, Dan was the only one who could pull himself out of his unexplained tailspin. And so, with a few words of “Hang in there”-type encouragement that rang hollow in my own ears, I put my head down and plowed ahead.

Whether sympathetic or not, my own stride felt a bit more labored as I followed the Riverside Trail back toward downtown Omaha. Of course, this being the last 8 miles of a marathon on a hot day may also have contributed to my mounting fatigue.

The hotter it gets, the less my body craves calories, and I’d been training specifically for months (via dietary tweaks and frequent fasted runs) to take advantage of my body’s fat stores and reduce its need for supplemental calories on race day. So I took in zero solid calories during the Omaha Marathon nor did my body crave them, even refusing the one Clif Shot Blok I popped in my mouth in mile 16. My only in-race “nutrition” other than frequent water stops was a couple sips of Heed, the sports drink favored by masochists and runners born without taste buds. The stuff remains as unpalatable as I remember it from the otherwise amazing Moab Trail Half Marathon four years ago. On the bright side, it didn’t eat through the paper cups.

Iowa across Carter Lake - Omaha Marathon

Iowa standing tall across Carter Lake

I’m sure too the folks at Hammer Nutrition sponsoring the race would have appreciated hearing the volunteers yell “GATORADE!” at every aid station while holding out cups of Heed. Apparently nobody had instructed the volunteers on what was actually in those carbuoys.

In mile 23 I nodded to a couple of cheering spectators, one of whom called out to me, “That’s the first smile we’ve seen in a while!” Unless I’m really suffering I try to smile as much as possible, if for no other reason than to Jedi mind trick my brain into thinking “This is not the fatigue you’re looking for.”

This year’s marathon was at 1/3 capacity with 332 finishers… though after mile 20, that number seemed about 300 too high. A war of attrition was playing out as we retraced our steps through the tree-lined residential neighborhoods of Omaha. Runners became increasingly sparse and I passed each one in succession, many of them valiantly jogging a few steps at a time before giving in to fatigue and slowing to a walk.

One fellow sporting a bright yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet chugged along, his arms pumping furiously. Grunts of exertion escaped his lips, sounding like something I’d expect to hear on the other side of my hotel room wall. His snorts & groans acted like second-hand fatigue, threatening to sap my own energy as I hurried to pass.

Mile 25 of Omaha Marathon

Runners were few & far between as we neared downtown Omaha in mile 25

Coming down the long straightway of N. 19th St. in mile 25, with an uplifting view of the downtown Omaha skyline rising in the distance, I had to keep close tabs on the nearest runner some 100 yards ahead, since it would have been easy to guess wrong—especially with my subpar sense of direction—and take a wrong turn at any intersection.

Honestly, I’ve never seen a group of marathoners struggle more in the last few miles than I did in Omaha—aside from the runner directly ahead of me, I don’t recall seeing anyone running in mile 26. Usually a few folks dig deep in that final mile, riding the last of their energy reserves to a proud finish. Not in Omaha. And I was reminded that psychologically it’s incredibly tough, with the sun beating down on you and your body begging you to take a break, to keep running when everyone around you is walking. Not that my pace by this point was anything to celebrate—my final three miles would each clock in at over 9:00 minutes. But still, I refused to stop running. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

Time to finish this thing.

Omaha Mural Project

Omaha Mural Project: Fertile Ground tells the story of Omaha’s past, present & future

The Road to Omaha
Approaching TD Ameritrade Park, the crowd of runners swelled as we merged with the back-of-the-pack half marathoners. None of them were running either.

One final left turn and we entered the park, emerging on the center-field warning track. The jumbo screen to our left broadcast live footage of runners approaching the finish. Crikey, I still have to circle the field? I thought wryly as my desperate eyes searched for and found the finish line 300° away, like water in the desert. Ironically, on any other occasion I might’ve taken the time to soak in my surroundings and savor this victory lap—but not right now. Right now I wanted to be done. I sped up on the dirt to pass the family ahead of me so I could finish in the clear, crossing the finish line in a time of 3:47:22.

U.S. Marine awarding Omaha Marathon medal

When a U.S. Marine congratulates you, that’s humbling

For the first time in 23 marathons, not a single runner had passed me in the second half of the race.

With as energetic a “thankoo” as I could muster, I proudly allowed one of the waiting Marine Corps officers to hang an impressively ginormous medal around my neck, accepted two ice-cold bottles of water and then staggered toward the outfield wall, which looked both willing and able to support my exhausted remains. As though waiting for this moment, sweat begin to stream down my face, stinging my eyes with sunscreen. And despite a cooling breeze and partially cloudy sky, the day suddenly got very hot. Was I overheating?

I collapsed in the shade against the wall and gulped one bottle of water while balancing the other on the back of my neck. There I watched one runner after another round the field, few seeming to enjoy their victory lap. The 3:45 pacer crossed the finish and shuffled past, shaking his head and muttering “Bad day for a personal worst”.

Trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, I turned my attention instead to Dan. As though reading my mind my phone buzzed with a text, letting me know he was at mile 25 and feeling dizzy. Well, shit. I weighed my options—I could sit here and wait for him, or I could stumble around and likely throw up on the field. I chose not to move.

Really now… who wouldn’t want to run a marathon?

Mike Sohaskey at Omaha Marathon finish
Finally Dan emerged from the entryway tunnel, taking his time circling the field before striding across the finish looking none the worse for wear. Clearly he’s a quiet sufferer, I thought. And it was amazing to think that although each of us had run nearly twice as many (hilly) miles together four months earlier, these relatively flat 26 miles had felt twice as hard as those 50. No doubt about it—heat is a stone-cold killa.

We were both completely spent and not at all hungry, and after briefly collapsing on a patch of grass Dan headed back to the hotel while I stuck around to collect my day’s winnings, courtesy of a runner-up age group finish. Unfortunately the organizers weren’t yet ready to present the marathon awards. Not only that, but the fellow announcing the 5K winners under the midday sun was doing so at a lethargic pace that, by comparison, made the sloth from “Zootopia” sound like an auctioneer. Luckily I was able to return after hotel checkout to claim my award, since it’s a very nice certificate presented in a curved acrylic frame. Not the easiest thing to carry on an airplane, but definitely worth the inconvenience.

run-for-the-border_bch

Someone stop her, she’s making a run for the border!

Our last couple of hours in Omaha were spent at a Nebraska-like pace. Try as we might we couldn’t muster the energy to visit the trendy Old Market neighborhood with its supposedly cool breweries, nor could either of us locate our appetite. Instead we sat in a gastropub next to TD Ameritrade Park, chatting while Dan nursed one beer and the poor waiter graciously brought us refill after refill of water. Dan (recently a 3:16 marathoner) tried to make sense of his acute struggles, which you can read about in his “Anatomy of a Bonk”.

Luckily Dan’s a resilient guy (on to state #46!), a thoughtful guy and to me, Omaha was more memorable for the company and life experience than for any race day detail (random shooter notwithstanding). Plus, coming together in the middle of the country was a terrific way to experience a place that otherwise holds very little allure, like the Jeb! of the 50 states.

Omaha certainly wasn’t the most distinctive city I’ve marathon’ed in—aside from The Road to Omaha, a 1,500-pound bronze sculpture that sits outside TD Ameritrade Park, nothing about the city stood out in my mind. Typically a marathon course bends over backward to showcase a city, so maybe this was more the fault of the organizers than the city. Granted my visit lasted only 42 hours, and maybe there are other parts of the city that residents point to as distinctly Omaha—but if not for its hosting the College World Series, I’m not sure there’d be another reason to visit. The fact that the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon and Nebraska Marathon, both log many of their miles in Iowa suggests the locals feel the same.

The Road to Omaha - Blisters, Cramps & Heaves

The Road to Omaha, timely motivation right before running a marathon

Finishing on the field was a cool touch, though there’s nothing uniquely captivating about TD Ameritrade Park. And bypassing both Creighton and the University of Nebraska Omaha only added to the sense of a very “beige” city. Race production—including the sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it expo which featured individually wrapped slices of bread—was largely devoid of personality (see “Production” below), with the race itself feeling detached from rather than integrated into the surrounding community. For a race in its 41st year, spectator interest was minimal.

Omaha brought to mind the (no pun intended) running joke I have with a couple of buddies, that low-energy or less dynamic cities are often described by their residents as a “great place to raise kids”. It’s like the phrase is code for “there’s nothing to do here”. And hey, to each his own—if your top priorities in life are peace and quiet (and living among white people), then there’s a place for you in Omaha. I don’t need car horns and police sirens shrieking outside my bedroom window 24/7, but I would prefer that my state’s cultural & economic relevance extend beyond college sports.

Our weekend in Nebraska reinforced the notion that America’s Heartland, both geographically and functionally, may be more appropriately described as America’s appendix—as in, nobody really knows why it’s there. Yes, the people I met in Omaha (Omahans?) seemed friendly enough. But aside from having spent a fun weekend with Dan, ten years from now I’m not sure what I’ll remember about the city itself—maybe the pre-race shooting, maybe the finish line on the field, maybe the fact that it shares a border with Iowa. Even its signature sports stadium is best known for hosting teams other than its own. Omaha is Anytown, USA or Springfield, Nebraska, and so I’m not sure how I’d recommend the city to anyone who’s not a college baseball fan. Unless of course they’re looking for a quiet place to settle down and start a family.

Because Omaha? Omaha would be a great place to raise kids.

Dan Solera & Mike Sohaskey at Omaha Marathon finish

After miles spent running without shade, my camera suddenly decided to provide its own

BOTTOM LINE: Like its pleasant yet average host city, the Omaha Marathon is a pleasant yet average race. To this outsider Omaha was largely nondescript, and if you didn’t know where you were you’d be hard-pressed at any point to identify what city you’re running through. So it’s definitely not the most memorable course you’ll run, but then again it’s a golden opportunity to tour (per the race website) “Nebraska’s most vibrant city”. And the course lies entirely within the state border, a plus for me since I was there to fill my brain with Omaha and Nebraska, like a student cramming for final exams.

(Each of the city’s two other marathons, the Heartland Marathon on Oct. 2 and the Nebraska Marathon on Oct. 16, includes significant mileage in Iowa—though why the 43rd most populous city in the country needs three marathons all within a month of each other is unclear. I sense a bit of civic competition!)

The city aside, the race itself felt like a faceless event devoid of personality and going through the motions. It felt detached from rather than integrated into the community, and it certainly didn’t seem to draw much interest from residents. On-course entertainment was lacking (unless you count a small number of spectator signs), and without aid stations we would have run in silence for most of the 26.2 miles—no high-school bands, no speakers pumping in aural adrenaline, no music of any kind. Even the music at the start line felt apologetic, its volume so low as to be nearly inaudible.

I certainly don’t mind smaller, quieter events—in fact I prefer them, and here some of my favorite races spring to mind, including Run Crazy Horse, the Mississippi Blues Marathon and the Hatfield McCoy Marathon. The difference, as their names suggest, is that these events focus on and embrace the local culture, giving runners a legitimate sense of place. Would you rather run the “Jackson Marathon” or the Mississippi Blues Marathon? The “Eastern Kentucky Marathon” or Hatfield McCoy? Not only that, but the swag for each of these races featured a “surprise & delight” nod to local culture (e.g. a harmonica from Mississippi Blues, a mason jar from Hatfield McCoy). The best race organizers understand that details matter.

The lone kernel of Nebraska culture on this morning was the runner dressed as an ear of corn who I saw shortly after the turnaround. On the bright side, the race was a solid value at $85 (plus inconvenience fees) and significantly cheaper than Omaha’s two other marathons. Though given the Nebraska Marathon’s competitive slogan of “Run local”, I’m guessing its organizers may do more to recognize and embrace local culture.

Omaha Marathon expo

The expo, the whole expo and nothing but the expo

PRODUCTION: All things considered, I wasn’t surprised to learn that HITS Endurance, which produces the race, is based in New York and is “the largest equine show jumping production company in the world” (equine as in horses). The Omaha Marathon is currently the only running event on the company’s calendar, along with a handful of triathlons. Race production struck me as color-by-numbers and just good enough to get by, as though someone had watched a two-minute YouTube video or read a primer on “How to produce a marathon”.

Overall the day ran smoothly enough with no major speed bumps, and kudos to both the organizers and the Omaha police for resolving the pre-race shooting incident as quickly as possible and with minimal disruption to the event itself. At the same time, several missed opportunities throughout the weekend suggested a lack of attention to detail.

bread-slice

EXTRA GRAINY—and now extra plasticky!

First, the expo was disappointing—the five or six tents set up in the parking lot of TD Ameritrade Park were of little interest and seemed scarcely targeted toward runners, including the vendor closest to the entrance who handed us each individually wrapped slices of bread. I could practically hear the planet groaning underfoot.

In addition to the concerns above and the color-by-numbers feel of the production, aid stations were inefficiently organized. Race organizers who pay attention to detail will ensure that water and sports drink (in this case Heed) are offered in visually distinct cups so you can tell at a glance which is which. In the heat of Omaha I had to expend energy at each aid station asking for water, since everything was served in white cups. Not only that but unlike Gatorade, Heed is clear and so indistinguishable from water, thus adding to the confusion. Though this didn’t prevent volunteers from mistakenly shouting “Gatorade!” at every aid station.

Mike Sohaskey with Omaha Marathon medal

This Katie-sized medal will be standing in for Katie today

The post-race spread, though not terrible, was typical: bananas, oranges, dry bagels, an oversized open jar of peanut butter and a container of jelly with flies buzzing happily around it in the heat. No local vendors offering samples or selling food, something I always appreciate as an easy way to showcase the community to a receptive audience. Dan did manage to score us some chocolate milk from a cooler of ice.

Individually these may sound like the nitpicky ramblings of a high-maintenance runner, but while none are make-or-break details, together they’re a clear indication of how well an event production company knows its stuff—and maybe more importantly, how much it cares.

SWAG: Other than surviving the heat, the highlight of the Omaha Marathon may have been the swag, most of all the impressively sized medal that passes the “heft test” and which is now among the largest in my collection. The age group award—a colorful certificate in a curved & beveled acrylic frame—was an unexpected bonus; luckily I stuck around to claim it, since it would have cost me $10 to have it shipped. And the race shirt is a nicely designed, dark blue & green long-sleeve tech tee that will come in handy during the harsh Los Angeles winters.

Read Dan’s side of the story HERE.

Omaha Marathon medal and age group award
RaceRaves
rating:

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FINAL STATS:

Sept 18, 2016 (start time 8:00am after an hour delay)
26.44 miles in Omaha, NE (state 14 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:47:22 (first time running the Omaha Marathon), 8:36/mile
Finish place: 38 overall, 2/28 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 332 (212 men, 120 women)
Race weather: cool & sunny at the start (temp 61°F), hot & sunny at the finish (temp 80°F)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 332 ft ascent, 332 ft descent
omaha-splits

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

Gallopalooza — the horses of Louisville

Gallopalooza — a celebration of Louisville artistry & community

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

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

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

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

Then The Greatest died.

