Posts Tagged ‘RaceRaves’

I kept going.
– Kayleigh Williamson, the first runner with Down Syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon (2017)

View of Clark Fork River

Behold! The Clark Fork River

Runners whose goal it is to race in all 50 states often find themselves living a tale of two –ities: opportunity and serendipity. This summer, the Treasure State weighed in with a golden opportunity I couldn’t refuse.

One of my favorite places in the country, Montana offers several attractive possibilities for the 50 states runner. These include the Madison Marathon, which at a starting elevation of 9,250 feet is the highest road marathon in the country; the Governor’s Cup, which follows a gentle downhill course that finishes in the capital city and gold rush town of Helena; and the Missoula Marathon, which takes place in the small-town home of the University of Montana and is among the highest-rated events on RaceRaves.com.

So my choice of Montana marathons wouldn’t be easy — until it was. As luck would have it, Katie’s family (with our input) chose Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming as the destination for this summer’s family vacation. And as timing would have it, our visit to the parks would end the day before the Missoula Marathon in neighboring Montana.

If that weren’t enough to seal the deal, Tony Banovich, the Race Director in Missoula, had generously invited us to join them for their marathon in early July. And so as soon as family getaway plans were finalized, we jumped at Tony’s offer to join him and his Run Wild Missoula team in Big Sky Country.

Missoula Marathon welcome sign in Missoula airport

With our family vacation ending on Saturday, the day before the race, we departed Grand Teton National Park that morning en route to Missoula some 400 miles away. Eight hours later, we pulled into town too late to make the pre-race expo but still in time to pick up my packet at the tiny local airport (a much-appreciated option; see “Production” below). Then it was time to begin in earnest the all-important business of weather watching and forecast fixating.

Marathon weekend found Missoula in the midst of a heat wave that would have made Beelzebub sweat. The temperature on race day was expected to reach the high 90s, the silver lining being a starting temp in the mid 60s that would rise gradually and peak in the late afternoon, once all runners were safely off the course. Regular pre-race emails from Tony and his team had assured us the show would go on as planned, while explaining what they’d be doing to prepare for the potentially dangerous heat (e.g. shortening the course time limit from 7½ to 6½ hours).

So all things considered, my concerns about racing the mercury to the finish line were minimal. Luckily, with a week of high-temperature and high-altitude hiking already in my legs, I had no plans for anything other than a relaxed, leisurely marathon.

As it turns out, I had no idea just how relaxed.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Grand Teton

Grand Teton, the reason we missed the pre-race expo

From fireworks in Frenchtown…
The mind always knows when it’s race day.

I woke up in the darkness, roughly a minute before my iPhone alarm did the same. Thirty minutes later we were in the car on the near-deserted highway for the 15-minute drive to Frenchtown, where the marathon would begin just after sunrise. Parking was easy peasy, with most runners riding the shuttle bus to the start.

Strolling toward the start line we were lucky to catch Race Director Tony B, who was predictably seeing to last-minute details. He was fighting a cold but seemed relaxed (more so than me) and excited to see all his hard work come to fruition. He wouldn’t be disappointed.

Fireworks briefly filled the dusky gray sky with light and sound, providing a cool distraction as I waited in the last-minute porta-potty line. Rural and low-key, and particularly so early in the morning, Frenchtown feels like a one-horse town. This was shaping up to be my kind of race, and I reached the start line in a more relaxed frame of mind than I’d arrived.

Missoula Marathon 2017 start line

Awaiting the go-ahead to run wild

The singing of the National Anthem (for which everyone stood, yes) was followed by the wheelchair start which was followed by the rest of us, a small stampede of runners directed toward downtown Missoula 26.2 miles away.

No sooner had I elevated my heart rate and found my stride than I heard the question come from directly behind me. “Are you Mike?” I glanced back to see Colorado native Eric O. pull alongside me. Eric had been the enthusiastic winner of a free race entry in our 2016 RaceRaves Missoula Marathon reviews giveaway, and today he was joining his daughter who was running her first half marathon. We ran together for a couple of miles, chatting about his first Boston Marathon earlier this year and his positive experiences at past Missoula Marathons.

Then I wished him luck and held myself in check as he gradually pulled away behind the 3:40 pace group. I was determined not to do anything reckless here today, with my only goal being a sub-4 hour finish to keep my streak of sub-4 road marathons alive (despite a close call at Victoria Falls). That meant showing the discipline to keep my early pace controlled and comfortable (~8:30/mile), to avoid imploding in the second half.

Or so I thought.

Missoula Marathon 2017 mile 4

Eric O. (in tie-dyed tee) pulls away in mile 4

The first 9.5 miles of Missoula was among the most pleasant stretches in my marathon memory. After a couple of gentle turns in the first mile, we ran with an eye toward the horizon on a well-maintained, recently blacktopped road flanked by open countryside and overseen by a distant wall of mountains on our right. Past horse stables, an industrial paper & packaging plant and even a donkey farm we ran, the miles ticking off with relative ease thanks to the scenery and still-cool temperatures. And though the rising sun would flex its muscle soon enough, the early morning cloud cover certainly helped as I didn’t have to don my sunglasses until mile 9.

With plenty of fresh air and elbow room, Big Sky Country was definitely living up to its name. And though mentally I wasn’t in the best place to be tackling a marathon after a week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

All the small details of the race were handled beautifully and with the runners in mind. For instance, each aid station was advertised in advance by unmistakable placards, with each station offering Powerade in front and water in the back, a sequence clearly articulated by the excellent volunteers. This struck me as Baton Rouge with better scenery.

Mike Sohaskey - mile 9 of Missoula Marathon 2017

Two thumbs up at mile 9

“Please don’t collapse — it’s our day off!” urged the placard at one of the nurses stations we passed. Gotta love health workers with a sense of humor, and hopefully they got to enjoy their day off without interruption.

In mile 10, a sharp right turn led us west away from Mullan Rd toward the Clark Fork River, the first of two rivers intersected by the marathon course. Open countryside stretched out on all sides, the mountains now looming large ahead of us as we made our first river crossing of the day via the two-lane roadbed of the Kona Bridge. Much to my chagrin, a small group of well-meaning spectators sat with music cranked up on the other side of the bridge — I’d been reveling in the tranquil stillness of our surroundings, and the dissonance hit my ears like a sonic boom.

Mother Nature would provide all the external distraction and entertainment I’d need on this day. Luckily amplified interludes were few and far between, though I was able to muster a moment of music appreciation at mile 13. There we were greeted by Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” a favorite of clever spectators at the midway point of marathon courses across the country (WHOAAAAA, we’re halfway there…).

Kona Bridge - mile 11 of Missoula Marathon 2017

A river runs under it: Kona Bridge, mile 11

… to a near-miss in Missoula
The lone hill of note on the course — “Halfway Hill” we’ll call it — awaited just after the midway point. At its base a cowboy on horseback waved and greeted us. “Where you coming from?” he asked good-naturedly. Halfway Hill ascended for about half a mile through soaring evergreens and featured a false summit where an aid station awaited. Slowly I climbed, maintaining a jog while chatting with a fellow from Kansas City.

From there the course rolled for about 1½ miles before making its final descent near the mile 16 marker. Unfortunately there were no photographers on this scenic wooded downhill as there had been the year before. Accelerating downhill toward an upcoming aid station, I decided this was a good time to force down consume my first Stinger gel of the day, since water was imminent. Swallowing the first mouthful, “BAD IDEA” sirens went off in my head as a wave of nausea immediately washed over me. I don’t recall the last time I felt nauseous during a race, maybe never. Even worse, this feeling would stick with me for the next two miles and signal the beginning of a very looooong ten miles to the finish.

Mile 14 of Missoula Marathon

Heading up Halfway Hill, mile 14

Despite my nausea and early fatigue, mile 17 was one of the most entertaining of the day. It started with my second Katie sighting, followed by a fellow playing the piano on the lawn of someone’s backyard (and in full dress tails Big Sur-style, I do believe). Soon after that a young girl (maybe 4 years old) in ballerina outfit turned cartwheels and cheered as we approached. And finally we crossed the Bitterroot River at perhaps the most photogenic spot on the course, Maclay Bridge, which was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Disappointed not to see an official photographer positioned on the far side of the bridge this year, and honestly looking for any excuse to slow down, I paused to snap a shot of my own.

Maclay Bridge - Mile 17 of Missoula Marathon

Maclay Bridge, mile 17

All three mile 17 moments (Katie not included) were charming pick-me-ups and spot-on examples of what makes Missoula a special race and a special place.

By mile 18 my inexplicable nausea had passed for the most part, but my body was clearly done. Whether or not “adrenal fatigue” is a legit medical condition, I visualized my adrenal glands as shriveled-up raisins with nothing left to give. My legs felt encased in concrete, and increasingly I was able to walk faster than I could run. This was a tough situation, similar to — though more brutal than — what I’d faced in Boston in 2016.

As the course entered the residential neighborhoods of Missoula and transitioned onto narrow tree-lined streets, sprinklers became plentiful. Many were strong enough only to wet my upper legs, and though the heat remained largely a non-factor at this point, these cooling interludes were much appreciated.

Case in point, the single best hydration moment of the day came courtesy of two young girls standing by with loaded Super Soakers at the ready. One girl met my eyes as I approached with an inquiring “OK to shoot?” expression on her face. Without a word I raised my hand in the universal gesture of “Bring it on,” and was immediately hit by a blast of cold water that felt incredible and instantly revived my spirits, if not my legs.

For once I didn’t mind intermittent walking because my #1 goal here in state #16 was to enjoy my scenic foot tour of Missoula. And even in my depleted state I was doing just that. How could I not, what with the town’s pleasant neighborhoods, cute homes boasting immaculately manicured lawns and spectators that were supportive in every way?

Missoula residents misting marathon runners

The residents of Missoula never mist a chance to take care of their runners

At the same time I’m a proudly competitive guy, and as I shuffled onward my mind kept nagging at me, the dangling carrot of the sub-4-hour marathon urging me onward. Did I still have a chance? Had I banked enough time in the first half to overcome this second half implosion? Where was the 4-hour pace group? When would they pass me? And would I care when they did? Of course I would, but would I be able to do anything about it?

This final possibility was the most disconcerting, and it brought to mind the helpless feeling I’d had in Eugene when the 3:25 pace group had blown by me in mile 23.

Each time I saw Katie in the second half (at miles 17, 20, 21 and 24), I seized on the opportunity to slow to a fast walk alongside her. First time I’ve ever done that, and with each slowdown I felt like I was adding an hour to my finish time. She’d hand me the coconut water we’d brought, and I’d drink as much as I could stomach while trying to rally my exhausted body.

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift” read the race placard posted around mile 20, a quote from the legendary Steve Prefontaine. That was followed by “The challenge ahead of you is never as great as the strength within you” — a bit corny to be sure, but under the circumstances both relevant and uplifting. Much more so than the least creative spectator sign of the day, which in an apparently failed attempt at snarky humor simply read “Motivational sign.”

For a short stretch I ran alongside an overly sweaty fellow who looked like he’d just climbed out of a swimming pool. He mumbled some words of encouragement at me and I grunted back a weak “You too” before again slowing to a walk. He pushed ahead at a jog, though not a particularly speedy one since I passed him soon after.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 21 of Missoula Marathon

“Thumbs up” is marathoner-speak for “I’m still alive” (mile 21)

Each time I slowed to a walk I’d feel a momentary wave of lightheadness, with chills passing through my legs. And here it wasn’t even hot yet, oy. I’d walk briskly until my equilibrium returned for the most part and then I’d pick up the pace again, feeling more composed. And I listened for the telltale cheers that might indicate the 4-hour pace group coming up fast behind me. Given that I was now leaving a charred trail of 10-minute miles in my wake, it was only a matter of time.

After mile 20 I’d use each mile marker as a goalpost and an excuse to walk. I even slowed to a walk at the mile 25 marker, so little energy did I have to finish this thing, much less finish strong. As though anticipating my arrival, an official race sign posted just past the mile 25 marker promised “One more mile in the pain cave.” As marathons go, this particular pain cave was deeper and darker than any I’d ever been in. Then roughly half a mile later, “You’ve come this far, you might as well finish.”

Missoula Marathon finish line

(Photo: Gameface Media)

I was liking these signs more and more.

I reached the mile 26 marker running on fumes and with my wits half intact, so it took me a moment to register the fellow wearing an orange tee who fell in beside me at an easy jog. “How you feeling?” asked Race Director Tony B with a furrowed brow and sympathetic smile. “Better now, “ I acknowledged, my spirits lifted by the mile 26 marker and by his friendly presence.

Tony does what he does because helping others achieve their goals and realize their dreams is his passion, a truth that becomes self-evident both in talking with him and in every detail of his race. And he’s fortunate to be able to pursue that passion in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Getting to know Tony and other amazing folks in the running industry has been one of the most rewarding benefits to building and growing RaceRaves these past three years.

Now he jogged alongside me for a short distance before pointing at the upcoming Higgins Avenue Bridge. “You’ve got one last uphill hump, then it’s all downhill to the finish,” he reassured me and with that, he left me to finish on my own. Feeling his eyes (true or not) still on my back, I put every last ounce of energy I had into cresting that bridge, where I let momentum carry me down toward one of the most magnificent finish arches I’d ever witnessed, the late morning sun now showcasing the marathon logo atop the arch.

A picture-perfect finish to a race that, aside from nearly killing me, did everything right.

Turns out Tony’s last-minute motivation was exactly what this doctor ordered. Given my grotesque “positive split” — i.e. a second half slower than the first half — I had no business finishing in 3:59:18, but that’s exactly what my Garmin read as I crossed the finish line completely spent. After Victoria Falls, Missoula was the second straight sub-4 victory I’d snatched from the jaws of defeat. Wobbling forward in the finish chute, I turned seconds later to see the 4-hour pacers crossing the line right on time as pacers tend to do — alone.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Missoula Marathon

Ain’t nothin’ so fine as a finish line

When the going gets tough, keep going
Jubilant relief swept through me as a friendly volunteer hung the hefty bronze finisher’s medal around my neck. Then I collapsed on the curb and gave Katie (waiting outside the finish chute) a “We did it” fist pump. A medical attendant came by to check on me, and with a weak smile I assured her I’d done this before and I’d be just fine. Montana and state #16 completed? Check. In less than four hours? Check. All things considered, and despite my body’s protests to the contrary, it had been a very good day.

Slowly and deliberately we made our way to the post-race festival in Caras Park, where I snapped a finisher photo and took advantage of the massage tent, the latter at an additional charge. Predictably my stomach wasn’t in the mood for solid food, and wasn’t willing even to give the Big Sky Brewing tent a chance. Dejected, I refueled with a strawberry lemonade from a local vendor before heading back to the finish line to watch RaceRaves member and fellow Marathon Maniac Tim (who’d made the drive from South Dakota) finish his own race. With the clock approaching high noon, temperatures were creeping toward the 90s as the last few finishers crossed the Higgins Avenue Bridge.

Then, roughly 18 hours after we’d arrived, it was time to bid Missoula a fond farewell. We hustled back to our hotel for a quick shower, before hitting the road to nearby St. Regis for a visit with friends and an afternoon float on the Clark Fork River. Katie and I both regretted the brevity of our stay — we weren’t even able to check out the University of Montana campus — but unfortunately it couldn’t be helped this time. And on the bright side, we now have a compelling reason to return. Missoula is one of the few destinations on my 50 states quest so far that I honestly hope to revisit. Besides, I feel like the I owe the course a rematch on fresher legs.

Mike Sohaskey & Tim Mullican at Missoula Marathon

Celebrating with RaceRaves member and 50 states finisher Tim M. at the post-race festival

Because as much as I’d hoped to live in my own reality distortion field, the truth is that an incredible summer spent traveling and racing in the heat of South Africa and Zimbabwe, and then hiking in the heat and elevation of Northwest Wyoming, had finally taken its toll. Clearly I’m no Mike Wardian, the 43-year-old freak of nature who this past August conquered the country’s most difficult marathon on Pikes Peak a few hours after notching 100 high-altitude miles at the iconic Leadville Trail 100 Run. Completing either race is enough to wreck most normal runners, but Wardian isn’t normal — he finished both races in a combined record time that’s unlikely to be broken any time soon. Coincidentally, Wardian was scheduled to speak at this year’s expo in Missoula, an appearance we missed due to our late arrival. If only we’d made it on time, I might have benefitted from his secondhand bad-assedness.

 

In any case, Missoula crystallized in my mind the most important lesson any runner can learn, and the two words that so often determine success or failure in any walk of life: Keep going. Never give up and never give in. One foot in front of the other, always forward until you cross that finish line. Because you never know.

Keep going. Easy to promise yourself from the comfort of your sofa, much tougher to do when your finely tuned engine is leaking oil in the heat with six miles to go. If I’d walked a few more seconds here or there rather than pushing forward at every opportunity, I‘d have finished in just over four hours and spent the next 34 states woulda- coulda- shoulda-ing. Because once the race is over and you regain your senses, it’s easy to rationalize how you could have done better.

Keep going. Anyone can be a runner when they’re feeling good and running with the wind; the challenge comes when the going gets tough, then tougher, then toughest. What will you do when the deck is stacked against you? Will you fold? Or will you go all in, show your best poker face and push your chips to the center of the table? No matter the conditions, no matter the distance, mental toughness is the wild card each and every time that starter’s pistol fires. Just ask Kayleigh Williamson, who this year because the first runner with Down Syndrome to complete the Austin Half Marathon in a time of 6:22:56.

At any rate, any runner who’s tried it will tell you: this is how the 50 states quest works. Running a marathon (or longer) in every freaking state often plays out as a tale of two –ities, opportunity and serendipity. State #16 was the best of times, it was the worst of times — Big Sky beauty and hospitality coupled with my worst road marathon time to date. But hard times or not, our visit to the Treasure State exceeded even my great expectations.

Because I enjoyed the dickens out of Missoula.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho - Missoula Marathon finish line selfie

BOTTOM LINE: It’s no hyperbole to say Missoula is the perfect small-town marathon. But you don’t need me to tell you that – it’s one of the most highly rated events on RaceRaves (currently an amazing 4.9 shoes out of 5, based on 140 reviews). Tony Banovich and his team let the peaceful rural beauty of the point-to-point course and the friendliness of the locals speak for themselves, and both speak loudly. As you might guess, you won’t get mile after mile of blasting music or screaming spectators (thankfully), but you will get a wildly rewarding marathon experience that, Halfway Hill and potential July heat aside, makes you wish you could bottle Big Sky Country and take it with you. And lucky you if you live here.

Unlike other expensive events that “entertain” their runners on race day with blaring music, colorful distractions and contrived bells and whistles, Missoula feels entirely authentic. And delightful touches like a piano player on a front lawn at mile 17 only add to its charm. Missoula is a spot-on race to include in your summer vacation plans, with Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park to the southwest and Glacier National Park to the north. Though if you do opt for a racecation, do your legs a favor and run the race first — several days spent hiking in the Big Sky heat and at Big Sky altitude beforehand will wear you down, and the ultimate victim will be your legs on race day. Somewhere around mile 18. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Huckleberries in the wild

PRODUCTION: In a word, elk-cellent. The Run Wild Missoula team are clearly pros — from the regular prerace email updates (particularly important when the weather forecast threatens triple digits), to enabling expo latecomers to pick up their bib numbers hassle-free at the Missoula airport, to the low-key start-line fireworks in Frenchtown, to the well-labeled aid stations, to the motivational signs posted along the course in the later miles (when I very much wanted to call it a day), to the awesome post-race spread and Big Sky Brewing tent.

Case in point, I didn’t realize until Saturday afternoon — entirely my fault — that I wasn’t going to be able to reach the expo before it closed, so I sent an email asking if I might be able to pick up my bib number at the airport that evening. Soon after, I received a very friendly and personalized “Welcome to Missoula!” email that went on to say, “We are happy to provide you with the opportunity to pick up your packet late!” The whole process was quick and easy, with Missoula Marathon banners greeting us at the airport. I’ve never received better customer service from a race.

(That said, I would suggest extending expo hours until 6:00pm, since a 4:00pm closing time for a one-day expo seems a bit early.)

Seeing all the sprinklers, hoses and squirt guns mobilized for our benefit, it felt like the entire town of Missoula had prepared and shown up for its hometown race. The town clearly takes pride in its marathon, and as a visiting runner there’s no better feeling. Because you can’t fake that — coming from Los Angeles, I know the disappointment of having an A+ race play to apathetic locals. Like Louisiana in January, this is a race organized first and foremost with the runners in mind. Race Director Tony B. seemed very relaxed (despite fighting a cold) when we saw him moments before the race, which is unusual for an RD, and I was reminded of what Peyton Manning once said: “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” Clearly Tony and his team know what they’re doing.

(And if you decide to run Missoula based on anything I’ve said, tell ‘em Mike and Katie from RaceRaves sent you!)

2017 Missoula Marathon medal
SWAG: I’m not that guy who proudly displays his bib numbers, but the Missoula bib stands out since it’s shaped like the state of Montana — another of the small but cool details at which this race excels. But while I’m not a bib guy, I’m definitely a medal guy, and this year’s Missoula medal is a classic reminder of a first-class event. Suspended from an eye-catching orange ribbon, it’s a hefty piece of bronze hardware emblazoned with the race logo — not always a good thing for races, unless your logo happens to feature a silhouette of an elk with shoes dangling from its antlers on a backdrop of mountains. Then you show it off whenever you can. Likewise the race tee is a keeper that promises to become a regular in my rotation, white with attractive orange lettering and stitching.

Free finish-line photos were provided to all runners courtesy of Gameface Media, though unlike last year no photographer was positioned on the opposite side of Maclay Bridge, maybe the best vantage point for photos along the course. And Referee Photo was set up at the post-race festival to print glossy hard copies of your triumphant finisher’s photo at no charge. First time I’ve encountered that, and one more “surprise and delight” moment in a weekend full of them.