Muhammad Ali career record sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad Ali tribute collage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muhammad Ali tribute collage2

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

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

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

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

The people await their champ on Muhammad Ali Blvd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

The road to Hatfield McCoy Marathon in South Williamson

The road to South Williamson

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

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

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

Marathon Maniacs & Half Fanatics group photo at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mile 1 fog at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The morning fog watches over its domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hill at mile 8 - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy Mini-dwarf horses at mile 10 of Marathon

Hatfield’s mini-dwarf horses (mile 10)

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

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

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

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

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

Crossing into West Virginia at Hatfield McCoy Marathon halfway point

Crossing the West Virginia border at the halfway point

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

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

Loose gravel trail at the Hatfield McCoy Marathon, mile 18

The course transitions to loose gravel in mile 18

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

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

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

Wooden foot bridge_mile 19 of Hatfield McCoy Marathon

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey approaching mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Approaching…

Departing mile 20 aid station at Hatfield McCoy Marathon

… and departing the mile 20 aid station

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy Marathon elevation profile

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

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

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

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

The mile 24 hill looms ahead - Hatfield McCoy Marathon

The mile 24 hill looms ahead

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving Hatfield & McCoy at finish

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Hatfield McCoy Marathon finish line

Happy to mediate a finish-line truce

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

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

It was Kentucky that won by a knockout.

Sunset outside Lexington, Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if @hotmail.com political train wrecks?

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

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

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

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

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

Hatfield McCoy splits

Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.
– Sunny Blende, M.S., Sports Nutritionist

Start-line-selfie

Let’s call this one Giddy Anticipation

(An abridged version of this post was published on Ultrarunning.com)

The final a cappella tones of the National Anthem drifted away on the chill morning breeze, and like that we were fully exposed. Not just to the frigid temperatures, but to the epic challenge ahead of us. Dan and Otter’s pent-up energy crackled on either side of me, my lowfat frame shivering between them in its bid to stay warm. Curiously my full-body shiver response was most vigorous in my posterior, as though the spirit of Beyoncé had suddenly occupied Château Caucasia.

I tried to savor the moment, focusing on the fact this would be far more than a novel challenge at a longer distance. Over the next 12 hours I’d be attempting to run 50 miles—19 more than I’d ever run in one day, and roughly the same mileage I’d been totaling on a weekly basis for the past several months. And yet I felt an extraordinary and almost unsettling sense of calm—was mine the blissful ignorance of a turkey accepting an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner?

Shivering backside notwithstanding, the weather in Kettle Moraine State Forest would be perfect for the task at hand: cloudy skies to minimize the sun’s influence; cooler temps to prevent overheating, not to mention deter bugs (including ticks!) & allergens; and light intermittent rains in the days leading up to the race, which ensured we’d be running on cushiony trails free of dust. If the weather gods had instructed me to “Take as much time as you need,” I couldn’t have designed more ideal conditions.

All that said, my brain kept circling back to the same question: Was I ready to run 50 miles? The answer was as clear as the patchy mud all around us:

I have no idea.

Wisconsin flg

Dan & Otter had arrived in Kettle Moraine—Dan with his father-in-law Steve, Otter with his girlfriend Lisa—in search of redemption. Dan had dropped at mile 39.3 of the North Country 50-Mile Run three years earlier, the victim of ill-timed patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), while Otter had dropped at mile 43.3 of last year’s Ice Age 50 due to time-limit concerns. For each of them, revenge would be a dish best served cold—and cloudy, and windy. So we all had something to prove.

Before we’d even crossed the Wisconsin border, our best-laid plans had nearly gone astray. In a classic case of not AGAIN, Dan had experienced a flareup in his left knee ahead of last month’s Silurian Springs 25K, dropping from the 50K to the 25K as a result. He’d finished the 25K strong, but had since been babying the knee in preparation for Ice Age—meaning his training regimen over the past month had been limited. For his part, Otter was recovering from a nasty cold that still sent him into the occasional coughing fit. Of all the recreational options you might choose on a weakened immune system, an ultramarathon wouldn’t be high on that list.

Me, I’d be the healthiest among us, coming off back-to-back marathons six days apart in Boston & Big Sur. If anything, my concern was OVERtraining, and a resulting lack of energy similar to what had flummoxed in Boston. But having curtailed my training significantly in the three weeks since Big Sur, I was eager to find out how well my body had recovered from two beatings on concrete in close succession. Unfortunately, with all my training focused on road marathons in Boston and Big Sur, my trail time in recent months had been minimal. And in fact, by crossing the finish line at Ice Age I would have tripled the mileage on my trail shoes. So this would definitely be a trial (or trail) by fire.

Runners&Crew_start

All for one, and one for all! (L-R: Dan, Steve, me, Katie, Otter, Lisa) (photo: Dan Solera)

During our group carbo-loading session the night before, Dan and I had admitted to the same ambitious goal. Whereas “Just finish (in under 12 hours)” was our overall goal for the day, we’d set our best-case scenario at under 10 hours. Because if you’re going to run the race, you may as well aim high. At an average pace of 12:00/mile I knew we could do it—if everything went smoothly and according to plan {cue mad scientist laugh}.

By definition it would be a long day of running and—based on every first-timer story I’d ever read or heard—an inevitable sufferfest. Anticipating that, I’d divided the race mentally into a series of five 10-milers. Here’s how I expected the day to unfold:

Miles 1-10: Start strong, feel great to be running through the forest with friends

Miles 11-20: Settle in, maintain a comfortable pace, ensure all systems are go

Miles 21-30: The struggle officially begins as I pass the marathon mark and approach my longest-ever distance (50K)

Miles 31-40: Fatigue sets in, legs tighten and focus dwindles; if my nutrition isn’t dialed in, the wheels could come off in a hurry

Miles 41-50: Hang on for dear life, channel my inner Dean Karnazes (“Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up”), do whatever it takes to reach the finish line in under 12 hours.

As it turns out, truth really is stranger than fiction.

Ultrafood

The plan was to sleep like a baby before the race & eat like one during it

Miles 1–10 (Green means GO)
As the National Anthem faded, race director Jeff Mallach wasted no time sending us on our way with a flurry of cheers from both runners & spectators. The three of us immediately set about debating whether, with a 6:04am start time, the cutoff would be 12 hours later or 6:00pm sharp. The unspoken hope was that none of us would need to care.

I’d agreed with Dan & Otter’s plan to stay together for the first 9-mile loop, to ensure we kept each other in check while maintaining a smart & steady pace. The wide & welcoming Nordic Trail was trail running at its finest, with rain-softened dirt and grasses cushioning every step amid radiant surroundings, as though the entire forest had recently been treated to a fresh coat of green paint. I could see how, in late autumn before the first snowfall, our route might resemble a scene from “The Blair Witch Project,” with skeletal trees and naked dirt casting a dull, uniform brown over the entire scene. Now though, with the flush of spring fresh on its cheeks, coupled with the recent rains, Kettle Moraine could easily have passed for the Pacific Northwest.

Cruising though the conifers we conversed easily, sharing stories and enjoying this day we’d planned for a year, seemingly oblivious to the 40+ more miles we still had to run. This steady stream of conversation also ensured we were never working hard enough to get out of breath. We took turns running in pairs on the wide doubletrack, occasionally emerging from the forest into a wind-exposed meadow before being swallowed again by the soaring canopy of towering evergreens and more modest hardwoods.

At one point, curious about the plant life lining the trail I pointed down and asked “Any idea what this is?”—to which I got simultaneous reponses of “grass” (from Otter) and “dirt” (from Dan). Ask a silly question…

Dan-&-Otter_Nordic-Trail

Dan & Otter set the pace on the Nordic Trail

On every incline, even those of moderate ascent, we’d slow to a hike to stay within our aerobic (fat-burning) zone. And here I was lucky to be running with two ultra vets, since this strategy flew in the face of my training & programming. I’ve always conditioned myself to run uphill until either I’m out of breath or I can’t lift my quads—basically run ‘til I can’t run, then hike ‘til I can run again. This was another reason Otter had smartly recommended we run together—he knew the temptation to attack those early hills would be strong. And he knew energy saved now would prevent an ugly bonk later.

Before I knew it we’d come full circle and reached the start line aid station (mile 9), where Katie, Lisa & Steve—on this day the Most Valuable Crew—waited. Glancing over my dining options, I grabbed one quarter of a PB&J and a cup of the original sports drink, Mountain Dew. It had been years—check that, decades—since I’d tasted Mountain Dew, and on this day we’d be reunited like old friends.

Given we were running ~10 minutes ahead of Otter’s projected time, Steve looked at me with clear trepidation in his eyes and made a gentle “take it easy” gesture with his hands. “You guys are pacing this really well” he said diplomatically, which I understood to mean “I know you feel great now, but you have a long way to go—don’t do anything stupid and flame out early.” Feeling a swell of appreciation, I assured him we’d been running comfortably and hiking the uphills. And I knew Dan would be in very capable hands for the next 41 miles.

Not wanting to waste time at this first stop, I exchanged “See you soon”s with Katie and pushed on ahead of Dan & Otter, our tacit agreement being that after the first 9 miles we’d run at our own pace.

Otter&me_mile9

(photo: Bill Flaws, Running in the USA)

I seldom use aid stations for anything more than the occasional cup of water, since I don’t sweat much and prefer to carry (and trust) my own nutrition. But knowing I’d need them early & often at Ice Age, I’d resolved to get in & out of each one as fast as possible. Otter had made another valid point here: assuming 15 aid station stops at 4 minutes per (not a long time when you’re hungry, stiff & tired), you’ve already sacrificed an entire hour of your race to the aid station gods. So get in, get what you need and get out.

To keep my hands free (in case of a fall) I’d ruled against carrying a bottle in favor of my hydration pack, which I filled with a liter of Skratch Labs drink mix (water + electrolytes) along with pouches of puréed (i.e. baby) food and packets of GU. I wanted my go-to nutrition to be as easily digestible and stomach-friendly as possible, supplemented by aid station bananas and PB&J. Nom nom.

I’m not the superstitious sort, but I do subscribe to the theory that the more you pack, the less you’ll need. For that reason I’d packed enough wardrobe options to make Katy Perry jealous. Katie had several potential changes of clothes & shoes ready to go, in case anything rubbed, chafed, or blistered. And I’d brought hiking poles in the event any of us needed extra support late in the race. I also carried bandaids, baby wipes for ‘tween-aid-station emergencies and a 5-Hour Energy for a shot of caffeine late in the race. Plus, I’d be carrying my iPhone in my Spibelt for picture-taking purposes. Boy Scouts ain’t got nothin’ on me!

One ten-mile race down, four to go.

Back to the start_mile9

Full circle: Dan leads the way back through the start line at mile 9

Miles 11–20 (Settling in on the singletrack)
Quickly I reached Confusion Corner at mile 11, which on this day was most notable for its lack of confusion. There, a helpful volunteer directed everyone onto the Ice Age Trail for the out-and-back to Rice Lake. In fact, the entire course was free of confusion and impeccably marked, with yellow flags denoting the 50-mile route and orange flags the 50K. Even with my notoriously faulty sense of direction, I was never in danger of taking a wrong turn.

Here on the beautifully groomed singletrack of the Ice Age Trail, a game of leapfrog developed which would hold for the next 20 miles. At each aid station I’d fuel up quickly and leave ahead of Dan, who would soon overtake & pass me with a whoop of warning or—in one case—the theme from “Jaws”. He’d dance by and gradually extend his lead with long fluid strides… then we’d hit a descent and he’d gracefully airwalk downhill as if it were a treadmill, while I tediously picked my way over rocks & roots or down wooden-framed steps, careful not to treat those around me to my first face-plant of the day.

Ice-Age_miles-11-32

Scenes from the Ice Age Trail, Section 2 (miles 11-32)

At one point Dan turned a corner 30 feet ahead of me, and by the time I reached the same spot he was already down a hill and out of sight around the next bend, like a will-o’-the-wisp in running shoes. As much as I wanted to chase him down, though, I focused instead on maintaining a steady, comfortable pace, reminding myself to keep my eyes on the prize—the finish line was still a long way off.

Besides, Dan & Otter had a bit of a home-field advantage here, having made the two-hour drive from their hometown Chicago several times in recent months to train on these trails. So far though, I had to admit—I was thoroughly enjoying my own personal introduction to Kettle Moraine.

Lisa & Otter_mile13

Lisa & Otter review their strategery, mile 13.1

Aid station stops became models of efficiency. Katie and Lisa would cheer us in as we approached, Lisa bundled in a hooded green winter jacket that had scantily clad runners telling her she looked cold. Katie, nestled deep within her own poofy jacket, would greet me each time with the agreed-upon “What do you need?” She’d hand me a pouch of puréed food, which I’d down along with ¼ PB&J, two bites of banana, a cup of Mountain Dew and a few sips of water before heading out again. Easy peasy, baby food squeezy.

Both the men’s and women’s leaders flew by us along this stretch, headed back toward Confusion Corner well ahead of their pursuers. Lead woman Larisa Dannis (7:05:56) glided past us, moving purposefully and looking sharp in her INKnBURN gear. I too had donned INKnBURN shorts for the race, mainly for practical reasons since they’re the most comfortable running shorts I own. Unfortunately, any similarity between our running styles ended there.

Two ten-mile races down, three to go.

Uphill caravan

Uphill caravan, mile 15 (photo: Dan Solera)

Miles 21–30 (Waiting for The Wall)
I rolled into the turnaround at Rice Lake (mile 21.7) feeling strong and silently lauding the cool weather—on a warmer day, this course could have been much less hospitable, with the reeds around Rice Lake providing a haven for swarming gnats and hungry no-see-ums. Again I hastened through my aid station routine, doing a few leg lifts this time to keep my hip flexors loose. Dan had a similar idea, holding Steve’s hands as he leaned back in an upright sitting position to stretch both quads & hamstrings. I fueled up, gulped down my obligatory shot of Mountain Dew and continued back the way I’d come.

Rice Lake_mile 22

Rice Lake, mile 22

At each aid station I marveled at the selflessness of the volunteers, incredible people who were donating pretty much an entire day of their lives to stand out in the cold for us, to restock food for us, to pour drinks for us, and to ensure that each & every runner who passed through their aid station had exactly what they needed. “You’re doing all the hard work!” they’d respond modestly when I thanked them. I wish I’d had the time & wits to stop and chat with every volunteer, since some have been doing this for over 20 years. I say it in pretty much every race recap, and it rang especially true at Ice Age—volunteers they make the running world go ‘round.