Updated 50 states map:


RaceRaves rating:


FINAL STATS:
July 9, 2017 (start time 6:00am)
26.18 miles from Frenchtown to Missoula, MT (state 16 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:59:17 (first time running the Missoula Marathon), 9:08/mile
Finish place: 248 overall, 23/53 in M 45-49 age group
Number of finishers: 867 (456 men, 411 women)
Race weather: cool, partly cloudy at the start (temp 64°F), warm & sunny (74°F) at the finish
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 372 ft ascent, 221 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 3,045ft, 3,261ft

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Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.
– African proverb

Mike Sohaskey at Victoria Falls
Every marathon hangs on a moment of truth. That defining instant when you realize the outcome of your race hinges on what happens next. Never sure when it will arrive, you know it when it does. At that crucial moment, will you blink first? Or will you hold your ground, dig deep and find a way to maintain focus, to tune out the dissonant voices in your head, to will yourself through the fatigue and discomfort and across the finish?

I hate to blink first. Most athletes do. Yet sometimes it’s a necessary evil, a survival skill—and this time I was eager to do so. Because never before had my moment of truth blinked back…



Victoria Falls Marathon course map
I have no idea what to expect, I realized as I cycled through my pre-race warmup absent-mindedly in a last-minute attempt to awaken my dormant legs.

Since crossing the Comrades Marathon finish line in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa two weeks earlier—hands-down the highlight of my running career to date—I hadn’t run a single step. Walked plenty, run none. We’d spent the past two weeks playing tourist first in South Africa and now in Zimbabwe, and understandably I’d had little time or interest in reacclimating my legs to running. They’d earned the rest.

Besides, runners typically “taper” before a big race. For a standard 12- to 16-week training cycle, this means that starting four weeks before race day when training mileage is at its peak, a runner will reduce their mileage gradually over the next three weeks culminating in race day. The purpose of the taper is to strike a delicate balance that ensures the legs are rested when they reach the start line, while maintaining the physiological benefits of training. Rest, not rust.

So looking at the glass as half full, my past two weeks had been a steep taper for Victoria Falls. Well, almost. Adding to my low expectations for myself was the reckless amount of walking we’d done the day before to view the Falls themselves, first on the Zimbabwe side of the border and then across the bridge on the Zambia side. The risk was well worth the reward—as the only waterfall in the world with a width exceeding one kilometer and a height exceeding 100 meters, Victoria Falls is a magnificent, overwhelming force of Nature. But again, as a blatant middle finger to the marathon gods, I knew I’d end up paying for my indiscretion on race day. C’est la vie.

Bottom line, I had no idea what to expect from my legs and body. Would they be stubbornly lethargic? Reasonably well-rested? Completely drained? Oddly energized? Or maybe all of the above? My money was squarely on the latter.

Much like in Durban two weeks earlier, the prevailing darker skin tones and pungent waft of body odor in the small start corral reminded me I wasn’t in America anymore. But whereas Comrades had reminded me of the Boston Marathon in its scale, this felt more like small-town America, more like last year’s Hatfield McCoy Marathon in Kentucky where a hastily chalked line in the parking lot of the local Food City had served as the start line.

Fewer than 300 runners would be tackling the 26.2-mile journey around the tourist capital of Zimbabwe. Another 1,100 would be lining up for the half marathon scheduled to start 30 minutes later, and a popular 7.5-km “fun run” would round out the day’s events. The occasional red-and-white official Comrades cap could be seen in the close-packed crowd, so at least I wasn’t alone in my questionable decision-making.

I gave Katie a farewell peck on the forehead and wished good luck to Gloria and Jihua, two Bay Area runners we’d met the day before. Then I positioned myself squarely in the middle of the pack behind the baby blue start arch, hoping to protect myself from my own stupidity and prevent my going out too fast.

Victoria Falls Marathon start line

See that one white head sticking up above the crowd in back?

Legends of the Falls (Start–mile 14)
Start time arrived with little fanfare and no national anthem. With a final countdown we were off and headed directly toward the border and the town’s breathtaking namesake.

Crossing the bridge from Zimbabwe into Zambia on this initial out-and-back, it struck me that this would be my first truly international marathon, i.e. a marathon run in more than one country. Whereas many races include the word “international” in their name, most mean it in the sense of hosting runners from around the world, rather than in the literal sense of crossing borders. So this would be the first time I’d set foot in two countries over the course of a race.

(Back home both the Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank Marathon and the Niagara Falls International Marathon—coincidentally run on the same day in October this year—cross the U.S./Canadian border, with the NFIM starting in the U.S. and finishing in Canada.)

Admittedly, the only real disappointment of the Victoria Falls Marathon is that you can’t see Victoria Falls from the course. This is unavoidable, however, and not the fault of the organizers, since as a World Heritage Site and the primary source of revenue for the town, the main Falls are hidden from view and so not readily visible from the road. Nonetheless, as though flexing its muscle for its guests, the Falls greeted us with a gentle mist as we crossed the bridge and approached the border post into Zambia.

From the bridge the Zambezi River, which separates Zimbabwe and Zambia, could be seen swirling far below. The spray from the Falls hung tantalizingly in the air, hinting at the raw power just out of view around the bend. Scenery-wise, this out-and-back segment between nations would be the highlight of the day.

View of the Zambezi River from the Zambezi Bridge

The Zambezi River and “Boiling Pot” seen from the Zambezi Bridge

Traveler’s Tip: If you plan to visit Victoria Falls, your best bet is to purchase a KAZA UniVisa for $50 which allows much easier travel between Zimbabwe and Zambia, as well as day trips to Botswana (e.g. to visit Chobe National Park) through the Kazangula border. Katie and I each purchased a KAZA UniVisa upon arrival at the Zimbabwe airport. Entrance to the Falls themselves will cost you $30 on the (more developed) Zimbabwe side and $20 on the Zambia side. Both are worth the price of admission, particularly in the late fall/early winter (April–June) when water levels are at their peak. Later in the year when water levels fall, I’d stick to the Zimbabwe side. No matter when you go, be prepared (outside the park) to be approached by determined “artists” looking to sell you copper bracelets, wooden knick-knacks and other souvenirs.

No sooner had we crossed the bridge than we reached the turnaround point (manned by armed guards) and headed back the way we’d come, our total distance run in Zambia amounting to barely one of the race’s 42 km. As memorable as this border crossing had been, clearly the folks in charge needed us off the bridge quickly so they could reopen it to traffic.

Crossing the Zambezi Bridge, mile 2

Good news greeted me along this first out-and-back—a lingering pain in the soft tissue on the top of my foot, an acute bruising sensation which had arisen after Comrades and which had flared up sporadically in the interventing two weeks (including this morning), subsided early in the race. Oddly— though maybe not so oddly if you’re a runner who understands the niggling aches and pains that come and go—that would be the last I’d hear from the top of my foot. It’s almost as if it had simply—missed running?

With the most scenic stretch behind us, the next 35 km would essentially amount to two loops through the more rural sections of town. Here the terrain remained fairly consistent: a variably dusty two-lane asphalt road with transitional stretches of dirt and sand. The morning remained pleasantly cool as the winter sun rose overhead, and with abundant cloud cover to thwart its rays, I wouldn’t have to don my sunglasses until around mile 7.

Traveler’s Tip: If you’re planning to run the Victoria Falls Marathon (assuming it’s still in June or July when you read this), bring your sunscreen but feel free to leave the mosquito repellent at home. Despite packing two types of repellent we failed to see a single mosquito during our stay in Africa, including 3+ days on safari plus another few days visiting one of the continent’s largest sources of water. Truth is, winter isn’t the mosquito’s breeding season. And while most travel guides will tell you the risk for malaria during the winter months (June–Sept) is low, based on our own experience in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana, it’s effectively zero.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 3 of Victoria Falls Marathon
The best thing about the two out-and-back sections in the first half of the race was having the chance to see the lead pack pass in the opposite direction. Unfortunately, by the second half the leaders were too far ahead for me to catch a glimpse on the out-and-back.

Long stretches of open road were punctuated by the occasional tourist lodge, nature sanctuary or crocodile farm. One property advertised vulture feedings at 10:30am. The out-and-back section from miles 5.5–10.5 (and likewise miles 17–22) bordered Zambezi National Park, and though on this day the only wildlife along this stretch would be the huffing and puffing two-legged variety, the occasional armed guard stationed along the course testified to Nature’s presence and power in the region.

As uneasy as it made me feel to imagine a majestic animal being shot so I could run a marathon, at the same time I recognized this as a fact of life here in Zimbabwe, where wild and tame coexist in such close proximity. And maybe this is simply me rationalizing, but I got the strong sense that the rifles brandished by the guards would be used only as a (very) last resort.

The most extended uphill of the day (which again, we’d tackle twice) began at the tail end of this 5-mile out-and-back stretch. A steady, nondescript climb roughly two miles in length, I was relieved to encounter it for the first time early in the day, while the clouds persisted and the sun was not yet high in the sky.

We wouldn’t be so lucky on the second loop.

Miles 6 and 17 of the Victoria Falls Marathon

Climbing in mile 6 (and 17)

Starting at the hour mark, I downed a GU or Stinger gel—I find the latter easier to swallow on the run—every five miles or so, enough to provide the occasional burst of energy without upsetting my stomach in the rising heat. Like Comrades the aid stations offered water sachets (pouches) rather than cups, and after 87 km of practice in South Africa my teeth were sharpened and ready.

As originally devised, our travel plan had been to spend the duration of our African visit in South Africa. We’d added Victoria Falls only after a native Zimbabwean had mentioned it in passing at the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon expo in May. Somehow the conversation had turned to Comrades and he’d recommended that, while in Africa, we also check out the Victoria Falls Marathon that same month. Once planted, that seed had quickly germinated in the well-tilled soil of our brains—who knew when we’d have another chance to visit?—and within two weeks we’d changed our plans to include Victoria Falls.

This was, of course, before I had 87 km in my legs. A second marathon in Africa had seemed so carpe diem at the time. And if I’m being honest, Vic Falls offered an enticing backup for my African marathon, just in case Comrades didn’t go according to plan.

Known to the indigenous Tonga people as Mosi-oa-Tunya or “The Smoke That Thunders,” Victoria Falls has been named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and is a popular tourist destination. And though I feel like we experienced Zimbabwe in much the same way a foreigner visiting Las Vegas experiences the United States, the Falls is a national treasure and for good reason.

Entrance to Victoria Falls park Zimbabwe side
And speaking of national treasure, Zimbabwe needs all it can get because it’s clearly not a wealthy nation. The economy of Zimbabwe shrank dramatically at the turn of the century, resulting in widespread poverty and an unemployment rate as high as 95%. Hyperinflation led to the country suspending its own currency in 2009, and Zimbabwe paper money such as the 100-billion-dollar (as in $100,000,000,000) bill is now hawked around town as a souvenir.

Likewise, roving “artists” relentlessly peddle copper bracelets and wooden figurines in search of naïve tourists—and clearly a white man and Chinese woman look the part—willing to buy their wares at bargain prices. On our pre-race stroll across the bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia and back, we were approached by a steady stream of self-proclaimed artists looking to chat us up about Obama or Trump while hoping to offer us a deal we couldn’t refuse.

Amazingly the same man—93-year-old Robert Mugabe—has ruled the country since first taking office in 1980 with the announcement that Rhodesia would be renamed as Zimbabwe. During his tenure he has been praised as a revolutionary hero by some and criticized as a corrupt dictator by others (sound familiar?); the truth, as with most complex characters, lies somewhere in the middle.

Quickie Quiz: Anyone know the capital city of Zimbabwe or the nation’s most widely spoken language?

A: Harare is the capital with a population of 1.5 million, while an estimated 70% of the population speaks Shona.

Zimbabwe flag
Miles 12–14 featured a gentle downhill that passed back through the blue start arch, signaling the start of the second loop. Here Katie awaited at the most convenient access point on the course. I waved, let her know I was feeling good, and switched gears again as the road turned back uphill over familiar ground.

Multi-loop courses aren’t my favorite—I always prefer a good point-to-point—and so with no new scenery to look forward to and no strict time goal to keep me dialed in mentally, I found my interest in running 26.2 miles flagging. I needed a distraction, some sort of pick-me-up to motivate me through the next 12+ miles.

Turns out “pick-me-up” was a poor choice of words. But as motivation goes, I may never top what happened next.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Back to the start, mile 14

Close encounters of the African kind (mile 15–finish)
I’d glanced up to my left at the billboard advertising an authentic African-themed dinner experience, when suddenly I heard the cracking of tree branches to my right. Instinctively I turned toward the sound and there, staring back at me and about to enter the road, was a solitary elephant. Not the largest elephant I’d seen in our travels, but as the heaviest land mammal on the planet, an African elephant of any size is large enough to ruin me.

And this was no zoo.

I slowed immediately, not wanting to startle him but not about to take my eyes off him either. He seemed to have the same idea. Luckily there were no other runners within 50 yards of us. I looked at him, he looked at me, we looked at each other. Then he let out a brusque snort, apparently surprised and not particularly amused to see a biped blocking his path. Why did the elephant cross the road? his steely eyes seemed to ask from beneath heavy gray eyelids. Get the hell out of my way and I’ll show you!

I could already picture the next day’s headline:

Darwin Award 2017: Slow-footed American startles unamused elephant
“I’d give 100 billion dollars to have him back,” says weepy spouse

During this exchange both time and I slowed to a crawl, though neither stopped. My brain, typically in standby mode during marathons, snagged momentarily—after all, we’d been instructed that the least attractive option when confronted with a pissed-off elephant was to run away. That said, I was already running away. And so I made the split-second decision to keep doing what I was doing and not break stride. I hoped this would have the dual benefit of a) not frightening him with any sudden movements and b) indicating by my retreat that I was no threat, and that I had no intention of thwarting his progress.

Encountering elephant at mile 14 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Best. Spectator. Ever.

And so I kept running as he remained still, eyeing me warily from the side of the road. As soon as I’d put roughly 20 yards between us (pretty sure I held my breath for the first ten), I quickly turned back and snapped a photo—‘cuz what good is getting trampled by an elephant while on vacation if no one believes you? All without spooking the animal or soiling myself.

I guess I just have a way with wildlife.

Then I picked up my pace and accelerated up the hill, toward a group of spectators and volunteers who were all staring down in my direction and pointing back the way I’d come.

Behind me I heard my new acquaintance trumpet loudly, presumably to let the other curious bipeds know that like it or not, he was damn well going to cross the road. His road.

(I note this unsettling incident which occurred one month after our visit to Vic Falls—a tragic and horrific story which starkly demonstrates the raw, unpredictable power of these animals. My heart goes out to the family of the unfortunate guide.)

Pre-race instructions for Victoria Falls Marathon

Instructions posted at the pre-race expo

Predictably I rode a bit of an adrenaline surge for the next few minutes—so much so that despite having 14 miles in my legs, despite slowing for the elephant and despite stopping to capture a couple photos of baboons frolicking alongside the course and in the trees, I still managed my fastest and only sub-8:00 mile of the day in 7:53.

No wonder the world’s fastest runners hail from Africa.

The course was not closed to traffic and occasionally a car or truck would pass, flattening half-filled water sachets with a {POP} and stirring up dust in its wake. As the sun rose in the sky and the day grew hotter, a noseful of warm orange dust wasn’t exactly a refreshing surprise. But this was Zimbabwe after all and besides, if you’re planning to run a marathon and do it comfortably, you should probably find a different sport.

As the African sun burned away the remaining cloud cover, the déjà vu of our surroundings didn’t bother me as much as the mounting heat and steady diet of rolling hills. Whereas every uphill in the first half of the course seemed to have a corresponding downhill, the second half—like a life well lived—definitely had more ups than downs.

Miles 9 and 20 of Victoria Falls Marathon

The turnaround point at mile 9 (and 20)

The highlight of the last out-and-back stretch (miles 17–22) was a group of small children watching from the side of the road, some quiet and others more enthusiastic. As I’d done at Comrades, I slowed and bent down to share high-fives with them as I passed. Their bright eyes and excited smiles lifted my spirits and were nearly as motivating as an anxious elephant.

“Thank you!” I responded reflexively over my shoulder and then, realizing they may not speak English, followed that quickly with a thumbs-up sign. The chorus of giggling behind me was more beautiful than the Falls themselves. Because laughter really is its own natural wonder of the world. And anywhere on the planet—no matter one’s nationality, ethnicity, skin color, language, socioeconomic status, shoe size or popsicle preference—a five-year-old is a five-year-old. No hatred, no judgment, no bottled-up feelings of rage or resentment at a world that doesn’t understand them and which they can’t control. Only wide-eyed joy, unconditional love and the giddy appreciation that comes with living each and every moment without regret and in a world of unlimited possibility.

Buoyed by these tiny spectators I pressed on, and was able to see new Bay Area friend Gloria pass in the opposite direction, looking tired but strong a few minutes ahead of me. Her husband Jihua remained some distance behind, though just how far I didn’t know.

Three times along the course an ambulance approached with siren wailing, and three times it blew past me without stopping. Dodged another one, I thought on each occasion.

By mile 22 I was struggling bigly, and it became abundantly clear that Comrades is the gift that keeps on giving. Two weeks of travel in a foreign land apparently hadn’t been enough to clear those 87 km from my legs.

Grazing wart hogs at mile 22 of Victoria Falls Marathon

Grazing wart hogs in dappled lighting, mile 22

I was momentarily distracted from my discomfort by a pack of wart hogs, which I inadvertently surprised as they stood grazing on a sun-dappled patch of green grass. The skittish animals retreated a short distance before realizing I was no threat and returning to their meal, while keeping a safe distance between us juuuuust to be sure.

Soon after the wart hog sighting I stopped briefly to shake out and stretch my overworked legs and hips. And soon after that, on another gradual climb with the sun directly ahead and beating me in the face, my cadence became so slow and labored that I was forced to slow to a hike along with two other runners. Reaching the top of the hill I continued to power-walk for a short distance, too exhausted to run immediately but refusing to concede a second more than was absolutely necessary.

This scenario repeated three or four more times, as each time the combination of heat and hills (no matter how gentle the grade) stopped me in my tracks, along with every other runner around me. By this point there were very few runners around me who were still, well, running. As it turns out, seeing other runners walking is itself tiring, and has the psychological effect of making it harder to pick up the pace yourself. At the same time, I’m pleased to report that only one runner passed me the entire second half of the race, and that happened in the final km.

At the next aid station I grabbed an orange slice, sucking out the juice like I’d discovered the elixir of life. One orange at a time, one mile at a time, one step at a time.

Rainbow at Victoria Falls
The number of aid stations—and the number of volunteers manning those aid stations—seemed to shrink in the later miles. As it had in the heat at Comrades, water again grew unappealing late in the race, a bizarre notion considering the human body is roughly 60% water. Which tells you just how stressful running 26.2 miles in the heat can be.

It didn’t help that the water here was less consistently cold than it had been at Comrades.

By mile 24 I had no idea whether a sub-4-hour finish was still within reach, but if so it was quickly slipping away. After two straight 11+ minute miles, how many more could I log and still have a shot at sub-4? To be honest, though, this wasn’t my primary concern as everything now felt like it was working against me: the heat, the hills, the final 10K of a marathon, the many hours spent on foot the day before viewing the Falls from both the Zimbabwe and Zambia sides. And of course there was the little issue of the 87 km I’d run two weeks earlier…

No, at this point I needed to focus all my energy on simply finishing this race while enjoying the final two miles of my Africa experience as much as possible. Easy to say when you’re sitting at home writing a blog post, tougher to do in the moment when you’re suffering mightily.

Victoria Falls Marathon elevation chart

Those two sharp downward spikes are Garmin error on the bridge

Just after the 40km marker I caught up to a fellow wearing a familiar cap. “Looking good, Comrades runner!” I encouraged him as I passed, to which he responded, “Man, this is killing me!” Clearly the Ultimate Human Race was still extracting its pound of flesh from us all.

The “2 KM TO THE FINISH —>” sign was followed by a sharp right turn and more consternation at seeing the road ahead of us leading uphill yet again. I’d been hoping we might finish the second half of the race the same way we’d closed out the first, with a speedy descent that carried us through the finish line.

On the contrary, there would be no more downhills, no more joyful children, no more snorting elephants to keep me motivated and moving, only raw will and determination to get… this… thing… done.

The density of runners increased as the marathon and half marathon courses merged one last time. Everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion now, and essentially they were—these remaining half marathoners were now approaching the 3½ hour mark, so they were in no hurry to reach the finish.

Mike Sohaskey at Victoria Falls Marathon finish

Entering the finish chute

One final right turn led us onto the grounds of the Victoria Falls Primary School where finishers and spectators milled about as race officials tried to prevent them from strolling into the path of oncoming runners. My sole focus now was on finding the finish line, and I used the last of my energy reserves to weave around these folks and onto the grass track where I saw the blue finish arch—nowhere.

Where was that fucking arch?

Clearly it was close—I heard the music blasting and saw the crowds of happy finishers celebrating on the grass as I circled the cricket field slowly, like a hungry but exhausted shark. Glancing back I saw the finish arch at last, positioned at the end of a spiral path leading me back the way I’d just come. This was definitely the 0.2 of the 26.2 miles and an appropriately sadistic finish to an unforgettable challenge.

The sponsor flags seemed to salute me as I passed, the finish chute feeling like a red carpet as I dragged my spent body across the line. As relieved as I was to be done, I was equally ecstatic at what came next. Glancing down at my Garmin I saw an unofficial finish time of 3:58:19 staring back at me (official time 3:58:12). Somehow I’d done it—I’d kept my streak of sub-4 road marathons intact, in the process accomplishing my one and only real goal of the day.

And I have an agitated pachyderm to thank for it.

Mike Sohaskey with Victoria Falls Marathon sign
Out of Africa
With my second African finish in the books I gratefully accepted my finisher’s medal and tanktop, both still in their protective plastic bags. And maybe it’s just me, but being handed a medal that’s still in its baggie after running 26.2 miles is always a letdown—I much prefer the pomp and circumstance of having a volunteer hang it around my neck, or at least hand it to me by the ribbon so it feels more like an award than an afterthought.

At that moment I never wanted to run again—I was S-P-E-N-T. Not quite vomit-in-the-bushes, I-may-never-get-comfortable-again spent like at Comrades, but spent enough that the thought of running another step left me woozy. I threw my arms around Katie (as much for support as in celebration) and staggered toward a shaded tent. There I collapsed in a chair and, like a newborn wearing mittens, worked haplessly to open a pouch of chocolate milk. As usual, my post-race stomach wanted only to be left alone.