At every mile I mutely celebrated the satisfying beep of my Garmin and immediately looked forward to the next, appreciating life as an endorphin junkie. Dan and I were now running alone in the damp woods, trading the occasional snippet of conversation but otherwise focused on the task at hand. These moments of easy comradery were among the highlights of the day, and I wouldn’t have traded them for a course record.

As we passed the 25-mile mark, I pointed out optimistically that we’d now be counting down mileage to the finish. And I understood Dan’s reluctance to count unhatched chickens—while mile 25 may be the physical midway point of the course, we both knew the next 25 miles would feel much longer than the first 25. Nonetheless the thought of counting down miles with less than a marathon to go provided a nice psychological pick-me-up. And I was quick to seize on any available edge, real or perceived.

Tree-tunnel_mile24_BCH

Rain—no wait, are those sleet pellets?—began to fall lightly at the marathon (mile 26.2) mark, so gentle and transient as to be nothing more than an amusing distraction. A brisk, chilling breeze periodically flexed its muscles as we traversed open meadows or paused at exposed aid stations, but at no time did I ever feel too warm or too cold. All day long I was the Goldilocks of ultramarathoners, my body temperature juuuuust right.

As I neared the aid station at mile 30.2, I felt my core and upper quads starting to tighten noticeably and thought Uh oh, here we go. In response, I added leg lifts & leg swings to my aid station routine, setting Katie’s expectations that it would take me longer to cover miles 30–40 (to reach our next rendezvous point at mile 40.2) than it had the previous 10 miles. Her expression never deviated from calm and reassuring, confirming I still looked as good as I felt. So much so that I decided not to grab my headphones, since the idea of distracting from the awesomeness around me with a playlist or podcast felt counterproductive. If anything I wanted to be more in tune with my body and my surroundings, not less. So far, so good.

Three ten-mile races down, two to go.

Dan_mile30

“I know I left those legs around here somewhere…”

Miles 31–40 (Where no Mike has gone before)
Again I left the aid station ahead of Dan, who was likewise looking strong & poised for the final 20 miles. Given that crew members would be unable to access aid stations for the next 10 miles, this stretch promised to feel like the longest yet.

Reaching the 50K (mile 31.1) mark, I recognized the occasion by pausing for a “longest run ever” selfie. Also along this stretch I paused for the first and only time to relieve myself. Unfortunately, despite the 56,000 acres of dirt-, grass- and pine needle-carpeted forest surrounding me on all sides, in my preoccupation to shield myself from oncoming runners I somehow managed to empty my bladder directly on my shoetop. And all I could do was laugh at my own sad ineptitude. Watch that sock get wet now & cause blisters, I thought, wiggling my toes and shaking my foot like a wet dog before forging ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at 50K of Ice Age Trail 50

“Longest run ever” selfie at 50K, still with two dry feet

If I were to voice one—complaint is too strong a word—reservation about Ice Age, it would be the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, particularly when the leaders would fly by like methed-up gazelles. Two-way traffic is admittedly unavoidable, and the vast majority of runners handled it with grace and aplomb, recognizing for example that downhill runners have the right-of-way. That said, the occasional miscreant would come barreling down the middle of the singletrack trail with their head down like a charging rhino, forcing anyone in their path to hop off the trail or distort their tired body to avoid a nasty head-on collision. Trail runners are typically easy-going folks and these instances were rare, but even once was too much at a race like Ice Age, where sharing the trail is the only way everyone can achieve the same ambitious goal.

Despite the two-way traffic, throughout the day I enjoyed several miles of what I love most about trails—no traffic, no red lights, no dogs barking from behind chain-link fences, just running alone in a quiet, beautiful place. Ever the voice of experience, Otter had recommended we each adopt a mantra for when the going got tough. I’d jokingly channeled my inner gladiator and suggested “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” But at the moment it fit perfectly… because I really was.

Ice-Age-buckles

24 years of Ice Age glory on display

At some point light snowflakes fluttered around me, dissipating as quickly as the sleet. Then the sun broke through the clouds, providing a brief respite of warmth before again retreating, this time for good. It was as though the god of weather had entrusted the day to his young and inexperienced protégé.

But where was Dan? Here the aid stations were spaced 3 and 4 miles apart, and each one I departed without seeing him enter. He hadn’t been far behind me at mile 30.2, and I felt a twinge of concern that his knee might be acting up. Vanquishing it immediately, I assured myself he was fine and probably just battling the same heavy-leggedness I’d felt at mile 30 (which, amazingly, had dissipated as quickly as the sleet and snow). And I was confident Otter would be having an excellent adventure of his own.

As I reached the Horserider’s aid station at mile 37, my Garmin chirped a warning and displayed a “LOW BATTERY” message. Shite. Quickly I flipped the display from my real-time stats to time-of-day only, hoping to conserve as much battery life as possible. I hadn’t glanced at my wrist all day, appreciating my Garmin only for its regular mile updates. Sure I’d assumed my battery wouldn’t survive the entire 12 hours, but this was even earlier than anticipated.

Dan_mile21

Sometimes you see the camera before it sees you (Rice Lake, mile 21.7)

The hills kept coming. Otter had warned us that this third section of the course, the 18-mile out-and-back to the Emma Carlin aid station, would be “objectively the hilliest… both in terms of the number of hills, as well as the overall elevation gain”. This included one of the toughest climbs of the course in Bald Bluff at mile 35. And yet the hills never felt interminable, nor were any as severe as the ones I frequent in California. My memory may be deceiving me here, but each hill seemed to be followed by a stretch of highly runnable terrain.

I continued to stay within my aerobic zone, power-hiking the steeper hills—always with hands on quads, for better stability and more power—while running the gentler ones. The frequency of my uphill running increased with each passing mile. And in fact I felt more comfortable running the uphills, since the most challenging part of these later miles was restarting from a standstill each time I crested a hill or left an aid station. Once I’d get the legs cranking again, though, it was all good.

During an ultra, “It’s not so much if you’re going to have stomach problems, it’s when you’re going to have stomach problems, and what you’re going to do about it,” says sports nutritionist and ultramarathoner Sunny Blende. That said, my stomach defied convention all day long by behaving like a baby asleep in the back seat of a car. Sure, by mile 37 the PB&J sandwiches were getting a bit stale and increasingly difficult to swallow. But my stomach never faltered, a fact I attribute to 1) the weather, 2) Otter’s advice to eat early & often, and 3) my reliance on real food, puréed and otherwise, rather than lab-synthesized maltodextrin and Soylent Green.

Baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… baby food, PB&J, Mountain Dew, banana, water… Welcome to the machine, I thought wryly.

Sentry Steve_mile26

Steve plays sentry at mile 17.3

Several times I lost focus and scuffed my toe on a rogue rock or root, lurching forward but regaining my balance in time to prevent a fall. Until finally it happened — just before the mile 40 turnaround, I lifted my right foot one inch to clear a two-inch high rock and tumbled forward in a flying somersault tuck with a half-twist, landing softly in the green foliage beside the trail. Alone and unfazed, I hopped up and continued on my way, relieved that I’d finally put that inevitable episode behind me. I’m used to face-planting on dusty rocky SoCal trails, so falling in Kettle Moraine was like landing on unicorn feathers.

I saw Katie, Lisa & Steve for the ninth and final time at the Emma Carlin aid station (mile 40.2). His brow furrowed, Steve signaled at me to ask whether I’d seen Dan. I gestured back that I hadn’t. Approaching the food table I admitted to the volunteers, “I thought Emma Carlin was the stuff of legend, I can’t believe I’m actually here”. They assured me they were real and that I was still standing. They also informed me the bar was open, and I glanced back to see a table stocked with Samuel Adams and sporting a “Flatlander Ultrarunners” sign. Who in their right mind, at mile 40 of an ultramarathon…? I thought. Clearly I wasn’t thinking straight or I would’ve known the answer…

I knew better than to sit down, not that I felt like it. Aid station fatigue was setting in, but as tired as I was of eating PB&J and drinking Mountain Dew, 10 more miles felt like nothing, and I almost felt like I could reach out and touch the finish line. My nutrition was dialed in and my body felt good—time to buckle down (pun intended) and get this done. I gave Katie a peck on the forehead and told her I’d see her at the finish.

Four ten-mile races down, one to go.

RunHappy

It was a #LiveLong and #RunHappy kind of day in Kettle Moraine

Miles 41­­–50 (DNF = Do Nothing Fatal)
The main benefit of the out-and-back course layout was that roughly five minutes after leaving Emma Carlin, I passed Dan coming the other way. I felt a shot of adrenaline on seeing him, as he looked to be in high spirits and trained his camera on me as I approached. And that was the definitive moment I realized Damn, we are all going to finish this thing.

Fifteen minutes later I passed Otter, pulsing with characteristic energy and a manic look in his eyes. I blurted out encouragement in passing, his response reaching my ears Doppler-style as he never broke stride: “YOU BETTER GET GOING, ‘CUZ I’M GOING TO CATCH YOU!” Absurd as his words sounded, his voice was so strong and so full of conviction that for one brief moment it crossed my mind, He may actually mean it.

What happened next was nothing short of amazing—and I missed it. Otter rolled into Emma Carlin and took the Flatlanders up on their offer to do a beer bong. At mile 40 of a 50-miler. In his defense, he did choose a light beer—and I can’t help but think this was a symbolic middle finger to his 2015 Ice Age effort, which ended prematurely at mile 43.3.

Otter_beer bong_mile40

Otter demonstrates proper mile 40 beer bong technique as the paparazzi look on in awe

When I heard about Otter’s Emma Carlin moment I felt amused sympathy for Lisa, who as his crew had gamely shouldered the responsibility for ensuring he had everything he needed when he needed it—food, water, ibuprofen, salt tablets, etc. So I could only imagine how she must have felt on seeing him sidle up to the Flatlanders’ dehydration station. On the most pleasant day, hers (and Katie’s and Steve’s) could easily be construed as a thankless job. On this day, though, with temperatures peaking in the 40s and aid stations exposed to a bone-chilling wind, the job of crew member verged on cruel & unusual. Luckily Lisa’s Michigan constitution and sense of humor shined through when she needed them most.

With one final chirp of surrender, my Garmin bid the day farewell just short of mile 41. For the final 9 miles I’d be on my own, without the addictive beep of each mile marker to count on.

For most runners, the scarlet letters “DNF” mean “Did Not Finish”, but ultrarunners like to joke that they stand for “Did Nothing Fatal”. And that was my goal over those final 10 miles. I’d come too far to lose focus now—one errant step or ill-timed face-plant could negate the past 8+ hours of effort, particularly on the downhills where my stiffening legs had lost much of their earlier flexibility.

Katie&Me_mile40

Nothin’ but happy at mile 40.2

Steve had witnessed just such a game-changer firsthand at mile 30. He’d helped a fellow who’d fallen on the trail and sustained a nasty cut beside his left eye, a cut requiring medical attention that ended his own race not with a bang but a whimper.

Under the verdant canopy my eyes remained glued to the damp ground, dancing over rocks and roots, triangulating my next step before darting ahead to map out my next three. I took what the trail gave, never forcing the issue—each step as long or as short, as lithe or as deliberate as the capricious terrain dictated.

And I pondered the question: How was this happening? Other than predictable fatigue my feet, legs and body felt strong. Where were the cramps? Where were the heaves? Not even a blister to provide some discomfort drama over these last few miles. With my past 1½ years of training being dominated by Boston, I’d forgotten just how much I missed trail running.

Bald Bluff (Dan)

One section of Bald Bluff, the toughest climb on the course (photo: Dan Solera)

With a dead Garmin and a refusal to glance at my iPhone, I had no idea how much time had elapsed or what my pace was. Was a 10-hour finish still reasonable? I told myself Dan would be charging up from behind at any second, dancing by me and disappearing down the next hill out of sight. So I needed to bear down and maintain my pace—now was not the time to give in to fatigue. Run those flats! Hike those hills! Don’t let off the throttle!

The gentle crunch of my footfalls, the measured timbre of my breathing and the hypnotic swish of liquid in my hydration pack were the only sounds audible in the dormant forest.

At the mile 43.3 aid station, I deviated from my routine ever so slightly for an experiment, popping a salt tablet in my mouth before heading out again. I wasn’t sweating heavily and I didn’t feel low on salt; nonetheless I figured I’d give it a shot to see if it made a difference. As my tongue recoiled from the pungent grains I realized NOPE, salt wasn’t what I needed, and spat the capsule into the bushes. Lesson learned.

Approaching the penultimate aid station at mile 47.6, it struck me that I’d effectively whittled the challenge of the day down to the Ice Age 5K. Someone had posted a handwritten sign that read “IF YOU START TO FEEL GOOD DURING AN ULTRA, DON’T WORRY, YOU WILL GET OVER IT”—and I marveled again that so much conventional ultrarunning wisdom had gone out the window here in Kettle Moraine. I gulped down one last cup of Mountain Dew and pushed ahead, blowing past the final aid station 0.9 miles later with a nod of appreciation. “1½ miles to go!” the volunteer confirmed as I passed.

Home stretch_mile50

Still looking Instagram-purty after 50 miles

Like an audio tour of the course, Otter’s voice in my head shepherded me toward the finish. “Remember this hill,” he’d said as we’d tackled our first descent on fresh legs. “On your way back this will be your last uphill before the finish.” Then that hill was behind me, and I wanted to hug the bundled-up couple who informed me I had a quarter mile to go. Oh, what a feeling.

A wave of awestruck pride washed over me on spying the lime green FINISH banner directly ahead. I high-fived Steve, then Katie, and then I spotted it—the official timer clock perched next to the finish line, dispassionately reducing the blood, sweat & tears of each finisher to six unique digits. Mine were 09:54:30.

I’d broken 10 hours.

Holy SHIT.

Finish time

A mammoth accomplishment
Gratefully I accepted my first-ever finisher buckle—embossed with woolly mammoth mascot—then wrapped a beaming Katie in a huge embrace that was 50 miles & 10 hours in the making. Quickly I changed into warm dry clothes before staking out a spot at the finish to wait for Dan. He emerged from the woods a short time later, arms raised triumphantly in understated celebration. An animated Otter followed 50 minutes later, spiking his water bottle just short of the finish line before flying across, wings up. As he rode his adrenaline high into the finish area where Lisa awaited, I heard someone nearby tell their friends, “That was the fellow who did the beer bong.” And with that, Otter forever became a cult hero among the Ice Age faithful.

Runners & crew reunited in the finish area, where we piled our plates high with food and giddily relived the past 11+ hours. Only after wrapping myself in two blankets (kindly provided by Lisa) did I stop shivering, an unfortunate side effect of having run for 10 hours in cold weather with very little body fat. As the official clock neared the 12-hour time limit, we creakily stood to cheer the final few finishers across the line, one of whom generated some last-minute drama by face-planting less than 100 feet from the finish.