Exhilaration and body odor filled the air, the winter sun continuing its assault on the packed cricket field. Moments later I heard my name announced over the PA, presumably a delayed congrats for having finished a tough but gratifying race.

Mike Sohaskey - I love Vic Falls
The music played on as the announcer continued to congratulate finishers, including one fun run finisher who was greeted with “Congrats on taking so long to join us!” The field was a sea of red and blue, and it was cool to see so many happy finishers all sporting their race apparel in unison. The mayor of Victoria Falls said a few scripted words, a representative from Econet (the title sponsor) reinforced the company’s commitment to the marathon as it continues to grow, and our new friend Gloria accepted her award for finishing in tenth place among female finishers. Then we hobbled out to the dirt parking lot where, after some confusion, we succeeded in flagging down a shuttle to transport us back to the Kingdom Hotel where a lazy afternoon awaited.

And with that it was time to bid Zimbabwe and Africa farewell, but not before we promised to meet again soon. We’d only scratched the surface of what this vast and amazing continent has to offer.

Victoria Falls may not be the largest, or the sexiest, or the most hyped marathon in Africa. But unlike many American marathons, it continues to grow each year and for good reason. No other race on the planet promises immediate proximity to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a potential close encounter of the two-tusked kind. If you’re a Seven Continents hopeful or a traveling runner of any kind, I’d recommend you take a good long look at Vic Falls when planning your African adventure.

And if not? Well tusk, tusk on you.

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho at Victoria Falls Marathon finish line

Traveler’s Tip: If you have a choice, do yourself a favor and avoid intercontinental travel the day after a marathon. Your immune system will already be compromised from the effort, and the physical toll exacted by the race + many hours of cramped quarters and recycled air = an illness waiting to happen. Case in point, fellow SoCal runner Gil ended up in bed for two days with a nasty flu after flying back the day after his impressive 8:40:02 finish at Comrades. And though I was lucky to avoid the same fate, flying from Zimbabwe to Los Angeles the day after the Vic Falls Marathon wasn’t an experience I’d be eager to share.

BOTTOM LINE: Victoria Falls may not be the largest, or the sexiest, or the most hyped marathon in Africa. But unlike many American marathons, it continues to grow each year and for good reason. No other race on the planet promises immediate proximity to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a potential close encounter of the two-tusked kind. If you’re a Seven Continents hopeful or a traveling runner of any kind, I’d recommend you take a good long look at Vic Falls when planning your African adventure.

Other than the initial out-and-back across the bridge alongside the Falls, you won’t have the benefit of head-turning landscapes. The dusty two-loop course lacks compelling scenery, a fact made more conspicuous by having to run it twice. And even in winter, you should plan for a warm day—you can always be pleasantly surprised if cooler temperatures prevail. This is Africa, after all.

And yes, an African elephant (the largest land mammal on the planet) did wander onto the course next to me in mile 14, an encounter that seemed to surprise us both. I’m proud to say I managed to give him clearance and still snap a photo, all without spooking him or soiling myself.

Not the sign you want to see on your 3rd floor elevator after a marathon

PRODUCTION: The organizers do a first-class job of hosting their third-world marathon. The Kingdom Hotel where we and many other runners stayed is a 3-minute walk from the start line, always a huge advantage. Likewise the outdoor expo held at the Kingdom Hotel was pleasantly small and easily navigated. At the expo we were able to sign up for shuttle service from the finish line back to the hotel on race day. And though shuttle service at the finish line at Vic Falls Primary School was a bit disorganized, the brief inconvenience was nothing that a bit of patience didn’t resolve.

The course could have used another aid station or two in the closing miles, and maybe a few more buckets of ice in which to store the water sachets. And there weren’t a whole lot of spectators, but then again that’s not really the expectation in a tourist town like Victoria Falls. Besides, I’m pretty sure my ears were still ringing from all the cheering at Comrades, so a low-key but well-supported race was just what this doctor ordered.

Victoria Falls Marathon Expo at Kingdom Hotel

The pre-race expo at the Kingdom Hotel

The course wasn’t closed to traffic, but on sparsely traveled two-lane roads this was never a concern, aside from the clouds of dust kicked up by passing vehicles. Though seeing discarded water sachets being blown into the underbrush by passing trucks was disheartening, and I hope the organizers and volunteers were able to find and collect them before the wildlife did.

SWAG: First time ever I received a finisher’s tanktop (rather than t-shirt), and an attractive one it is—eye-catching red and blue with the race logo emblazoned on front. And it was cool to see everyone wearing theirs at the finish line festival. I’m not a huge “suns out, guns out” guy with my runner’s physique, but I’m sure I’ll find ample use for it in the SoCal heat. The finisher’s medal is also nice, though small and understated, and depicts three (male?) runners with the Falls in the background. And despite its diminutive size, it’s still the largest of my African medals!

Victoria Falls Marathon medal
RaceRaves rating:


FINAL STATS:
June 18, 2017 (start time 6:45am)
26.19 miles in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Finish time & pace: 3:58:12 (first time running the Victoria Falls Marathon), 9:06 min/mile
Finish place: 92 overall, 26/60 in the “Veteran” category
Number of finishers: 276 (201 men, 75 women)
Race weather: cool & cloudy at the start (temp 59°F), warm & sunny at the finish (mid-70s)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 1,421 ft ascent, 1,194 ft descent

Red arrow indicates my elephant encounter and fastest mile

 

 

It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.
– Nelson Mandela

Done_Comrades 2017

Continued from Act 1, which you can read HERE.

Inchanga to Cato Ridge
Rory hadn’t been kidding.

He’d warned me that I’d see it coming. That before I reached it, I’d see the steady stream of runners, like ants on an escalator, switchbacking up, up, up before mercifully disappearing out of sight around the bend. And he’d warned me that this sobering sight, with 47 km in my legs, would be psychologically akin to having my heart ripped from my chest and held high in front of me, Indiana Jones-style.

The moment reminded me of that scene in Breaking Bad when Walter Heisenberg demands of his fellow meth dealer, “SAY MY NAME.”

Inchanga.

It’s the only one of the Big Five whose name alone suggests trouble. And unlike the first three, each of which exacted its pound of flesh, Inchanga isn’t happy with physical retribution—it has to play mind games with its victims too, like a cat batting around a trapped mouse. As it turns out, I was lucky to have glimpsed only the section I did, because unlike Cowies or Fields or Botha’s, the climb up Inchanga seemed to last forever, one blind curve after another. I know it’s not the longest of the Big Five (that’s Fields), and I know it’s not the steepest (that’s Botha’s), but damn if it’s not the most punishing.

Are we there yet? Are we there yet? asked the backseat driver in my brain.

I was so preoccupied with my own misery that I forgot to keep an eye out for Bruce Fordyce, who had told us he’d be (and apparently he was) cheering on runners near the top of Inchanga. A 9-time winner of the world’s most prestigious ultramarathon, offering support to slow-footed newbies like me. At what other sporting event will you find that?

Mile 30 down Inchanga

View from the other side of Inchanga, 39 km to go

But Bruce has always been different. In 1981, with South Africa under an international sporting boycott and the race losing some of its luster, he won Comrades for the first time while wearing a black armband to protest the 20th anniversary celebrations of the apartheid government. He’s since called his show of defiance “one of the proudest moments in my life”.

Not surprisingly, Inchanga saddled me with my first 12-minute mile of the day, not counting my mile spent with Katie and Rory. The monster not only ate into my time, but more importantly as it turns out, tackling it with the sun high in a cloudless sky took more out of me than I knew. All hope of my stomach handling solid food for the rest of the race was gone, and I spent the next 3 km of downhill running trying to regroup.

By the time we summited the next short climb I was dragging, another chewed-up-and-spit-out victim of Inchanga’s wrath. So the timing was perfect to pass the Ethembeni School for the Physically Disabled and Visually Impaired.

At the expo two days earlier we’d stopped by the Ethembeni booth, made a donation and chatted with the headmaster who’d been manning the booth. And he’d given me a beaded bracelet created by the students to show their support for the runners. The bracelet, he explained, comprised 87 beads grouped by color (black, blue, white and yellow), one bead for each km of the Comrades route. Not only that, but the number of beads in each colored grouping represented the number of km between each cutoff point along the course, with larger black beads separating the different groups to signify each cutoff point, as well as the start/finish line. A clever and meaningful design.

Ethembeni bracelet_cutoffs

My race-day inspiration from the Ethembeni School

I wore the bracelet now, and seeing the earnest, smiling faces lining the street with tiny hands extended, I felt a surge of adrenaline and swerved to my right, determined not to miss a single high-five. The Ethembeni School was a highlight of my day and a crucial pick-me-up just when I needed it the most. Suck it up healthy guy, stop walking and get going.

The spectators along the course kept me moving forward as well. Comrades spectators are insanely supportive, and not just in a clap-politely-as-the-runners-go-by sort of way. I’ve never run a race where the spectators ask, in all seriousness, “What can I get you? What do you need?” And though I never took anyone up on their offer, I got the sense that some folks, if I’d asked, would have dragged a mattress out of their house and cooked lunch for me while I slept.

It’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand: 92 years strong, Comrades is inextricably woven into the fabric of the nation. South Africans embrace their national race with a passion, a pride and an intelligence I haven’t seen anywhere else, with the possible exception of Boston.

And speaking of intelligence, I was starting to doubt mine. We were now out in the countryside (i.e. No Man’s Land) between urban centers, the winter sun beating down on us, my stomach rejecting all my nutritional advances and the walk breaks getting longer and more frequent.

I was now snagging two water sachets at each aid station—one I’d sip from and then pour down my back while holding onto the other like a security blanket. I appreciated the sachets because they were easy to carry after opening, without spilling. Between the heat and the jostling, though, the water in the sachets warmed up to an unappealing temperature in no time.

Ironically but not surprisingly, the short stretch through Harrison Flats really wasn’t. The name is curious, since “Harrison Hills” has such a nice ring to it and would feel right at home along the Comrades course. I had to assume whoever named it had a wicked sense of humor. Or maybe “flat” is a relative term, with Inchanga on one side and Polly Shortts on the other?

32 km to go.

Cruising along

There’s daylight under that there foot! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Cato Ridge: When the going gets tough…
My second Katie and Rory sighting couldn’t have come at a better time. With 25 km to go I dropped my hydration pack on the curb and collapsed alongside it for a couple of minutes, sipping some water and gathering my wits. It was good to escape the maelstrom, if only for a moment. The pack had become an albatross, with food I couldn’t eat and Tailwind I couldn’t drink. Plus, my core muscles were tight from carrying it and taking too many shallow breaths. It was time for us to part ways.

A sub-9 bus passed as I sat on the curb, watching the steady stream of runners flow past. Which perked me up, even though I knew a Bill Rowan (sub-9) finish was off the board. As much respect as I have for those who run Comrades, I’m even more in awe of those who pace Comrades. As if there weren’t enough stress in finishing your own race (and there is), as a pacer you have to finish 87 km within a certain time, while leading other runners who are putting their race in your hands (and feet). Talk about pressure.

9-hour Comrades bus

A 9-hour bus (see the yellow “SUB-9:00” sign?) rolls toward the finish in Pietermaritzburg

“You can walk it in from here and still collect a medal, mate,” Rory reassured me. Which actually was reassuring, though also motivating since I had no intention of walking it in. Sub-10 remained my goal, though I knew the next 25 km would be my slowest of the day.

I took a couple of deep breaths, told Katie and Rory I’d see them at the finish, and rejoined the flow as spectators on both sides of the road screamed their approval. Immediately I enjoyed the benefits of discarding the pack: my core relaxed, and the water I poured down my back cooled me more efficiently as my shirt was able to move in the breeze. And as with the first time I’d seen them I enjoyed a surge of energy, clocking my first sub-10-minute mile in over an hour.

Let’s just call what came next the “Beatdown in Camperdown”. Luckily the smell of the local chicken farm wasn’t as strong as I’d anticipated, and in fact wasn’t nearly as off-putting as the secondhand smoke from the occasional outdoor grill along the course, the thick haze hanging in the air and impossible to avoid.

Based on Norrie Williamson’s course analysis, these should have been the “CRUISE” miles of the up run—the relatively level stretch during which strategic runners, having tackled the first half of the race conservatively, now shift into cruise control, run comfortably and make up time. This sunny outlook, however, fails to take into account the real sunniness: the cumulative effects of the African sun (even a winter sun) on a cloudless day. With temperatures reaching into the 80s, heat exposure and a recalcitrant stomach replaced uphill climbing as the primary culprits of my mounting fatigue.

7 mantras of Comrades up run

Norrie Williamson‘s 7 stages of the Comrades up run, from the pre-race expo

“NO WALKING BY MY HOUSE” read one fellow’s handmade sign, arguably the highlight of Camperdown. I saw few memorable spectator signs at Comrades, though admittedly my brain was in standby mode for about the last 40K. I do remember the sign promising that “ZUMA FLATTENED POLLYS” (referring to South African President Jacob Zuma and the last of the Big Five, Polly Shortts). And the woman with the “YOU = AWESOME” sign seemed to be everywhere; I saw her at least three times on the course.

Shuffling along slowly but surely with 23 km to go, I heard a familiar voice behind me: “Hey there, stranger.” I glanced back as fellow Stanford alum John from Anchorage pulled up alongside me. John and I had run the densely packed Durban Parkrun as a shakeout session the morning before, chatting comfortably and taking our time. As happy as I was to see him now, though, this wasn’t good news. John had qualified for Boston with a marathon time in the low 3-hour range, and he’d set a goal of a sub-8:30 finish for Comrades.

Turns out Comrades is no Parkrun. Apparently John had started strong and run smoothly up until the-hill-that-must-not-be-named (ok, Inchanga), where his calves had seized up. Since that point he’d been reduced to walking much of the course, with frequent stops at the medical tents for a roadside massage. We ran and walked together for a couple of km, and I was hoping we’d be able to hang with each other to the finish.

But it wasn’t to be. At one point I turned to say something and… John had disappeared. I glanced behind me but, not seeing him, I assumed he’d stopped for more treatment. Silently I wished him a speedy recovery and pushed forward, one slow-footed step at a time.

Mike_John 65 km

Joined by comrade John from Anchorage (right), 23 km to go (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

John was by no means alone. As the miles piled up, the medical tents kept increasingly busy. Cramping and exhausted runners stopped for treatment, some settling for having their legs sprayed with a topical analgesic to numb the pain. My buddy Gil saw one runner asleep under a tree. For these folks the goal was to reach the finish line in Pietermaritzburg, by any means necessary.

Luckily, as tired as I was, I wasn’t cramping and I wasn’t hurting physically. And unless I have a bone sticking out of my leg, I want to be able to feel everything that’s going on in my body during a race. So I bypassed the menthol mist clouds and kept pushing forward.

The stretch from Inchanga to Polly Shortts felt interminable, like a blog post with no end in sight. Had some prankster moved the km markers farther apart? Every km now felt like a mile and every uphill required some degree of walking, which I tried to avoid on the downhills.

I now followed the same pattern at every aid station: two waters and either a cup of Coke or a sachet of Energade. Sometimes I’d try both in a desperate attempt to appease my stubborn body. Like a junkie craving his next fix, I was chasing the sugar dragon from one Coke to the next, one Energade to the next, trying to find some form of easy fuel to keep me going. And never with much success.

Luckily I’d been training my body for several months to run well on its own fat stores as fuel, so this wasn’t a “sugar or bust” situation. But it sure would have helped. Meanwhile, I carried an unopened water sachet with me between aid stations, as though fearful I might burst into flames at any moment. Rarely did I drink it—it was almost instantly warm, after all—but instead dropped it into the ice bin at the next aid station.

And about those aid stations: without a doubt, the volunteers at Comrades are some of the best in the world. The demands on these folks are unrelenting, with a job description that includes standing out in the heat for hours at a time, a steady stream of insatiable zombies bearing down on them with arms outstretched and hands open in anticipation. And yet every volunteer carried out their assignment masterfully, with grace, aplomb and always an encouraging or helpful word. All damn day, without even a medal to show for their efforts.

The Ultimate Human Race owes its success and reputation, in large part, to the ultimate race volunteers.

With my mind searching vainly for its happy place, I thought about Coach Lindsey Parry’s suggested mantras for this stage of the race: “Tired but strong.” “Uncomfortable but strong.” “Challenged but strong.” In each case, he was half right.

21 km to go.

Camperdown traffic

Parked cars line the exit ramp in Camperdown

Catching the bus: Gunning for Polly Shortts
Passing the “21 km to go” sign, I felt my first sense of relief that yes, the end was in sight. A half marathon was a very runnable distance, never mind the fact I had nearly 25% of the course still to run. A long 25%.

“Cold cream soda!” offered an aid station volunteer. Still in search of a friendly sugar kick I accepted his offer, willing to overlook the fact that the liquid was bright green. One sip later, I knew I’d made a poor decision.

Likewise with water. This is tough to imagine if you’re not a runner—and maybe even for most runners—but thanks to the heat, my body had reached the point where even water had somehow lost its appeal. Not unless it was ice-cold and cascading down my back.

By the time we reached the course’s highest point at Umlaas Rd (2,700 ft, 17 km to go), I was racking up 11-minute miles like mosquito bites in the jungle. The landscape on either side of us remained decidedly rural, the countryside rudely interrupted by the occasional transformer tower. Here the fifth cutoff mat awaited, another small step toward victory in our inextricable march toward Pietermaritzburg.

Spider-Man

Comrades tests the hero in all of us

Crossing under the N3 for the final time, I saw a sign that in my frazzled state made me want to laugh and cry in the same breath. “← N3 Durban” it read, pointing back in the direction we’d come. Not right now, thank you.

Somewhere in the hot, nondescript and seemingly interminable stretch between Inchanga and Polly Shortts, the muscles around my heart began to tighten. I guessed this was due to my taking short, gasping breaths rather than deep productive ones, and I slowed my pace even more to try to regulate my breathing and ease the discomfort. I’ll run through myriad aches and pains without complaint—most runners will—but the one organ that’s off-limits is the heart. Any discomfort in or around my chest, and I start listening to my body bigly.

The tightness around my chest reduced me to a power shuffle, though fortunately the discomfort would fade after several slow, deep breaths. From there the tightness would come and go the rest of the way, slowing me to a fast walk with each appearance. It’s possible I could have powered through it, but why risk it? I had no intention of doing anything stupid (says the guy running 87 km in 80+ degree heat) to jeopardize my reaching the finish.

Would now be a good time to mention I run to stay healthy?

Polly Shortts may be the last of the Big Five, but try telling that to its protective sister, Little Pollys. At nearly 2 km in length Little Pollys is decidedly shorter than its big sister, and yet 76 km into the race it definitely leaves an impression. Luckily I knew it was coming and so had primed myself mentally, even as I was breaking down physically.

Little Pollys is the perfect example of one of the up run’s nasty unsung hills. Like any ultramarathon, Comrades will punish you psychologically if you let it. On the other hand, take the time to study the course and appreciate the potential landmines beyond just the Big Five, and you’ll win half the battle before you ever leave Durban. Knowledge is power. Respect the hills, don’t fear the hills.

Cruising through Ashburton with about 10 km to go, the 10-hour bus caught and passed me. It was an impressive size, a creature of almost military precision, its leader regularly barking out start and stop commands to his attentive tribe. At that point I had a painful decision to make, and I made it quickly. It wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable, and it would require me to empty the tank and then some—but ten hours was the limit of what I was willing to concede. It was time to dig deep and do whatever needed to be done to stay ahead of the 10-hour hopefuls. Seizing the opportunity I leapfrogged the group on their next walk break, extending my lead as we approached the last celebrity obstacle between us and glory: Polly Shortts.

10 km to go.

Mthembu wins

Bongmusa Mthembu wins the 2017 Comrades Marathon (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Polly Shortts to Scottsville Racecourse (finish)
PinkDrive, an organization similar to Planned Parenthood in the U.S., had set up their inflatable pink arch and high-energy aid station at the base of Polly Shortts, providing runners with much-needed hydration and momentum for the final big climb of the day.

Sticking to my script I grabbed water and Energade sachets—for liquid courage, if nothing else. Then I launched myself up Pollys, intending to follow Rory’s advice to run four cat’s eyes and walk two. Unfortunately many of the cat’s eyes were missing, and so I was forced to improvise on the steep grade, running where I could and walking where I couldn’t. All the while I remained keenly aware of the 10-hour bus in my rearview mirror.

Polly’s may be steep, she may be the last serious speed bump on the way to Pietermaritzburg, but for runners who attack her smartly she comes too late to inflict a fatal blow. Like a Venus flytrap, however, she lies in wait for slower victims, devouring those who fail to reach her summit—and the course’s final cutoff point—within 11 hours and ten minutes.

Rescue Bus 62 km

Luckily I steered clear of the famous (and infamous) rescue bus, which awaits runners who miss a cutoff

Late in the race even the spectators seemed to grow quiet, as though unsure how to respond to the zombie death march they were witnessing. Running an entire km at a time felt like a major victory. Each time I stopped to walk I would feel my bladder control waning and think That’s it, I’m not going to be able to start running again. And yet somehow each time I was able to pick up my feet and pick up the pace, while gradually extending my lead over the 10-hour bus.

I’d stopped Garmin-gazing hours before, and the bus was my only clue that a 10-hour finish was still within reach. As long as it was on pace…

One oversight I didn’t understand was the lack of aid stations after the 83 km mark. I really could’ve used at least one more, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Those last 4 km were infinite enough without constantly scanning for the next aid station that never appeared.

Damn, was I glad these were km and not mile markers.

One last overpass and we entered the residential neighborhoods of Scottsville. One fellow offered us a beer while another stood in the road, his garden hose trained on passing runners. I veered toward the latter, the cold water hitting me squarely in the face for an invigorating pick-me-up that would propel me to the finish.

Passing the “1 km to go” sign I flipped the mental switch tiredly into “victory lap” mode, knowing much of that final km would be run inside the stadium. Sure enough, moments later I glanced up to see the Scottsville Racecourse welcoming me home, its shaded entrance tunnel like the gaping, defanged mouth of the beast I’d come to vanquish. I entered the stadium like a conquering hero returning home from battle—though not before the course played its final sadistic hand, a quick downhill-then-uphill jag into the stadium and onto the grass track.