Whereas in Boston I wished I could bottle the experience, at Ice Age I wished I could bottle both the experience and my performance. I’m not sure I could run a more steady race than this one. It was as though I’d come to Kettle Moraine expecting to have to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded, only to find on race day that all six sides were the same color.

9xbpxu9rpmfi4

Otter channels his inner Rob Gronkowski

I want to say I endured tremendous suffering, and experienced epiphanic moments of clarity that come with taxing the human body to its limits. But I didn’t. I want to say this was my toughest running challenge yet. But it wasn’t—that title still goes to the 2012 Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K, where a freak heat wave taught me the true definition of endurance. And I want to say I left it all out on the lush trails of Kettle Moraine, emptying the tank and giving all I had to give. But I can’t—and in fact, less than 48 hours after Ice Age my legs felt as though I’d actually taken the weekend off. Empirically speaking, 10 slower hours on soft dirt is much more forgiving than 3½ faster hours on concrete.

Ice Age was a confluence of many factors that added up to an awesome race— among them an inspiring course, perfect weather and (maybe more anything) unmatched comradery. It certainly helped that one of those comrades was an eager fount of ultrawisdom, since Otter’s pre-race advice & enthusiasm—beginning months in advance—played a key role in my arriving at the Nordic Trailhead feeling relaxed and ready. As Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” On Saturday, the three of us knew what the hell we were doing.

Jeff&Me_postrace

Race Director Jeff Mallach (no thanks to my iPhone lens, which fogged over in the cold)

But as important as redemption was for both of my companions, I can’t help believing that Otter’s triumph carried with it more personal meaning. Otter lost his father just a month before Ice Age, and though I never met David Otto, the legacy of the father shines brightly in the warm, empathetic and incredibly funny man his son has become. I’m guessing the chance to process the emotional whirlwind of the previous month on his own terms, in the welcoming woods of southern Wisconsin, was as powerful and cathartic a motivator as any finisher buckle or quest for redemption could ever be.

The three of us left Wisconsin—state #12 on my 50 states journey—with nothing left to prove. So then what’s next? At 43 states and counting, closing out his own 50 states tour remains Dan’s priority, having put that goal on hiatus to train for Berlin last year and Ice Age so far this year. Otter has yet to settle on his next big challenge, but if I were a betting man I’d lay good money on a 100K, 100-miler or—who knows?—maybe even a multi-stage Desert Challenge in his future.

Lisa & Otter celebrate

50 miles later, I’m not sure that’s where Lisa’s nose wants to be

Me, I’m still on an Ice Age high as I write this over a week later. That said, I’m already looking toward the next challenge and have two other 50+ milers in mind, including a 56-miler in South Africa that’s calling my name. But not immediately. And next time I’ll be under no delusion, knowing I’ll face considerably more resistance than I did in Kettle Moraine. But for now I need time to process the experience, to let the reality of our group accomplishment sink in and to revel in it. Otherwise what’s the point? If this were a high school yearbook, I might say Ice Age was 2 good 2 be 4 gotten.

Because the truth is, while I love running road races—there’s nothing like the thrill of a World Marathon Major, and both London & Tokyo await—I’m at home out on the trails, where my mind feels uncluttered and my body performs its best. I don’t need screaming spectators or deafening bands to motivate me; on the contrary, the profound quiet of Kettle Moraine State Forest inspired me all day long in a way that few stretches of raucous road outside of Boston ever could. Give me a start & finish line, two excellent running buddies and an all-star crew, and I can run all day.

And now I know that.

Mission accomplished

Mission accomplished!

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a runner looking to make the leap to the 50-mile distance, do yourself a favor and check out the Ice Age Trail 50. It’s the perfect course for 50-mile newbies, a reasonably challenging hybrid of runnable flats and hikable hills. Well-groomed dirt and grass trails make up the bulk of the terrain, which isn’t particularly technical despite numerous rocky ascents & descents (gaiters will help keep those rocks out of your shoes). And speaking of ascents, there are a few relatively steep hills but nothing monstrous, so if you strengthen your core muscles and shore up your power-hiking skills during training, you should be fine.

Kettle Moraine State Forest is a gorgeous venue for the race, particularly in mid-May when spring has sprung and when heat & humidity are less likely to be a factor. If you’re lucky, you may even get the perfectly cool temperatures we got, and two awesome running buddies to join you. I can even recommend the Lake Lawn Resort in nearby Delavan, an easy 25-30 min car ride from the start line, if you’re looking for convenient non-camping accommodations.

The only downside to Ice Age is the two-way traffic on the out-and-backs, though this only became a problem with a handful of runners who­—for whatever reason—came barreling down the center of the trail refusing to yield the right-of-way. This could have resulted in some nasty collisions had the rest of us not been hypervigilant and quick to step aside. As with any event, though, it’s tough to police assholery.

Katie&me_finish

Me, the finish and the reason I reached the finish

PRODUCTION: Race-day production was top-notch. Despite being one of the largest 50-milers in the country, Ice Age reminded me why I miss low-key trail races. The course was clearly marked with yellow (50M) and/or orange (50K) flags at every turn, aid stations were well-stocked and well-spaced (the longest interval between stations was 5.1 miles, and that was at mile 9), and without exception the volunteers were nothing short of brilliant. After all, these folks were selflessly sacrificing an entire day of their lives so the rest of us could work through personal issues run an absurdly long way. I introduced myself to Race Director Jeff Mallach after the race, and he seemed genuinely surprised and appreciative that we’d made the trip from California just to run his race.

The only potential issue—and one I never encountered personally—was a shortage of medical personnel & supplies on the course, e.g. when Steve drove the fellow who’d sustained a bloody gash beside his eye back to the start/finish area for medical attention.

SWAG: How to argue with my first-ever ultra buckle? The Ice Age buckle with its woolly mammoth logo is one good-looking piece of hardware. Credit to RD Jeff Mallach for not subscribing to the “Bigger is better” mentality—as with other things, garishly large medals smack of a race trying to make up for something. And though the long-sleeve tech tee may be a bit bright, its lime green color will go a long way toward making me visible to oncoming traffic on my training runs.

Read Dan’s excellent Ice Age recap HERE.

For a different perspective, which will make you want to either sign up for this race immediately or flee in the other direction, check out Jeff Lung’s recap of the 2012 Ice Age Trail 50 HERE.

Read Otter’s recap of the 2013 North Country Run, his first 50-miler, HERE.

Ice Age buckle

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
May 14, 2016 (start time 6:04am)
50 miles in Kettle Moraine State Forest, Whitewater, WI (state 12 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 9:54:30 (first time running the Ice Age Trail 50), 11:54/mile
Finish place: 95 overall, 15/40 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 297 (208 men, 89 women)
Race weather: cold & cloudy at the start (temp 39°F) and finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 2,472 ft ascent, 2,510 ft descent through 41 miles
Elevation change (Strava, based on Otter’s Suunto data): 6,762 ft through 50 miles
~6,000 calories burned, ~2,000 calories replaced

Ice Age splits

It’s all fun & games until the Garmin dies at mile 40.93 (actually, it was all fun & games after that, too)

The “Marathon” race from Ashland to this city, held under the auspices of the Boston athletic association yesterday… proved a great success and is an assurance of an annual fixture of the same kind.
The Boston Globe, 20 April 1897

Boston Marathon finish line

I’d made it to Mecca.

Not the Holy Land to which devout Muslims make their annual pilgrimage, but the one to which devout runners make theirs. I’d made it to Boston.

Ok, so technically that wasn’t true — not yet. As Katie’s childhood buddy Paul and I meandered through the Athlete’s Village awaiting the start of the world’s most prestigious marathon, the truth was that I’d made it to Hopkinton, a town conveniently located 26.2 miles west of the finish line in Boston. Now that the hardest part — the months of high-mileage weeks, long training runs and marathon-pace workouts required to get here — was over, the long-anticipated last step in my journey to Boston Marathoner was about to begin.

As sacred as Mecca is to Muslims, I’m not sure many would eagerly run the last 26.2 miles to get there.

Boston Marathon course elevation profile

But eager was just one of the raw emotions crackling like unseen currents of electricity through the Athletes’ Village — unseen yet unmistakable, like the metallic scent of ozone before an electrical storm. And all of us good conductors. Eager. Nervous. Cheerful. Stoic. Adrenalized. Ready. In some corners, a dash of nauseous and a smidgen of scared. Some runners chatted as they waited in line for the porta-potties; others splayed out on the shaded grass under the tents, conserving energy; still others sat absentmindedly reading the ingredients on their race-day packets of yummy GU.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and first on the bus. — Benjamin Franklin, philosopher, politician, Boston Marathoner
Katie’s and my iPhone alarms had chimed simultaneously at 5:45am, nearly two hours after I’d first bolted awake, my mind instantly alert to the fact it was Marathon Monday. Feeling cold, I’d realized I was drenched in sweat thanks to our hotel room’s faulty thermostat. Bad omen #1 on a day when my hydration needed to be dialed in.

I’d dressed & packed quickly, donning the Goodwill hoodie & pants I’d brought in anticipation of a comfortably cool wait in Hopkinton. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and like an excitable runner on the first downhill, it too had started too fast. By the time Paul and I deboarded at the Athletes’ Village after the easy 45-minute bus ride from the Boston Common, sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s greeted us. Ideal weather for watching the Boston Marathon, not so much for running it. Coming from SoCal though, where I regularly train in 70+ degree temps, I wasn’t overly concerned. Maybe we’d still get lucky as in 2011, when an epic tailwind propelled Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya to a course record 2:03:02 and Ryan Hall to an American record 2:04:58.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Boston Marathon Athletes Village

Paul & I kill time at the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton

Though teeming with runners, the smartly laid-out Athletes’ Village offered plenty of elbow room compared with the crush & sensory overload of the pre-race expo, which was the most jam-packed expo I’ve ever attended (with Berlin a close second). Though conveniently located adjacent to the finish line on Boylston, the Hynes Convention Center is a smaller space than either McCormick Place in Chicago or the Javits Convention Center in New York. Definitely not a place for claustrophobics. Luckily bib pickup was in a separate & much less crowded hall than the exhibitor booths, leaving each runner to decide whether & for how long they’d brave the expo itself.

This year’s race would be unusual in its dearth of big names on the American side. Rather than competing at Boston, our country’s best marathoners will instead be representing the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Rio. For that reason, sightings of Meb, Shalane, Desi & Amy were limited to weekend expo appearances and — for those of us who’d planned ahead and snagged tickets — throwing out the first pitch before Saturday’s Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

Fenway Park panoramic view

Welcome to historic Fenway Park, only 16 years younger than the Boston Marathon

U.S. elites (Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy) throwing out first pitch at Fenway

Shalane, Meb, Desi & Amy prepare to throw out the first pitch(es) (photo: Shalane Flanagan)

Group carbo-loading at Mike's Pastry in Boston's North End

The all-important Sunday night group carbo-loading session (L to R: Paul, me, Sandy, Katie, Jenny)

Adding to the festive atmosphere of the race, the B.A.A. would be celebrating 50 years of women running the Boston Marathon — 50 years since Bobbi Gibb (this year’s Grand Marshal) made history in 1966 by banditing the race, six years before women were officially allowed to run. This year’s women’s winner, Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia, would later recognize this landmark occasion by presenting Gibb with her trophy after the race — a classy microcosm of the entire weekend.

50 Years of Women logo at Boston Marathon

Showtime! The PA in the Athletes’ Village called on all runners in Wave 2 (our wave) to line up for the stroll to the start line. Dormant butterflies in uneasy stomachs fluttered to life. Our qualifying times — which this year needed to be 2 minutes, 28 seconds faster than the official B.A.A. standards for acceptance — placed Paul and me squarely in Wave 2, though in different corrals. So after exchanging “good luck”s, we joined our respective corrals for the 0.7-mile trek to the start, me chatting all the while with a 3x Boston finisher from Cincinnati who’d qualified this time around at the Indy Monumental Marathon.

Volunteers were handing out cups of water near the start, and with the sun now high in the sky I was already sweating as I approached Corral 5. Bad omen #2.

Heading to Boston Marathon start corrals

The anticipation builds during the 10-minute walk to the start line

As I stretched my calves, I took a moment to reassess my time goals. On a warm day and on a rolling course like Boston which I’d never seen much less run, sub-3:30 would be a jog well done. More than anything, though, I wanted to seize the day as much as possible — who knew if or when I’d make it back. Which was one reason I’d chosen to carry my iPhone to take pictures, the other reason being the handy Share My Run app I’d be using so Katie and my sister Sandy (in her first visit to Boston) could follow my progress in real-time.

Before my excitement had time to crescendo, the 120th running of the world’s oldest continuous marathon had begun. Carried inexorably across the start line in a parade of brightly clad bodies, I settled in with the other 27,486 runners bound for Boston, bracing myself for the opening salvo I’d heard so much about — the fast downhill out of Hopkinton.

Boston Marathon start in Hopkinton

The streets of Hopkinton were hoppin’ on Patriots Day

Rarely do I Garmin-gaze like I did during those first three miles. Based on past experience and the warnings I’d heard all weekend, I was determined to stay in my shoes and not start too fast. I’d noted on a wristband my desired pace-per-mile — 7:54, 7:49, 7:25 — so when my Garmin chimed in with a 7:52 followed by a 7:49 followed by a 7:33, I was feeling good.

Except I wasn’t. By mile 3 in Ashland, I could already tell my breathing was labored and my heart rate elevated — on a largely downhill stretch. And I’d yet to find the easy rhythm I typically fall into by mile 3. Too much of my attention was focused, not on the cheering spectators already lining both sides of the course, but on checking my pace and not stepping on/elbowing others in this 26.2-mile caravan. On the narrow suburban streets, running a straight line proved impossible as other runners frequently cut in front of me trying to find personal space or access the aid stations.

Boston Marathon finish line sign

(Left) Go fo(u)rth & conquer: Boston was also World Marathon Major #4; (Right) Fellow Antarctica finisher & French RaceRaves evangelist Didier notched his 5th WMM in Boston

I have not yet begun to fight. — John Paul Jones, naval war hero & runner
Despite my own issues, the locals lining the course did everything they could to verbally propel us forward, with their unflagging cheers and personal touches that make Boston the one-of-a-kind event it is. I heard no fewer than half a dozen cheers for RaceRaves (the shirt I was wearing) throughout the day, and though I neither saw nor met her I know I was running near Molly for the better part of a mile.

Several groups were clearly out to make a day of it, with smoke billowing from their grills and sprinklers set up to help cool overheated runners. Both kids and adults cheered while simultaneously bouncing on mini-trampolines. And the musical highlight of the course was Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” — embraced & adopted by Red Sox fans for their 8th-inning singalong — twice in the first seven miles, making me wonder just how many times we’d be hearing it in the span of 26.2. Luckily, twice would be enough.