Slowly I followed the curve of the track, conflicting emotions gripping my head and heart. As much as my mind wanted to bask in the moment and savor its once-in-a-lifetime significance, my body was good and ready to be done. Where’s the finish arch? Two turns later, it finally came into view in all its bright red glor—.

I sensed it almost instantly, a wave of WTF? washing over me. Something about the scene wasn’t right. A moment later I realized what was up: the arch was too small; there was too much open space beyond it. And the runners ahead of me weren’t stopping.

Camille Herron winner2

Women’s champ Camille Herron of Oklahoma accepts a giant check for her giant effort

Turns out this Trojan Horse of a finish arch was actually a spectator bridge set up to allow finishers after the race to cross over from one side of the stadium to the other. And I wasn’t the only one to mistake it for the real thing. Apparently Camille Herron, the women’s winner, stopped running and started celebrating after crossing under the bridge, nearly giving race officials and horrified spectators a collective heart attack before a fellow runner urged her on to the finish. Herron’s near miss evoked memories of last year’s Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles, where women’s champion Amy Cragg and men’s third-place finisher Jared Ward each stopped short of the finish before recovering in time to avoid an historic blunder.

Luckily I didn’t have much time to ponder the indecency of this deception. One final turn and there it was, directly ahead of me and as vivid, as beautiful as anything I’d ever seen. What immediately caught my eye were the four words I’d been chasing for nearly ten hours: COMRADES MARATHON FINISH 2017.

Finishing time

Sub-10 hours!

The green finish arch stood larger than life, dressed for the occasion in green & white balloons and ready to accept me into the Comrades family. Me. Hardly the heroic paradigm for a Mad Max movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel, by no means an elite athlete or desert warrior, and endowed with unbronzeable skin that efficiently converts the sun’s rays into an unsightly sunburn. I was on the verge of joining Bart Yasso and so many others as one of the few, the proud—the freaks!

Spectator-filled bleachers lined each side of the home stretch, and tiredly I shot a thumbs-up in the air as I heard a female voice—though not Katie, whose own voice was still recovering from strep throat—yell my name. I assumed in the moment this was directed at me, since unlike the U.S. every third male in South Africa isn’t named “Mike.” And I’d discover later the voice belonged to Anchorage John’s wife Rochene, who’d been tracking my progress all day.

I wish I could remember my thoughts as I pumped my fists and crossed under the finish arch in a triumphant 9:52:55. Wish I had something poetic and profound to share, shimmering words that would punctuate the most amazing day I’ve ever spent on a race course. Honestly, though, with my mind and body running on fumes, I’m pretty sure my analysis in that shining moment went something like, Me done big race.

I crossed the finish line and stopped—I can stop! And just stand here! And there I stood for a moment, luxuriating in my lack of forward progress. I tried to gather my thoughts, only to find my brain deliciously devoid of gatherable thoughts. Then I shuffled forward through the finish chute, basking in the moment, clinging to it as though it were a newborn child.

0 km to go.

Finish line exhaustion

Some pictures are worth more than 1,000 words (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Izokuthoba: It will humble you
Volunteers presented me with a Comrades logo patch, yellow rose and bronze finisher’s medal, the latter in recognition of a sub-11-hour finish.

The Comrades medal is arguably the most coveted in all of racing; ironically it may also be the smallest, at roughly the size of an American quarter. But as someone who’s been around the block galaxy a few times once said, “Size matters not”. It’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And if I were to clear out my wall at home to make room for just one medal, Comrades would be it. Though admittedly, if push came to shove, I may just weld my Boston and Comrades medals together and hang them as one.

All rose no thorn

“YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose! YOU get a rose!” (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I emerged from the finish chute to see Katie and Rory waiting, faces beaming as though they’d both run the last 87 km with me. And for all intents and purposes they had. Because no one conquers Comrades alone. Without Rory’s selfless generosity and Katie’s unwavering support, my first Comrades would not have been the apex of my running career.

Immediately I dropped to one knee and presented Katie with the rose, thanking her for sticking by my side through another unforgettable adventure. Little did she realize this seemingly heartfelt gesture was my worn-out way of asking her to hold the flower for me while I rested.

The three of us exchanged hugs and I proudly showed off what Bruce Fordyce calls the “limp of pride,” slowly following Katie and Rory to the field o’ finishers. The scene resembled a MASH unit with exhausted bodies reclining, slumped over and sprawled out across the grass. Wow, that looks comfy, I thought with real envy as EMTs carried away on flexible stretchers the spent bodies of fellow finishers, most of them looking tired but comfortable. On any other day that would be a ride I’d avoid, but today…

Recovery time

Clearly the heat had taken its toll, with post-race accounts of debilitating leg cramps, gastrointestinal distress and finish-line collapses requiring IV intervention. Roughly 2.6% of the field (~440 runners) were treated in the medical tent, most for dehydration. According to one fellow finisher who ended up in the hospital for a post-race IV (and who highly recommended it), the attending physicians there treated 17 Comrades finishers as Code Reds, meaning life-or-death situations. Luckily the story has a happy ending, as all finishers eventually left the hospital under their own power. The official medical statistics for the day can be found HERE.

I lay on my back in the cool grass, ankles sticky with dried Energade, blankly staring up at something I’d not seen all day: clouds. Suddenly the sickening stench of cigarette smoke inflamed my nostrils, and bitterly I glanced over to see a non-runner puffing away nearby, seemingly oblivious to what he was doing and where he was doing it. Had I been able to move, I might have recommended he go find a more appropriate place to showcase his nicotine addiction, say maybe an emphysema clinic.

I lay there, trying to get comfortable but with little success. This had happened before, most notably after the 2012 Mt Diablo 50K and 2013 Harding Hustle 50K, both run in scorching heat. My body was so drained and so exhausted that no matter what position I tried—standing, sitting, kneeling, slouching or splayed out on the grass—I couldn’t get comfortable. In hindsight I probably would’ve benefitted from an IV, but barring that I just kept reminding myself, Every minute is another minute closer to being comfortable.

“Fucking Inchanga,” I muttered up at Rory through clenched eyes, playfully acknowledging the validity of his warning. He laughed, pleased to admit another member into the eternal brotherhood of Comrades runners humbled by one mighty hill.

Mike_Katie_Rory_Victory

A wave of nausea passed over me and I leaned forward, fertilizing a row of bushes with what little liquid remained in my stomach. As feisty as my stomach can be, it hadn’t turned itself inside-out after a race since the Pikes Peak Ascent in 2010. Immediately I felt better. “Drink up and stay hydrated,” advised another finisher who’d witnessed this unfortunate exchange. I did what I could to heed his advice; my body, however, still refused to cooperate.

That night at dinner I’d discover, to my chagrin, that even my upper palate hurt—you know, that soft tissue in the roof of your mouth that contributes nothing to forward motion? You know you’ve reached a low point when your palate hurts. I could only assume the bruising sensation had something to do with the pressurized jet of cold water and Energade that had been hitting it all day long. Unless someone has a better explanation, which I’d love to hear.

As I lay motionless in the grass like a garden hose, Katie headed toward the international tent to find something for me to drink. There she bumped into John and Rochene. In response to her queries about his well-being, John simply smiled and patted her shoulder. He was too exhausted to speak and too immobilized by his locked-up calves to move. Despite persistent cramping he’d stayed the course and finished in a very respectable 10:26:48, impressive considering the battle he’d waged in the second half of the race. I spoke with a lot of runners after the race whose “A” goals, like mine and John’s, were defeated by the heat and hills (being a first-timer who lives 10,000 miles away didn’t help, either).

And speaking of goals: next time (yes, I said it) I’ll run higher-mileage weeks to train for Comrades. This year, leading up to the Eugene Marathon in May, I’d focused on speed rather than endurance, and had averaged fewer than 40 miles per week in March and April as a result. I wasn’t concerned because I’d intentionally built a strong aerobic base in 2016, but more miles at a slower pace would have been a more race-appropriate training plan.

Finally it was time—I had to move. I wasn’t about to miss the spectacle that is the Comrades 12-hour cutoff. The final moments of the race are broadcast across the country as the entire nation tunes in to watch the human drama unfold. Gingerly I climbed the bleachers, “We Will Rock You” by Queen blasting from the loudspeakers and the uncaring clock ticking up toward 12 hours. Exhausted runners streamed through the finish line now, the crowds resembling a Walmart on Black Friday. A 12-hour bus led its charges home triumphantly.

I don’t recall where I read it, but apparently half of all Comrades finishers cross the line in the final hour.

With the sun having set and the light fading rapidly, so too were the chances of those still out on the course. Europe replaced Queen with “The Final Countdown” as the last few hopefuls circled the stadium in a desperate struggle to reach the finish. The moment was electric, and I felt my whole body—already exhausted from my own struggle—tense up with nervous anticipation. This felt like the Roman Coliseum, and I half expected the PA announcer to bellow, “RELEASE THE LIONS!”

Except that this was more compelling theater. Frantically the hoarse, disembodied voice counted down the closing seconds until, at 12 hours sharp, hope collided with reality and a living, breathing wall of volunteers swung into place, blocking the finish line and denying access to horrified runners just meters from the finish.

And just like that, the 2017 Comrades Marathon was over. All at once, it felt like someone had let the air out of the stadium.

When the dust settled, 13,852 of the 17,031 starters (81% male, 19% female) reached the finish line within the 12-hour time limit, an 81% success rate. Bongmusa Mthembu of South Africa crossed the finish line first in a time of 5:35:34, while Camille Herron of Oklahoma won the women’s division in 6:27:35, becoming the first American champion—man or woman—since Ann Trason in 1997. Three weeks later, Ryan Sandes would turn the tables by becoming the first South African to win America’s most prestigious ultramarathon, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

But as Norrie Williamson points out, the real heroes of this race aren’t the front-runners or middle-of-the-packers—they’re the 11- and 12-hour warriors who find themselves at a disadvantage before they even cross the start line, and for whom “Every step forward” isn’t advice so much as it is necessity.

The singular charisma of Comrades is evident in the number of runners with more than 10, more than 20, more than 30 finishes. Gil, a fellow SoCal who earned a Bill Rowan medal this year in his first Comrades, is already making plans to return—and not just next year, but for eight more years after that until he earns his own green number. Sure, his may be the most expensive green number in history by the time he’s done… but that’s the seduction of Comrades.

And it’s not just the most successful runners who fall under its spell. At the pre-race reception for international athletes I met one fellow from the UK who’d run Comrades seven times, despite only completing the race three times and never finishing an up run. Yet there he was, gamely preparing for his fourth shot at the up run because, as Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

South Africa, with a population roughly equivalent to California and New York state combined, attracts over 20,000 registrants for its signature event. Which makes me wonder whether an event like Comrades could work here in the states. Surprisingly, there’s nothing like it in the U.S.—sure we have huge marathons like Chicago and New York City, but most of our ultramarathons are run on trails. And our largest 50-miler, the JFK 50 Mile, had a paltry 753 finishers last year. Granted Comrades has 92 years of history on its side, and the JFK 50 (founded 42 years after Comrades) intentionally limits the size of its field to 1,250 entrants. But still—1,250 is a far cry from 20,000.