Most of the course is distinctly and charmingly suburban New England. Granted, Hopkinton looks like Ashland looks like Framingham looks like Natick — but running Boston isn’t about the scenery, and I scarcely noticed the unchanging backdrop of white picket fences and calligraphic trees still in search of spring’s first kiss.

Somewhere along the way I caught up with the unmistakable duo of Team Hoyt. After Rick Hoyt was born with cerebral palsy, he and his father Dick began racing in 1977 and completed every Boston Marathon together — with Dick pushing Rick in his wheelchair the full 26.2 miles — until Dick hung up his racing shoes for good following the 2014 race. Team Hoyt member Bryan Lyons accepted the mantle from Dick and now continues the tradition of pushing Rick in his wheelchair. I applauded and cheered them on as I passed, feeling distinctly humbled to be running alongside such inspiring & beloved icons.

Team Hoyt in Newton at mile 16 of Boston Marathon

Team Hoyt rolls through Newton

As my pace slowed gradually over the next several miles and I realized sub-3:30 would be an epic struggle, I exchanged more high-fives with spectators, including one tiny fellow whose dad called out a “Thank you” to me for my detour. Spectators, supporters and volunteers thanking me for running their marathon — this was a theme repeated all weekend and one that gave me goosebumps pretty much every time I heard it.

Tom Grilk, Executive Director of the Boston Athletic Association, said it best in the title of his 2014 TEDx talkIn Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

As I neared the 13.1-mile mark in Wellesley, I found myself solidly wishing I’d qualified for the Boston Half Marathon. Though I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, my breathing was ragged and my energy levels were fading fast. So Wellesley College couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which lines the right side of the course in mile 13, is the hands-down highlight of the Boston Marathon. As vociferous as the rest of the course is, Wellesley makes the other 26 miles feel almost monastic. Donald Trump and Captain America could have been exchanging punches on the left side of the road and I doubt anyone would have noticed. Awesomely and profanely raucous, if anything could make you forget you’re running a marathon, it’s the women of Wellesley. Where else in the world can you ever get free kisses from strangers you might actually want to kiss??

I opted to stay left of the double-yellow line to soak up the scene and avoid any overexuberant runners dive-bombing into the screaming throngs of coeds. I wasn’t disappointed — not only by the volume, but by the signage. Like Ulysses to the song of the Sirens, I nearly found myself drawn irresistibly to two signs that read “KISS ME I’M GAY” and “KISS ME OR I’LL VOTE FOR TRUMP”. Not to mention the handful of signs — “CHECK THAT ASS AS YOU PASS” may have been the tamest — suggesting that someone’s parents weren’t running this year’s marathon.

“BOSTON STRONG” and “RUN WICKED FAST” signs filled the rest of the course, complemented by the occasional other memorable sign like “DO EPIC SHIT” and “RUN! THE KENYANS ARE DRINKING YOUR BEER!”

Sandy Pitcher & Mike Sohaskey at Boston Marathon finish

Ironically, the missing sibling is our 2x Boston Marathoner brother

These are the times that try men’s souls. — Thomas Paine, statesman & marathoner
After Wellesley every mile became a struggle. So I was much relieved to reach Sandy, Katie and our friend Albion waiting at mile 16 in Newton, at the bottom of the steep downhill that empties into Newton Lower Falls. There they waited less than ¼ mile from my Dad’s boyhood home. I checked in briefly, stretched my legs and pushed onward, warning Katie it would be a while before I rejoined them at the finish.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 16 in Newton at Boston Marathon

Looking better than I felt in Newton Lower Falls

Even the psychological lift of counting down single-digit miles from 16 provided little (if any) physical boost. I wasn’t hungry, having eaten my usual meal before the race — plus I’d run plenty of 16+ mile training runs at marathon pace with minimal nutrition. I wasn’t thirsty, having made frequent use of the aid stations. And my quads & hip flexors weren’t hurting, still feeling strong without any apparent tightness. I simply had… no… energy. And a body that didn’t want to cooperate.

I tried to take solace in the fact that, since Boston doesn’t have pacers, at least I didn’t have to watch each successive pace group pass me.

Trying to draw inspiration from the tireless crowds, I shuffled up each of the four Newton Hills, which culminate at mile 20 in the most infamous hill in all of road racing, Heartbreak Hill. An increasingly stiff headwind greeted us as we climbed, though luckily the mercury had progressively dipped since Hopkinton.

(If you don’t know the story of how Heartbreak Hill got its name, turns out it had nothing to do with the hill’s steepness — read all about it HERE.)

The Boston course includes only five turns along its entire 26.2 miles, and here we made the first of these, a sharp right turn by the firehouse in mile 18 just before the second of the Newton Hills.

View from Boston Marriott Cambridge

View across the Charles River from our hotel room at the Boston Marriott Cambridge

On any other day I would have been bent but not broken by this 5-mile stretch, with four successive inclines of moderate but not intimidating steepness (most trail runners would scoff at the use of the term “hills” to describe them). Unfortunately, this wasn’t any other day. Even with the sheer wall of spectator noise pushing runners up Heartbreak, by the time I reached the mile 21 marker I was moving so slowly that the wheels were in danger of falling off if I didn’t take a walk break. And suddenly, the thought of running the Big Sur International Marathon (as part of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge) in six days left me queasy. One race at a time, one step at a time…

It was like an out-of-body experience, and I felt like a first-timer in this my 20th marathon. In fact, Boston was the first time since Crazy Horse 2011 — my second marathon — that I’d stopped to walk during a road race, that’s how bizarre this day was. I hadn’t even stopped to walk after twisting my ankle at mile 17 of the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon. By the time I crested Heartbreak Hill, though, I had no choice. So for the next few miles, as the course followed a downhill-yet-still-rolling trajectory — past the screaming Eagles of Boston College, through Brookline and into Boston at last — I walked briefly at each mile marker, high-fiving spectators and regaining my momentum in short bursts.

Through all the misery of those last ten miles, I kept flexing the one set of muscles I could still control — I refused to stop smiling, even as I passed an increasing number of cramped-up runners trying desperately to stretch out their failing calves & locked-up quads. And was it just me, or was the number of medical tents increasing as well?

Citgo sign at mile 25 of Boston Marathon

The Citgo sign high in the sky signals you don’t have much fahthah to go

The finish is coming! The finish is coming! — Paul Revere, patriot & Boston Marathon finisher
At mile 25, with the beckoning Citgo sign now dominating the skyline and the roars from the onlookers intensifying, both mind & body sensed the finish line within reach. The “ONE MILE TO GO” marker painted on the ground in Kenmore Square provided one last shot of adrenaline, and I glanced up to see the familiar green outer walls and light towers of historic Fenway Park off to our right.

Mike Sohaskey with one mile to go at Boston Marathon

One mile to go in Kenmore Square!

Even in my exhausted state, I recognized the moment when it arrived. I’ve never wanted a tattoo, but if I ever get one I know exactly what it will say — right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The final two directions every Boston runner hears, and the six celebrated words that tell you, I am this close to finishing the freaking Boston Marathon.

As I made the left turn onto Boylston, I glanced off to my right to see my buddy Neil from Minnesota, whose wife Jody had run a great race, cheering me on. I gave him a euphoric thumbs-up and turned my attention directly ahead of me, to the blue & gold pearly gates finish line arch 300 yards in the distance. Ironically, this home stretch was the only time all day when I legitimately wanted to slow down, and I took the time to bask in the moment and to soak up every last cheer from the thunderous walls of human sound urging us toward the finish. And I seriously would have high-fived every person on Boylston if I could have.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 26 of Boston Marathon

Feelin’ the magic of Boylston Street (photo: Neil Hetherington)

Eventually I ran out of room and had to cross the finish line into Copley Square, finishing my first Boston Marathon and my best worst marathon ever in 3:48:36. Even as competitive as I am, I can live with that result — because Boston (especially the first time) is all about the experience, and luckily I hadn’t set my sights on requalifying this year.

Clearly I still owe the course my best shot — though not immediately, as I’d like to step back and let the magic of this year’s experience sink in before I chase another BQ. And I have other racing goals to pursue in the meantime. But boy, it’s easy to understand how chasing (and re-chasing) the high of that qualifier year after year could easily become a full-fledged addiction. Heroin ain’t got nothin’ on the Boston Marathon.

Boston Marathon finish line shot

Mission accomplished — looking back on Boylston from under the finish arch

Turns out even the elite times were slower than usual, with no men breaking the 2:12 mark and only one woman cracking 2:30. And I heard more than a few horror stories of runners ending up in the medical tents with cramps or worse. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d misplaced my running mojo this year.

And yet I’m still puzzled by the fact that my day went south so quickly, and with so little help from the course itself. I would say it’s something I need to figure out and correct pronto, but then again I may never know exactly what went wrong on Marathon Monday. After all the solid training, preparation & tapering that preceded Boston, how could I have begun the day with an elevated heart rate? I have my suspicions — maybe filling every waking moment in the two days before the race wasn’t a great idea. Or maybe waking up in a cold sweat on race day was an even worse omen than I knew.

Boston Common post-Boston Marathon

The Boston Common after a very uncommon day

In any case, Boston reinforced the lesson I continue to learn time and time again: the marathon is the ultimate “tough love” teacher, and the lessons it teaches are humility, adaptability and don’t you dare give up-ity. Anyone can finish a race when they’re feeling good & running strong — but if you have a weakness the marathon will find it, exploit it and beat on it until you’re ready to throw in the towel. And then kick you in the gut a couple more times, just for good measure. It’s like a bully who turns you upside-down, shakes all the money out of your pockets and then takes your clothes just because, leaving you out in the middle of nowhere naked in the dead of winter. Laughing all the way.

As I shuffled triumphantly through the finish chute, Dad’s smiling voice — Boston born & bred — filled my head: Can’t do any bettah than that. And I could feel his hand on my shoulder, proudly confirming what my depleted body already knew and what I’d worked so hard to hear.

At Boston Marathon Expo

Post-race drinks are on me! — Samuel Adams, brewer & patriot
Sheer exhaustion was probably all that prevented me from tearing up as yet another smiling B.A.A. volunteer hung the coveted unicorn medal around my neck. I’d honestly never given much thought to the unicorn as the universally recognized symbol of the Boston Marathon, but it’s perfect — wild & ferocious, forever elusive yet endlessly pursued by man for its mythical power, beauty and ability to heal sickness.

Paul had run an excellent race (3:18:07), and he and his wife Jenny were already headed back to their hotel when I texted them, in between posing for the MarathonFoto minions. Reveling in the slow, deliberate stroll out of the finisher’s area, where volunteers continued to thank us for running Boston, I eventually reached the perimeter of the Boston Common where Sandy and Katie were waiting.

Boston Marathon finish line family hug
En route I was greeted by a group of four college-age fellows in Red Sox and Patriots gear, one of whom embraced me while another proclaimed loudly how totally awesome I was. Much as I would have loved to respond with a rapid & witty retort, all my fatigue & surprise would allow was a weak “No, YOU guys are awesome.” Anyone else, anywhere else, on any other day and I would’ve assumed I was the victim of a practical joke or hazing stunt. But on Marathon Monday in Copley Square, these guys were 100% sincere — and I was 200% appreciative.

Mike Sohaskey & Paul Ishimine at Mile 27 sign

Tapering for Big Sur

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho with Red Sox World Series trophies

Still plenty of room on that table for a 4th (and 5th) World Series trophy

The post-race party that night at Fenway Park (sponsored by Samuel Adams, of course) was the perfect nightcap to a Patriots Day that I wish I could bottle and share with every runner & non-runner I meet. Feeling down? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Overworked? Insecure? Crack open a bottle of Marathon Monday, breathe deeply and let one of life’s most amazing experiences wash away all negativity.

Hear the cheers. See the high-fives. Feel the gratitude. Everyone, from the most hardcore runner to the most sedentary bystander, coming together with a common purpose — to celebrate, support and inspire everyone else. A common humanity you have to feel & see to believe, shaped by 120 years of history and two bombs that showed the world — with all eyes watching — what it means to be Boston Strong. In this town, everyone takes this day to heart.

Because in Boston, everyone owns the marathon.

Mike Sohaskey with Boston Marathon medal 2016

Tips & Tricks for Boston Marathon weekend:

  • You can score a discount on Adidas official Boston Marathon gear by signing up for their email list as a first-timer, and they’ll probably send you another coupon with your first order (e.g. $30 off $100 or more). I signed up for their email list back in January and have yet to receive a marketing email from them.
  • If you can, wait until Sunday late morning/early afternoon to hit the expo — it’s SO much easier & more time-efficient than braving the Saturday madness (I can’t vouch for Friday).
  • No matter when you hit the expo, take a few minutes to watch the street-view video of the course with elevation profile and expert analysis from elites, past champions, and others.
  • At least 100 additional porta-potties with minimal wait times await you in the corrals at the start line, so if you can wait I’d think twice before standing in the long, slow lines at the Athletes’ Village.
  • The Marathon Sports retail store on Boylston typically offers free medal engraving the day after the race (this year the time slot was 10:30am – 2:30pm).
  • For more helpful tips from a 12-time Boston finisher, check out Scott Dunlap’s post, “Running The Boston Marathon? Here Are Some Tips and Things To Do”.
8 towns of the Boston Marathon

Click on image for a larger version, sun streaks and all (source: Adidas RunBase, Boston)

BOTTOM LINE: Boston is a pretty cool race. And Tyrannosaurus rex was a pretty cool lizard. I’m flattered and appreciative that you’re reading this, but if you’re scanning blog posts & reviews to decide whether or not to run the Boston Marathon, we need to talk. Boston is hands-down (and it’s not close) the coolest race in the country, if not the world. Chicago has a similar feel in terms of race magnitude, community support/civic pride and an historic sports venue in Wrigley Field, but Boston is without rival. And unfortunately, the Cubs’ season typically ends well before race day in early October (oh no he di’int!).

So if you’re fast enough to run Boston, do it — early & often. If you’re on the cusp of being fast enough to qualify, train your butt off now before they tighten the qualifying standards again. And if you’re simply counting on attrition to qualify when you’re 80, hit up some family/friends/unguarded piggy banks and raise the $5,000 minimum needed to enter as a charity runner. No matter how you get to Boston (short of cheating the system and calling attention to yourself on Facebook), you won’t regret the effort.

Not surprisingly, Race Director Dave McGillivray said it best when asked what he does for a living: “I help raise the level of self-esteem and self-confidence of tens of thousands of people across America every year.” Now there’s an elevator pitch.

Boston Marathon finish line selfie
PRODUCTION:
Spot-on flawless, from start to finish. Every race of any size could learn a lot simply by standing on the sidelines observing Boston Marathon weekend. McGillivray and his team are master choreographers, and it’s almost laughable (& unfair) to compare any other marathon to Boston. The genius of the production is that it’s airtight and yet never in your face to spoil the experience. And unlike Berlin, the porta-potties in Boston had toilet paper! The only potential downside to race weekend was the overcrowded expo… but even that can be avoided by waiting until Sunday afternoon to attend. Four thumbs up (I’m borrowing Katie’s) on a job masterfully done.

SWAG: No finisher’s medal outside the Olympics is more coveted or more instantly recognizable than the unicorn earned by Boston Marathon finishers. I was awestruck as the friendly B.A.A. volunteer hung the blue-&-gold ribbon around my neck, and that was when the reality of my achievement really hit home.

In addition, the official Adidas long-sleeve race shirt isn’t your typical wear-once-and-donate race tee, but like the medal itself a classic blue & gold that fits well and which I can imagine wearing until the sleeves fall off. Everything about this marathon screams “attention to detail”, even if Adidas has (for better or worse) boldly steered away from the classic color scheme and gotten a bit sassier with the colors of its celebration jackets in recent years. I definitely didn’t envy the women their teal-&-pink jacket this year (look it up if you don’t believe me).

2016 Boston Marathon medal, finisher's shirt & bib

RaceRaves rating:RaceRaves-rating
FINAL STATS:

April 18, 2016 (start time 10:25am)
26.41 miles from Hopkinton to Boston, MA (state 11 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:48:36 (first time running the Boston Marathon), 8:39/mile
Finish place: 13,459 overall, 1693/2504 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 26,639 (14,471 men, 12,168 women)
Race weather: warm & sunny at the start (temp 69°F), cool & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 539 ft ascent, 983 ft descent

Boston-splits_BCH

As one went to Europe to see the living past, so one must visit Southern California to observe the future.
– Alison Lurie

Mike Sohaskey with Skechers Los Angeles Marathon bus wrap
I do believe I owe my hometown race an apology.

Sure I’ve cheated on her, time & again (17 times in fact, but who’s counting?) since we first started seeing each other in March 2012. But that’s not it – after all, I’m a serial marathoner targeting all 50 states and all 7 continents, so no one could honestly expect this leopard to change its spots. And it’s not like she hasn’t been entertaining plenty of other runners in my absence.

And not to say I’ve taken her for granted, but I definitely underestimated her. It’s not every race in every major city that could deftly host an epic Olympic Marathon Qualifying Trials the day before its own 20,000+ person event. In fact, this year’s Los Angeles Marathon was moved up a month specifically to accommodate the Trials. As a runner, the thought of all this happening in my hometown without me would have been like Bernie Sanders suddenly coming out as a fascist. So after three years apart, it was time for my hometown race and me to start seeing each other again.

Saturday’s Olympic Trials were the perfect start to our reunion weekend. Admittedly the location of the finish line could have been better, as its positioning 100 yards beyond the start line arch/official clock caused several finishers – including women’s champion Amy Cragg and men’s third-place finisher Jared Ward – to mistakenly slow down or even stop prematurely, as screaming spectators urged them to finish (#runnersbrain). Luckily, none of the top three finishes came down to the wire, or cooler heads might not have prevailed on the hottest day in Olympic Trials history.

U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials 2016 in Los Angeles - start before finish line

There’s no arch and it’s tough to see, but the finish is ~100 yards beyond the start line

But WOW, what a jaw-dropping debut for 29-year-old Galen Rupp (2:11:12), the 2012 Olympics silver medalist in the 10,000m who was taking his first crack not only at the Marathon Trials but at the marathon distance. And are there any superlatives left to describe 40-year-old runner-up Meb Keflezighi, the ageless crowd favorite who’s spoiled us with so many thrills in his career, that the only surprise on this day would have been if he hadn’t placed in the top three?

The women’s race, though dominated by familiar faces, was no less exhilarating, highlighted by some spirited teamwork from training partners Cragg and Shalane Flanagan. As Flanagan began to succumb to the heat in the final miles, Cragg did everything she could – short of piggybacking her to the finish – to help her teammate fight through The Wall. As eventual second-place finisher Desi Linden came charging from behind, Cragg was eventually forced to pull away from Flanagan at mile 25. But in the aftermath of the race, after hanging on to third place and collapsing at the finish line, Flanagan made clear her appreciation for her teammate’s selfless support.

“Sweet baby Jesus I’m so thankful for her,” she said of Cragg.

Olympic Marathon Trials 2016 in Los Angeles collage

Scenes from the Olympic Marathon Trials (clockwise, from top left): Stampede start to the women’s race; leaders Amy Cragg & Shalane Flanagan run stride for stride at mile 20; runner-up Meb Keflezighi celebrates in the final turn; the strain shows on Chris Frias’ face

And while I’m dishing out apologies, I should probably offer one to Kara Goucher, whose fourth-place/first alternate finish (after a relatively ho-hum qualifying time of 2:37:03 at NYC 2014) honestly surprised me, despite two impressive 2015 wins at the Big Sur Half and San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Half. She’s clearly been working her Skechers off to get back to her 2012 Olympic form, and she deserves huge kudos for her effort in LA.

From my front-row seat near the start and finish lines, I cheered as elite marathoners with apt surnames like Payne, Fog, Comfort & Deatherage passed several times on the multi-loop course, the twin demons of heat & fatigue playing out on many faces thanks to an unusually late (10:06 am) start. And as the midday SoCal sun beat down, I reflected gratefully on the fact that we slow-footed runners would be starting our own 26.2-mile journey just after sunrise the next morning.

Mike Sohaskey spectating at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles 2016

Next up was the always inconvenient pre-race expo, located in the heart of downtown LA. Though I understand the need to placate the sponsors, I wish someone would re-invent the expo into something that makes sense for runners who can’t or don’t want to commit a large chunk of Friday or Saturday to preparing for the race. One side benefit of the Olympic Trials was that after the race, we were able to stroll next door into the Los Angeles Convention Center and pick up my race-day bib and other materials; otherwise I would have had to make the unpalatable hour drive into downtown LA.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of both Clif Bars and Dean Karnazes, but at this point the Clif Bar buffet o’ samples and the Ultramarathon Man have become such ubiquitous expo staples that I’d suggest they join forces in one booth, if for no other reason than to make the expo more efficient for the rest of us.

But if pre-race expos are here to stay, then for LA in particular I’d recommend the floor layout follow a more systematic flow. This could have the dual benefit of a) ensuring runners pass all sponsor booths, and b) introducing runners to the marathon course, with faux mile markers set up along the expo “course” along with visual highlights of what runners can expect to see in that mile of the actual marathon. This would familiarize participants with the course and build anticipation for the race ahead – all while avoiding the situation I encountered after the 2012 LA Marathon, when I read down the list of attractions listed on the race shirt and thought, “Really, I ran past all of these?”

Mural at Los Angeles Marathon Expo 2016

Like the city itself, the pre-race expo had its own cool mural

Sunday began unlike any of the 18 marathon race days before it – with me waking up in my own bed. And I took my time doing it – having spent most of the previous four days on my feet and sleeping poorly, I was in no hurry to hop out of bed for what promised to be more of a “long training run for Boston” than “race”. Seven hours after my head hit the pillow (a luxurious night’s sleep by pre-race standards), I rolled out of bed and we rolled out of our garage into a bizarre coastal fog – check that, marine layer – that enveloped the predawn sky like a scene from a Stephen King novel.

Heading east we quickly left the marine layer in our rearview mirror, and arrived at Dodger Stadium (a seriously great place for a staging area) just in time to park, make a quick pitstop and join the anxiously waiting congregation. The start “corrals” were aptly named, a mass of 20,000 brightly colored human cattle packed nose-to-neck, and I arrived just as Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” erupted over the PA, signaling the start of the stampede toward Santa Monica. With no chance to reach my designated “B” corral near the front, I let myself be swept along like a beach ball atop a department store fan.

Start to mile 12: Dodger Stadium, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Sunset Blvd, Hollywood
Los Angeles, much like Boston, begins with a steep and almost immediate downhill. Part of my strategy required me to ride the brakes to avoid the rookie mistake of flying down this first descent, only to pay for my zeal later. Fly now, drag later. It’s way too easy to start a marathon way too fast when your legs are fresh, your blood sugar levels are high and your myopic mind is telling you to “Go ahead and bank a few fast miles early, while you’re feeling good!” Take its advice, and that same voice will be cursing you three hours later for your arrogance.

Luckily, finding myself trapped in the throng exiting Dodger Stadium was the perfect muzzle for the impatient voice in my head.

Rolling downhill out of Dodger Stadium into the mottled morning sunlight, the course leveled out as we passed under the Golden Dragon Gateway that spans North Broadway and which serves as the de facto entrance to Chinatown. The impressively ornate Chinatown Gate soon followed, and as quickly as we’d entered…

… we were leaving, past City Hall & the Los Angeles Times offices before transitioning into Little Tokyo, with its distinctive orange Watchtower looking out over the largest Japanese-American population in the country (plus, I noticed, a significant number of Korean shops & restaurants).

Los Angeles Marathon mile 2 - Chinatown's Golden Dragon Gateway

Chinatown’s Golden Dragon Gateway spans Broadway at mile 2 of the marathon course (Google Maps)

My pacing plan for the day was relatively simple, at least in theory: start slow and pick up the pace. In all 18 of my previous marathons I’d posted positive splits, meaning I’d run the first 13.1 miles faster than the second 13.1. To non-runners and even newbie runners, positive splits sound like an inevitable fact of life when you’re running 26.2 miles: you slow down as you get tired. DUH.

But marathons are like meals – you want to save the best for last. Meaning negative splits (a faster second half than first half) should be the goal for any marathoner looking to run their best race. Case in point, current marathon world-record holder Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. In posting his world record 2:02:57 at Berlin in 2014 (and we were there), Kimetto actually ran the second half 33 seconds faster than the first half (61:45 vs 61:12).

And a more recent example from the weekend’s Olympic Trials: seven runners achieved negative splits, with five of them ultimately making the team (Shalane Flanagan was the lone exception among Olympic Qualifiers, posting a 19-second positive split).

Not surprisingly, women tend to be better at marathon pacing than men, with a less significant dropoff in the final 13.1 miles than their impatient male counterparts. By extension, maybe it’s time we let the more patient gender try running the country…?

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 7 of Los Angeles Marathon 2016

All thumbs at mile 7 in Silver Lake

If you can stay patient, giving your muscles & joints time to warm up before the endorphins kick in and you hit your stride, then you’ll enjoy the second half of your race a whole lot more than the shuffling zombies you’ll pass at mile 22. Problem is, patience can be tough to come by at the start line of a marathon, when your gut feels like a playground for over-caffeinated butterflies and the adrenaline coursing through your system could wake a dead buffalo. Throw in the fact that for most of us, race day is the culmination of 16+ weeks of blood sweat & tears focused training, and it’s no surprise so many recreational runners (and even a few professionals) end up singin’ the “Start Too Fast” blues.

So then my pacing strategy was: start slow (8:15-8:30/mile in miles 1-10), pick up the pace (8:00-8:15/mile in miles 11-20) and finish fast (sub-8:00/mile from mile 21 to the end). All while enjoying every step of the way – not hard on LA’s awesome “Stadium to the Sea” course.

Miles 5 & 6 were punctuated by two nasty hills, the first up 1st Street and the next up West Temple, with the Disney Concert Hall (unmistakably a Frank Gehry creation) awaiting at the top of 1st Street for winded runners able to glance up from their shoetops. I wouldn’t call LA a “flat” marathon by any stretch, but once you pass mile 9 life gets easier… and the second half, with two notable downhills, feels faster than the first.

Past Echo Lake, a quick uphill jag began a two-mile stretch through hipsterrific Silver Lake (Katie sighting #1!). And here I have to call out the race organizers for fudging the data. The iconic Hollywood sign is visible from afar starting at roughly Sunset Blvd & Santa Monica Blvd, though the familiar dome of the Griffith Park Observatory is actually more visible atop the distant hills. In any case, the official LAM program contained this shot, which sans caption I presumed to be an actual on-course photo:

Los Angeles Marathon official program – Sunset & Benton

Thing is… it’s not. Having seen no such view in my two miles up Sunset Blvd, I turned to Google Maps to figure out what went wrong. Turns out this is what humans without bionic eyeballs see from that same intersection:

Google Maps - Sunset & Benton (unzoomed2)
Zoom in from the right angle on Google Maps and voilà, the Hollywood sign emerges in the distance, though still not as prominently as the LAM marketing team would have you believe:

Los Angeles Marathon course – Sunset Blvd & Benton (zoomed)
No harm, no foul – but on a course with plenty of classic photo-ops, why turn to Google Maps and Photoshop instead?

Miles 9-12: Hollywood Blvd
In mile 9 the route detoured from Sunset for a course highlight, the three-mile sightseeing tour of Hollywood Blvd. Bright pink banners for the musical version of “Dirty Dancing” adorned signposts on both sides of the street. Like Vegas, though not so dramatically, Hollywood Blvd is a very different setting by day than by night – and without their brightly lit marquees to catch the eye, popular destinations like the Pantages Theatre, El Capitan Theatre and TCL Chinese Theatre are easy to miss. Passing the Pantages also serves as an immediate cue to steal a glance up Vine St to your right, where you’ll glimpse the Capitol Records building with its distinctive tower resembling a stack of vinyl records on a spindle.

If this will be your only visit to Hollywood Blvd, don’t forget to sneak a peek at the 1.3-mile-long Hollywood Walk of Fame, with its almost 2,600 terrazzo and brass stars dedicated to celebrities past & present.

Los Angeles Marathon course - view of Capitol Records Building from Hollywood & Vine

View of the Capitol Records Building from Hollywood & Vine (Google Maps)

This being Valentine’s Day in LA, couples were encouraged to either marry or renew their vows in a ceremony at mile 10 sponsored by Universal Pictures and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2”. And although Katie are I are perfectly happy with our 12-year-old vows, this seems like the type of marketing gimmick more studios in LA should take advantage of with a captive audience on marathon day.

As if all this weren’t enough distraction, Ken Nwadike – Race Director for the Hollywood Half and USA Half Marathon – was greeting runners with (literally) open arms at mile 11 as part of his Free Hugs Project. Unfortunately I was running on the opposite side of the street, and by the time I realized Ken was on the scene I’d missed my opportunity. On the plus side, I did benefit from Katie’s own “Free Smiles Project” a mile later.

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 12 of Los Angeles Marathon 2016

Just past mile 12, on the sunny part of the course near the palm trees

Miles 13-20: Sunset Strip, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica Blvd, Century City
Transitioning into West Hollywood we re-joined Sunset Blvd on the Sunset Strip, home to famous (and infamous) nightclubs like the Whisky a Go Go, Viper Room and Roxy Theatre – venues where musical bad boys like Van Halen, Mötley Crüe & Guns N’ Roses cut their teeth before dominating the world stage. With a nostalgic nod to the Whisky on one side of the street and the Viper Room on the other, I said my goodbyes to Sunset and let my momentum carry me down the steepest descent of the day, the 0.4-mile drop down San Vicente to Santa Monica Blvd.

There the course detoured briefly away from Santa Monica Blvd and through Beverly Hills’ high-priced Golden Triangle shopping district, where most of us could barely afford to window-shop and where I was careful not to sweat on any of the well-to-do clientele who frequent Rodeo Drive. Nor did I sweat on Katie, whose ubiquitous smile soon after was the highlight of mile 18.

With my tiring brain struggling to sort out course highlights, I recalled a genius touch from the 2009 San Francisco Marathon, where signs had been posted along the course with questions & interesting factoids about the city and its history. I remember thinking at the time, what a cool way to learn about the city we’re running through. The LAM organizers should take a page out of SF’s playbook and do something similar, or even something as simple as posting signs that call attention to course highlights. Because any runner can tell you: the more focused you are on the race itself, the less brainpower you have to soak in your surroundings. But if on-course highlights were pointed out in real time – now that would be a welcome distraction.

Similarly, we passed the occasional musical act/DJ along the course, but honestly unless I recognize the song or the musicians are very distinctive – say, a jug band with banjo, washboard and kazoo – I hardly notice music on race day. I tend to engage with music rather than let it wash over me, so the typical on-course music – unfamiliar & deafening – does nothing for me.

Los Angeles Marathon course runs by Latter Day Saints temple on Santa Monica

More money, Mormons at mile 20 – the Los Angeles LDS Temple on Santa Monica Blvd (Google Maps)

Speaking of doing nothing for me, all races have their “dead zones”, i.e. stretches of the course where there’s not much to see and little in the way of distraction (in some races, this dead zone covers most of the course). At LA the dead zone is miles 19 & 20 through Century City. This despite the massive LDS temple on the north side of Santa Monica Blvd that, with its perfectly manicured lawn, feels more like Beverly Hills mansion or expansive movie studio lot than legit house of worship.

These sun-exposed miles also contrast with the rest of the course, which offers frequent opportunities for shade. Luckily the 80-degree temperatures that were predicted for race day never materialized, and even this two-mile stretch o’ ennui passed quickly.

Miles 21-finish: VA Medical Center, Brentwood, Santa Monica & the Pacific Ocean
Due to federal regulations, the organizers this year were forced to do us all a favor and re-route mile 21 around the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, which effectively excluded LA’s equivalent of Heartbreak Hill. As the quads began to tighten, my Garmin chimed to signal mile 21 and I mentally readied for a voyage into unchartered waters: time to speed things up and finish strong. Easier said than done, though I knew if I could just make it to mile 24, it’d be (literally) downhill from there.

After the VA, the course makes a straight shot down San Vicente Blvd through posh Brentwood (think OJ Simpson). Here we entered the first real residential section of the day with its gated homes, pretty people & prettier lawns.

On both sides along this stretch, running clubs & charities had pitched tents to cheer on their runners as they struggled through The Wall. And it struck me – despite the LAM’s reputation for limited spectator support, there was no shortage of bystanders lining the course this year. Sure it’s no Chicago or New York, but in LA’s defense its sprawling, point-to-point course (with minimal public transit) is designed for runners, not spectators. And maybe the crowds were largely friends & family, or local running clubs, or even volunteers assigned to designated cheer zones. But no matter – throughout the race I was surprised and motivated by the frequency of spectators cheering loudly and waving signs from the sidelines.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 finish line view

Exhausted (& ecstatic) finishers soak up the fog in Santa Monica

Speaking of signage, there was a lot more than I’d expected, including at least 20 “Touch Here for Energy/Power” signs. Seeing yet another of these late in the race, I chose instead to slap palms with a fellow on the opposite side of the street sporting a Boston Marathon tee – my kind of power!

Three memorable signs that stuck in my addled, endorphin-soaked brain:

  • “You’ve got great stamina – call me!” (also saw this at Surf City 2011… it was clever then and it’s still clever now)
  • My favorite of the day: “If Jeb can keep running, so can you!”
  • And the Tony Robbins tribute of the day: “The task ahead of you is never as great as the power behind you” (ouch my brain, ouch my brain…)

Despite taking in only 300 calories (via Clif Shot Bloks) during the race, my training – which focused on burning fat rather than sugar – coupled with my measured start ensured I’d avoid the energy crash that usually precedes the downward spiral of miles 20-26. Instead, I was able to ignore my stiffening quads and focus on clocking sub-8:00 miles, fueled by the screams and cheers from the raucous tents lining San Vicente.

Then, like a high-five from the heavens, two things happened as we crossed 26th Street: the course began its final 2+ mile descent, and we re-entered the cool marine layer we’d left behind four hours earlier. That was my cue to step on the gas, and blissfully I cruised downhill toward the ocean, every step feeling stronger than the last. I even took the opportunity to leapfrog another fast-moving runner who clearly had reserves left in his tank as well.

With just under a mile to go we banked left onto the home stretch of Ocean Ave and spied, dead ahead – nothing but fog. Santa Monica was eerily unrecognizable, its trademark palm trees and distant pier swathed in gray. I continued to accelerate, trusting the finish line would soon appear straight ahead, right where it had every year since the Stadium-to-the-Sea course was unveiled in 2010. I wasn’t disappointed. As cheering onlookers materialized like spirits out of the haze, lining the home stretch on the left side, so too did the dark blue finish arch.

Mike Sohaskey leading the pack down the Los Angeles Marathon homestretch

Down the stretch they come!

With one final surge I hit the finish mat in a time of 3:34:39, posting my first-ever negative splits (1:50:07/1:44:32) in my 19th marathon. My first and last mile splits told the tale, with mile 1 being my slowest of the day (8:58) and mile 26 my fastest (7:27). I’d even covered the final 0.42 miles at roughly the same pace (6:30/mile) as my 5K PR. Clearly I should have kicked in the afterburners a bit earlier.

All in all, my Sunday long run had been a great success, as it had allowed me to train for the last 10K of the marathon in the best way possible – by running the last 10K of a marathon.

Barely feeling the chill coastal air on my skin, I ambled through the finish chute past the food offerings and exuberant MarathonFoto minions to where Katie and our friend Paul were waiting. Paul always makes the annual pilgrimage up from San Diego to run LA, and he and I will be running Boston together next month. So an earlier-than-usual Los Angeles Marathon was a timely warmup for both of us.

Mike Sohaskey with Paul & Laura at Los Angeles Marathon Finish Festival

All smiles at the suddenly sunny Finish Festival with sister-in-law Laura & Paul

Together we wandered over to the post-race festival, held in a nearby parking lot where local favorite Angel City Brewery was hosting a free beer garden for finishers. I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ll never refuse a post-race beer – and in fact, the Goose Island IPA I enjoyed in Chicago remains a vivid memory from my first World Marathon Major.

Speaking of World Marathon Majors, the honest truth is that LA is a better race than any of the three Majors I’ve run ­­– better than Berlin, better than Chicago, better even than (blasphemy!) New York City. There’s more to see along its point-to-point course, more hilly bits to keep things interesting, and more natural beauty throughout – mountain views en route, beach and Pacific Ocean awaiting at the finish. And though it tends to fall on the hot side, particularly in March, the weather is always SoCal reliable.

Reunited and it feels so good – so consider this a heartfelt apology to my hometown race, having not experienced it for myself since LA became our hometown in 2013. I’d forgotten all that its scenic Stadium-to-the-Sea course has to offer. Big Sur may be California’s classic “must run” road marathon; San Francisco may be the most stunning city in the country; but Los Angeles has its own underestimated race that I’d recommend to any marathoner seeking the quintessential California experience. You probably won’t run a personal best here, but you probably won’t care either.

Sipping our beers as the sun at last cleaved a path through the stubborn morning fog, it struck me (again) how lucky I am to live in a place where cutting-edge creativity is a way of life, and where I can run alongside the ocean for 20 miles at a time, 12 months a year. So it was that the same refrain which had started the morning’s journey was still stuck in my head at the end.

I love LA!

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at Los Angeles Marathon finish line

BOTTOM LINE: Los Angeles should be high on any serial marathoner’s list. California has something for every road runner – the breathtaking beauty of the California coastline in Big Sur, the classic SoCal beach vibe of Surf City, the enchanting allure of San Francisco. LA in turn shines with its unique mix of big-city energy, iconic attractions and laid-back SoCal ambience. If preconceived notions of smog and plastic people are all you know of LA, then you don’t know LA.

Aside from San Francisco, Los Angeles is start-to-finish the most interesting road marathon course I’ve run. Don’t let the net downhill profile (789 ft up, 1,192 ft down) fool you though – most of that downhill is at the very beginning and very end. Nor is the rest of the course particularly flat, so be prepared for several uphills, particularly in the first half.

Another positive note from this year’s race: the number of spectators seemed much greater than I recall from 2012. So if spectator support is important to you, don’t let the LAM’s reputation as a spectator-sparse event dissuade you from running. Sure it’s no Boston, Chicago or New York, but then again not every race can be a World Marathon Major.

LA isn’t a cheap race (I paid $160 on opening day of registration), but it’s reasonable relative to other big-city marathons, and you definitely get what you pay for. And weather-wise, the year-round warmth that draws so many visitors to SoCal is a double-edged sword for runners, since it means temperatures on race day tend toward hot. Just a word of warming warning for those hoping to chase a personal best at LA.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 elevation course profile

Net downhill yes, but the shortest distance between Dodger Stadium & Santa Monica is not a straight line

PRODUCTION: Aside from the usual expo chaos in downtown LA (with suggestions for its improvement noted above), the entire weekend – from the Olympic Trials to the marathon itself – was a seamless production. As staging areas go Dodger Stadium is among the best, and parking there is relatively easy. Post-race snacks were abundant, and any post-race festival with a free beer garden (+ short lines!) is a sure winner.

That said, I was admittedly disappointed by several aspects of the production & marketing:

1) that on a course with so many iconic landmarks, the organizers didn’t do a better job of calling attention to those landmarks during the race;

2) that pre-race emails lacked personality and were used primarily for sponsor messaging, rather than taking the opportunity to highlight the Stadium-to-the-Sea course

3) that the organizers haven’t done more to #UniteLA, to embrace the community and rally the locals around their event – the truth is that the LAM simply doesn’t resonate with many Angelenos.

4) that the organizers don’t seem to treat their race with the respect that it deserves. Case in point: rather than pre-race communications focused on the course and getting me excited for the marathon, one dedicated email let me know that by running both the LAM and another SoCal relay race, I’d earn a kitschy-looking double medal in the shape of the state of California. How this odd partnership stands to benefit the LAM or its brand is unclear.

Watching mural near Downtown Los Angeles

I always feel like, some building’s watching me (and I have no privacy, woh)

Plus, no other heavyweight race would move its date up a month for no good reason, much less for an event like the Olympic Trials which few recreational runners even notice. In 2012 when Houston hosted the Trials, the Houston Marathon didn’t budge from its traditional mid-January weekend slot. By moving this year’s race so it fell a week after the nearby Surf City Marathon (which is always run on Super Bowl Sunday), the LAM organizers cannibalized their own audience, including runners who usually run Surf City as a warmup for LA. And that’s not just my opinion – the race failed to sell out this year, and with just 20,627 finishers, this was the first year since its inception in 2010 that the Stadium-to-the-Sea course boasted fewer than 21,000 finishers. That number is down 6% from just one year ago.

So let’s hope the organizers stop treating their marathon like a small-town race and start marketing it like the world-class event it is – you’re Los Angeles, not Omaha!

All that said, these are behind-the-scenes details that don’t affect the actual runner experience, and overall race production was impressive by any standard – so much so that I happily used the discount from my virtual event bag to buy a pair of Skechers LAM model running shoes after the race. Turns out Skechers makes a comfy running shoe!

SWAG: Keeping with the Valentine’s Day theme, both the short-sleeve tech tee and finisher’s medal are a nice shade of red. The shirt lists course highlights on the front, though in small dark font that sort of defeats the purpose. The medal, though, is the real keeper ­– it’s a shiny round keepsake with the year & downtown LA skyline emblazoned on one side, along with the race logo & iconic LA scenery on the other. It’s among the most substantial medals in my collection, with a heft similar to Chicago or New York.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves review_LAM

FINAL STATS:
February 14, 2016 (start time 6:55am)
26.42 miles in Los Angeles, CA
Finish time & pace: 3:34:39 (second time running the Los Angeles Marathon), 8:07/mile
Finish place: 1,170 overall, 128/1,301 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 20,627 (11,499 men, 9,128 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 52°F), cool & foggy at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 789 ft ascent, 1,192 ft descent

LAM-splits_BCH

The only real negative to the 2016 Los Angeles Marathon was my splits

I often lose motivation, but it’s something I accept as normal.
– Bill Rodgers

Cactus silhouette

Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka – the three sister stars of Orion’s Belt twinkled in their full glory, as if all vying for the same celestial suitor. Untouched by the electric glow of urbania, the predawn sky tantalized. And I stood awestruck by its vastness, its grandeur, its silent promise of infinite secrets and infinite truths –

“… get up at the ass crack of dawn to wait in line for a bus,” a voice behind me cleaved the silence.

Instinctively I glanced over at the speaker & her companions, their focus clearly on more terrestrial matters. And I smiled wryly, amused that anyone who runs 26.2 miles for fun would be so discomforted by a common race-day ritual. This likely wasn’t the first time she’d stood in line on a chill morning, awaiting the buses that would shuttle her and her fellow runners to the marathon start line. With the starter’s pistol primed to fire at 7:00am, a 30-mile bus ride uphill meant an early wake-up call even by typical runner’s standards.

Unfortunately my own wake-up call had come courtesy of my traitorous mind. I’d fallen asleep around 10:00pm, only to awaken inexplicably sometime later, wide awake and unable to fall back to sleep. Katie’s soft, regular breathing shaped the darkness beside me. Convinced my alarm (set for 4:15am) would chime soon enough, I lay in bed resting and waiting… and resting… and waiting…

Finally I rolled over, squinted through sleepy eyes at my iPhone’s home screen and braced myself for the bad news.

3:05am. Crikey, I thought (in my dreams I’m a crocodile hunter). State #10 was off to a rough start, and I wasn’t even out of bed. Here’s to the pre-race power nap.

Mike Sohaskey at Tuscon Marathon Expo

This one’s a shoe-in for my favorite race expo picture

So I used the 50-minute bus ride to the start line to conserve my energy, consume my breakfast and compare travelers tales with the 50-stater from Missouri sitting next to me. Modern remakes of classic holiday tunes filled the air, the bus driver apparently of the mindset that if he loved holiday music at 5:30am, well then who didn’t love holiday music at 5:30am?

Clearly a morning person, our bus driver.

Luckily for me the Tucson Marathon wouldn’t be a Boston Qualifer try, or a PR attempt, or really anything more than a conveniently timed excuse for a quick visit to a nearby state before the end of the year. So it was that as our bus pulled to a stop just before 6:30am in the dusty town of Oracle, I felt none of the pre-race nerves that typically accompany me to the start line of a marathon. In retrospect now I know: this was, if not a bad sign, definitely not a good sign.

The periwinkle sky brightened as I cycled through my warmup routine, listening to the familiar buzz of pre-race rituals around me. And I realized that cool breeze notwithstanding, the desert was warming up about as fast as I was.

Maybe I missed the National Anthem while handing off my drop bag, but the next thing I knew a female voice (presumably Race Director and ultrarunning legend Pam Reed) was declaring over the PA, “We’ll get started in 10-9-8…” Her count reached zero, an airhorn blew and the sun peeked over the horizon just in time to spy a swarm of runners begin their 26-mile journey toward Tucson.

Mile one rolled a bit before its first steep descent. This initial descent is clearly shown on the course elevation profile available on the race website, though a warning about that official profile: compare it to my Garmin’s own GPS tracing, and it’s like someone injected botox into the official elevation profile to smooth out the wrinkles, i.e. the less conspicuous bumps and dips on the course. Those bumps & dips may look insignificant to the untrained eye, but your trained legs will tell you otherwise.

Tucson elevation profile_official

Tucson elevation profile_Mike Sohaskey Garmin

The official course elevation profile (top) and my own Garmin course profile (bottom)

Cautiously I held myself in check as runners shot past me, as if chased by angry wasps. If I was going to blow out my quads, I hoped to wait until at least mile 20. After a steep ¾-mile descent the course continued to roll for the next several miles with little to see other than a few mom-and-pop businesses and a couple of Circle K convenience stores. In true small-town fashion, every building in Oracle seemed to bear the same first name: Oracle Public Library, Oracle Ridge School, Oracle Union Church, Oracle Ford, Oracle Inn Steakhouse & Lounge.

The highlight of this nondescript stretch was my pausing to retrieve sunglasses for a runner ahead of me who slingshotted them off her head while doffing her sweatshirt.

After 30 minutes I popped my first Shot Blok in my mouth, and was immediately reminded of my desert surroundings as my salivary glands worked feverishly to produce enough liquid to break it down. It was a slow and arduous process, and I resolved to limit my Shot Blok intake rather than risk dehydrating myself trying to get 33 calories at a time into my system.

Corporate America greeted us in the form of the Oracle Ford dealership as we turned onto Hwy 77, and the next 3 miles continued their gradual descent along the left shoulder of Hwy 77. At this point, after the first five miles of Oracle, the realization struck me that the recurring theme of the Tucson Marathon would be its largely uninspiring course. True, we could see semi-impressive peaks in the distance ahead of us… but those peaks never seemed to get any closer, and running alongside the flow of highway traffic felt more “outskirts of the city” than “one with Nature”.

Tooth sculpture in Oracle

9 out of 10 dentists surveyed recommend your teeth not look like this

The most inspiring points of the course were easily miles 5.5, 7, 14.5 and 19 – but then again, you’ll probably not have Katie waiting to cheer you on at those points.

Despite the sameness of my surroundings I was feeling good, logging miles in the 7:25-7:45 range, and two brief snippets of conversation kept me entertained as we approached mile 10:

Conversation #1:
Fellow 1: He had a 3.0 last semester, so I told him I’d buy him a car if he hit 3.5 next semester.
Fellow 2: That sounds like a pretty fair deal.
(You think? Wanna be my dad?)

Conversation #2:
Runner 1: How’s the calf?
Runner 2: It was tightening up pretty bad on Friday so I went to Massage Envy, and all they had was this chubby guy working, Friday night 8:00pm and all. (Editor’s note: Not sure what the masseuse’s body type had to do with the story or the shift he was working). It was pretty touch-and-go at the start, being naked in front of another guy and all, but he was ok.
(I wanted to suggest that “Touch and Go” would be another great name for a massage studio, but with over 16 miles still ahead of us I chose to conserve my energy.)

Flags

At mile 10 we swung a left turn off Hwy 77 and headed east directly into the rising sun, on a two-mile out-and-back to the Biosphere – no, not the Pauly Shore movie (that would be “Biodome” for you lucky enough not to remember), but rather the University of Arizona’s Earth systems science research facility dedicated to addressing “grand challenges that affect the quality of life and the understanding of our place in the universe.”

Speaking of quality of life, mine was slowly diminishing as I worked my way along rolling hills toward the Biosphere. While the official course profile shows miles 10-12 as smoothly uphill and miles 12-14 as smoothly downhill, again my Garmin tracing reveals the truth – a rolling profile that, given the energy needed to switch regularly between “up” and “down” gears, made for a tougher four miles than expected.

As we approached the Biosphere and the mile 12 turnaround, “Born To Run” by Springsteen – the only pre-recorded musical entertainment on the course – blasted from the PA, together with the voice of someone’s young (I’m guessing 5-year-old?) daughter, who held forth on how runners should go about running and drinking water at the same time. Yes, this was the highlight of the Biosphere out-and-back.

Passing the midway point, I glanced down at my Garmin to see a time of 1:42:xx. Not good enough to inspire, knowing I wasn’t about to negative-split this course, but not bad enough to give up on either. In a wicked bit of foreshadowing, my first-half time left me feeling a whole lot o’ nothing.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

I take solace in the fact I’m ahead of the fellow in the “Pikes Peak Road Runners” shirt

Turning back onto Hwy 77, I wasn’t looking forward to six more downhill miles on the shoulder of the road, with only the distant unchanging hills for distraction. After all, a succulent is a succulent is a succulent, and neither sagebrush nor chaparral make good running partners.

Maybe it was the fact that I could see practically into Mexico, with nothing left to the imagination and nothing to distract from my mounting fatigue. Maybe it was the second-hand exhaust of passing cars (it’s true that running behind cars will leave you exhausted) Maybe it was the 3+ hours of sleep. Or maybe – and I’d never considered this possibility – maybe without a well-defined race goal, I’d left myself with no compelling reason to dig deep once fatigue inevitably set in. After all, what did it matter whether I finished in 3:25 or 3:45? Without the BQ goal that brings so many runners to Tucson in December, both numbers felt essentially the same.

Whatever the reason, by mile 16 I was ready to call it a day. With the rumble strips (i.e. those grooves in the road that wake you up pronto when you fall asleep at the wheel and float onto the shoulder) as my constant companion, I kept my head down and simply followed the Running 101 textbook – one foot in front of the other.

I ran through the desert on a course all the same…

Mike Sohaskey at Mile 19 (91) of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Dyslexic runners unite! at mile 19

During a marathon I usually try to direct my focus outward, toward something other than my own suffering. Miles 16-21 at Tucson, though, were truly a No Man’s Land of mind-numbing same-itude – a monotonous grind highlighted by the rumble strips to my right and the sun now staking its claim overhead. The 3:30 pacer breezed past me at mile 20, his small group of disciples hanging on his every stride. I resolved to take more frequent advantage of the aid stations, as I continued to pop a Shot Blok every 30 minutes or so despite feeling nutritionally sated.

Honestly, the best way to describe the last ten miles at Tucson was that I just… lost… interest. Admittedly much of the blame falls squarely on my shoulders – my training had been on cruise control for several months, and my near-PR performance at November’s inaugural USA Half Marathon had felt like the cherry atop my 2015 racing sundae. But rather than end the year on that high note, I’d opted to squeeze in one more nearby state before the holidays. And so in the absence of external motivation (cheering spectators, rousing scenery etc.), I found myself digging deep into my well of internal motivation, only to discover it was bone dry. As though I were running in a desert.

Even the sparse spectator signage seemed to share my ennui, with oft-recycled messages like “One day you will fail. Today is NOT that day!” and “Nice job, random stranger!” And around mile 19, in one last nod to the uniformity of our surroundings, Hwy 77 turned into – what else? – Oracle Road.

Taiko drummers at mile 21 of Tuscon Marathon 2015

Taiko performers beat the drum slowly at mile 21

The fast-approaching, rhythmic beat of taiko drummers was (literally) music to my ears, signaling as it did the end of mile 21 and our escape from the unremitting downhill of Oracle Road. Turning left at the drummers, we entered our first residential neighborhood of the day and my mind relaxed almost immediately, as though the relentless drip, drip, drip that had been striking the same spot on my forehead for the past 7 miles had finally ceased. The course leveled out underfoot, and despite the glare of the eastern sun, even tract housing in various shades of desert brown was a sight for sore eyes.

Mile 23, and turning left onto Edwin Road, I immediately spied the steep uphill jag that stands out like a spotted zebra on the course elevation map. Sadly my pace didn’t slow much as I shuffled up the hill, where I was rewarded with the best view of the day all around me. You know when you’re riding in the front car of a roller coaster that reaches the top of a steep climb (clack, clack, clack) and then hesitates briefly, just long enough so you sense the freefall to come? I felt that same moment of anticipation before letting gravity and my remaining adrenaline carry me down the other side of the hill.

Mile 23 hill on Edwin Road - Tuscon Marathon 2015

A hill with a view – mile 23 and the psychological high point of the course

Curiously, as sluggish as I was in the last 5 miles, very few runners passed me. Apparently my misery had plenty of company.

My mind wandered back to the night before, when Katie had flipped open the hotel’s Guest Services book to the page that described the spa. “Ooh, they have a craniosacral thing,” she reported. “It utilizes light touch therapy that enhances the flow of cerebral spinal fluid through your head and spine. You may experience an easing of the restrictions in the nervous system and more mobility.” I’d laughed at the time but now, shuffling through mile 24, more mobility sounded awfully appealing – bring on the craniosacral thing!

Entering the death march of mile 25, I noticed a couple of runners alternating between running and walking a few feet at a time. And I resolved that my one victory on this day – aside from simply finishing – would be to run every step from start to finish. And not due to some misguided sense of pride or purpose, but because walking would have meant being out on the course even longer.

When at last I crossed under the finish arch at the Golder Ranch Fire Station after 3 hours 37 minutes 52 seconds, the word that best described me was depleted. As grateful as I was to the firefighter who hung the medal around my neck, I was even more grateful for the bottle of water offered by a friendly volunteer. I chugged it and looked around for another. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d felt this thirsty after a marathon… and it dawned on me just how much of a physical toll the dry air & desert heat had exacted.

Mike Sohaskey high-fiving a Tuscon cactus?

Race-day lesson #73: Not all spectators want or need a high-five

I met up with Katie and diffused around the finish line, my legs tightening quickly and the muscles of my middle back sore from breathing the thin air. I wasn’t sure whether to sprawl out on the ground or keep moving – neither seemed a comfortable option. I made several visits to the well-stocked food tent for oranges, bananas and water, again not something I typically do after a marathon. But it wouldn’t be until I got out of the sun and collapsed on the bed in our hotel room that I’d really start to feel like myself again.

In the end, no well-defined race goal + an uninspiring course = a race that will live in infamy, and another addition to my ever-growing list of marathon lessons learned.

The highlight of my day was meeting Race Director Pam Reed, who was buzzing with energy around the finish area – restocking supplies, emptying trash cans and seemingly doing whatever was needed to take care of her runners. I thanked her for overseeing a well-produced race, and marveled at the fact that a two-time overall winner of “the world’s toughest foot race” – the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley – and one of the planet’s greatest endurance athletes was working her butt off to ensure I had everything I needed after running 26 miles in 60-70°F heat.

The post-race afternoon was spent decompressing, me exploring the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort where we were staying, while the finest support crew in the land treated herself to a well-deserved massage.

Checking out of the hotel the next morning, I noticed a small heart tattooed on the inside of the front desk agent’s right arm, with a pink swath of tissue across the heart where a name once lived. A once-promising relationship reduced to scar tissue, I thought. Relationships come, relationships go, and when it happens I guess the healthiest response is to dust ourselves off, learn from our mistakes and move on as quickly as possible.

And in this case, not a moment Tuc-soon.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Tuscon Marathon finish

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a focused downhill runner seeking that elusive Boston Qualifier, then dry desert air and barren scenery aside, Tucson may be your ideal marathon. But if you’re like me and much more comfortable going up (or staying flat) than coming down, you may want to think twice before committing to this one. And if you are looking for a late-season BQ-friendly course that’s significantly easier on the quads, I’d recommend the California International Marathon which happens to fall on the same weekend as Tucson.

Beware too the artificially smooth course elevation profile on the race website, which omits many of the smaller rolling hills that will drain the life incrementally from your legs.

On the other hand, mile 23 hill aside, Tucson is much more intriguing as a speedy half marathon, where quads be damned you can throw caution to the wind and use the first 9+ miles of downhill to your PR’ing advantage. For those considering the 13.1 distance, I’d suggest you check out Dan’s excellent post on his own Tucson Half experience.

And if you’re looking for race weekend lodging, look no further than the first-class host hotel. The Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort offers reasonable rates and quiet, comfortable rooms, with the added convenience that the pre-race expo is held in one of the hotel conference rooms.

Sunset on grounds of Hilton Tuscon El Conquistador resort

Sunset on the grounds of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador

PRODUCTION: Race Director Pam Reed ensured that everything about marathon weekend operated like a well-oiled machine. Speaking of which, any event that uses buses to transport runners to the start – and does so with nary a glitch – earns extra points on my scorecard. This is no Rock ‘n’ Roll event, and that’s a good thing – the course lacked spectators and entertainment for the most part, while oncoming traffic provided the only consistent white noise along with the occasional waft of exhaust fumes. The expo was quick to navigate and had a small-town feel, including a wild-haired Doc Brown-looking fellow peddling “Magic Stuff” ointment at the corner booth. And the post-race spread, which included local sponsor Damascus Bakeries flatbread roll-ups, seemed sufficient to satisfy any but the most epicurean finisher’s palate.

SWAG: The official 2015 Tucson race shirt is an attractive (albeit bright) royal blue short-sleeve tech tee, while the finisher’s medal is a small and cartoonishly rendered red cactus that, if I were to learn had been designed by the local 3rd grade class, I’d think was really cool. Instead, it strikes me as more afterthought than thoughtfully considered keepsake.

Tucson Marathon 2015 medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves rating_Tucson

FINAL STATS:
December 6, 2015 (start time 7:00am)
26.28 miles from Oracle to Tucson, AZ (state 10 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:37:52 (first time running the Tucson Marathon), 8:17/mile
Finish place: 147 overall, 27/60 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 669 (378 men, 291 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 54°F), warm & sunny at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 436 ft ascent, 2,140 ft descent

Tucson Marathon splits

These are referred to as positive splits, as in “I’m positive these splits are terrible”