Many Americans know someone who’s qualified for and/or run the Boston Marathon. Boston is an event that’s held in high regard here, as only the best of the best run it. For South Africans, though, Comrades is a way of life. Across the country, the easiest way to start a conversation is to wear your Comrades gear, or mention that you’ve run the race. Everyone seems connected to the event in some way—either they’ve run it themselves, or have a family member who’s run it, or know someone who’s gotten it done. And everyone has a story to tell. If I ever decide to write a book but feel too lazy to come up with a topic, I can always gather 50 South Africans in a room, turn on the recorder and say “Comrades. GO.” I guarantee what comes out of it will be compelling.

By pure serendipity we had the opportunity to meet another South African legend, controversial sports physiologist, prolific author and Comrades guru Dr. Tim Noakes, on our flight to Cape Town later that week. Dr. Noakes and his wife Marilyn were extremely affable when I introduced myself, and we bonded quickly over my scientific background and first Comrades finish. I was a bit starstruck—after all, his Bible-like tome The Lore of Running occupies a prominent position on our bookshelf at home. And Tim Noakes, along with Bruce Fordyce and golfer Gary Player, is a member of the Holy Trinity of South African sport. So fortuitously bumping into Dr. Noakes was the perfect way to punctuate our first visit to South Africa.

Tim Noakes_Mike

Meeting Tim Noakes in the Cape Town airport

As a recreational runner, there’s no title I’ll wear more proudly than “Comrades finisher”. Something very special happens between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, a personal transformation invisible to the naked eye, and you won’t cross that finish line the same person who started the race. Comrades will challenge you. It will humble you. It will take all you’ve got. It will build you up and break you down, only to build you back up again. It will teach you lessons about yourself that you may or may not want to learn. It’s a raw, uncensored, powerful experience. It’s the Ultimate Human Race. And there’s nothing else like it in the world.

So if you’re a runner, ask yourself: Do I have the mettle to earn this medal? If the answer is yes, then the most rewarding race experience of your life awaits in South Africa. At what other race does crossing the finish line qualify you for a place on its Wall of Honour?

Admittedly, I’m now eyeing the back-to-back medal that second-time finishers receive for running the up and down runs in consecutive years. After all, I may be feeling good about myself, but I’m still subject to the immutable laws of nature.

And what goes up, must come down.

Us_Comrades finish

Celebrating the bronze


Survive & Thrive: Eight tips for conquering the Comrades Marathon up run

1) Self-discipline is the key—don’t start too fast. If you find yourself running comfortably in the first few km, you’re probably going too fast.

2) Nothing new on race day—this goes for gear and nutrition. One possible exception is the official Comrades cap you’ll receive at the expo, though I opted against that too.

3) Dial in your nutrition early, before the day heats up and your stomach goes rogue.

4) Don’t underestimate the heat—Much will be made of the 2,500 ft of net climbing in the first half, and for good reason… but don’t discount the beatdown awaiting you courtesy of heat & sun exposure in the second half. International runners, this means you.

5) Focus on your breathing—when the going gets tough, deep breaths with a regular “inhale for 3 steps, exhale for 4 steps” cadence can help you relax and regain a sense of control.

6) Every step forward—if your primary focus is to finish within 12 hours, every step you take should bring you one step closer to the finish. And don’t stop moving at aid stations.

7) Expect the unexpected—e.g. John’s nasty battle with calf cramps—and be ready to adapt.

8) Stay positive—when you’ve got nothing left to give, give a smile (I read that on the sidewalk at the Eugene Marathon).

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

  • Lindsey Parry’s podcast “RUN with Coach Parry”—especially its archives—is a treasure trove of expertise and insights from the official Comrades coach; older episodes are less than ten minutes each, so you can listen to several at a time. Coach Parry also has some very good content on YouTube.
  • Norrie Williamson, 19-time finisher and official course measurer, recently relaunched his website; the current content is a bit outdated, but his Comrades calculator will give you a reliable sense for your projected finish time based on training mileage and recent performances.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them yet, both volumes of his “Fordyce Diaries”—Conquering the Up as well as Tackling a Down Run—are available as e-books exclusively on the site. If anyone can teach you to conquer Comrades, it’s the man who won it nine times!
  • Our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades and for our post-race travels in South Africa.
Bruce_Mike_Katie

Meeting 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce at the reception for international runners

BOTTOM LINE: Comrades is like no other running event in the world. It’s an audacious nickname to be sure, but the event lives up to its billing as “The Ultimate Human Race.” I’ve used the phrase “once in a lifetime” twice to describe races: once for the Antarctica Marathon and now for my first Comrades experience. And it’s that experience that keeps its finishers coming back 10, 20, 30, in some cases 40 times. I’d love to return to Boston someday, but I feel compelled to return to Comrades. This race will challenge you, it will inspire you, it will humble you. But most of all, it will change you.

They say you never forget your first. And now I get it.

The name says it all (though not the “Marathon” part, since the race itself is over 50 miles): you don’t run Comrades for the t-shirt and medal, though those are sweet perks. You run for the camaraderie and the community. You run to celebrate the spirit of brotherhood and humanity that unite us all—what the Zulu culture calls ubuntu. You run because there are no strangers between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, only friends you haven’t met yet. And you run to be part of something much bigger than yourself—17,000+ runners from 73 countries, all in pursuit of a common goal, all speaking a common language. The language of Comrades.

Mike Sohaskey with Comrades Marathon course sign

Comrades route closure placard, signed by Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn

Unless you’re among the last-minute finishers or hooked up to an IV in the medical tent, the Comrades experience doesn’t end once you cross the finish line. Watching from the bleachers at the Scottsville Racecourse as the final few finishers struggled to beat the countdown to the 12-hour cutoff was one of the most gripping human dramas I’ve ever witnessed.

For prospective Comrades runners, if you have questions about any aspect of the race I’m sure Rory would be happy to answer them. He’s a fantastic ambassador and a wealth of information on all things Comrades, having crossed the finish line 12 times and earned a green number. Plus, he’s an incredibly generous and genuinely nice guy who knows pretty much everyone involved with the race.

PRODUCTION: Race production was flawless, as evidenced by the start corrals with 17,000 runners all crossing the line within eight minutes. And Comrades wouldn’t be the best race in the world without the best volunteers in the world. From packet pickup to on-course support to the unenviable job of forming a human wall at the 12-hour cutoff, the volunteers are as critical to the success of the race as the runners themselves. The difference being, they don’t take home a medal for their efforts.

The pre-race expo is so large, it even has its own food court. Rows upon rows of exhibitors, retailers, lounges, improvised stages and even massage stations filled the Durban Exhibition Centre. I’d recommend hitting the expo on Thursday or Friday to avoid the Saturday crush, since you don’t want to be on your feet any longer than necessary the day before the race. Separate lounge areas exist for newbies (“novices”), international runners and Green Number Club members to pull up a chair, grab a snack and chat with fellow runners while escaping the crowds. And international runners enjoy another underrated perk at the expo: a dedicated packet pickup line, which saved huge time by allowing me to bypass the Disneyland-length line of South African runners waiting to pick up their own packets. Seriously, the line looked like the wait for Space Mountain. International runners at Comrades are definitely treated like first-class citizens.

Comrades registration lines

The expo packet pickup lines for South Africans (top) and internationals (bottom)

Speaking of which, Thursday evening also featured a highly recommended reception for international runners at a local hotel. The reception was well worth attending, as we met runners from around the globe as well as 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce and Cheryl Winn, the 1982 women’s winner and current Comrades Marathon Association Vice-Chair. Yet another benefit to being an international runner!

If you have a limited amount of time at the expo, I’d recommend you attend the back-to-back presentations at the Old Mutual tent by Lindsey Parry (the official Comrades coach) and Norrie Williamson (19-time finisher and official course measurer). Each man shares valuable expertise, insights and guidance to help you prepare for race day, along with pace bands that are either free (in Williamson’s case) or which can be purchased for a nominal fee (in Parry’s case, which turned out to be a smart call since Williamson’s bands were quickly snatched up by the “If it’s free, gimme three!” crowd). Coach Parry’s pace bands are temporary tattoos you can affix to your forearm, as I did on race day to track my progress.

SWAG: The smallest medal in road racing may also be the most coveted. With 92 years of history behind it, there’s a singular power and beauty to the quarter-sized medallion on its simple black-and-yellow ribbon. As I said above, it’s not the size of the medal you earn, it’s the size of the mettle that earned it. And when you’re the best in the world, you don’t need to change for anyone. I could go on to gush about the cool race t-shirt and wicking runner’s cap, but that’s hardly going to sway your decision on whether to run the Ultimate Human Race.

Comrades bronze medal

RaceRaves rating:

RaceRaves-rating

FINAL STATS:
June 4, 2017 (start time 5:30am, sunrise 6:45am)
88 km (54.5 miles) from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (Continent #4)
Finish time & pace: 9:52:55 (first time running Comrades), 10:53/mile
Finish place: 4,191 overall, 1,427/4,273 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 13,852 (11,151 men, 2,699 women)
Race weather: cool & clear at the start (temp 52°F), hot & sunny (low 80s) throughout
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 5,732 ft ascent, 3,712 ft descent

Comrades 2017 splits

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2017 Comrades Marathon expo

I felt it in my stomach, powerful and resonant, its sonic boom awakening the pre-race butterflies like a sudden gust of wind.

I felt it on my skin, the chill of goosebumps cascading like dominos along my arms and down the back of my neck.

I felt it in my head, the last vestiges of denial evaporating like sweat in the pre-dawn darkness. This is happening.

Nothing drives home the reality of Comrades like “Shosholoza”.

I’d heard South Africa’s “second national anthem” before. Watched start line videos like my own below, trying to appreciate how the Ndebele mining song’s vocal harmonies would sound—and feel—on race day. And honestly, I thought I’d prepared myself for the moment.

I thought wrong. “Shosholoza” hit me like the oncoming steam train whose sound it evokes. I held my iPhone aloft, capturing the surreal scene, a panoply of emotions dancing across the 17,000 faces lost in their last-second thoughts or softly singing along. The air in the start corral strained under a pungent mix of body odor and human electricity, the latter more than enough if called upon to power the harsh floodlights illuminating the start line.

Despite the cool morning, I was sweating—unusual for me, but then again I’d started sweating the moment I’d woken up around 2:00am, pulse rate elevated and nerves firing like I’d taken a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart, Pulp Fiction-style. I’d started chugging water immediately to try to counteract my body’s overactive sweat glands. There are few ideas worse than crossing the start line at Comrades already dehydrated.

The sea of faces was much darker and more masculine than I was accustomed to from American races—not surprising for a South African race with over 93% African representation. (Fun fact: Ethiopia, home to many of the world’s elite distance runners, sent only one runner to this year’s race). This was my first time in Africa, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to christen my 4th continent than by accepting the challenge of the Ultimate Human Race.

All of us stood in quiet deference as “Shosholoza” expanded to fill the silence around City Hall. All 17,031 of us, citizens of 73 nations speaking who-knows-how-many languages. All of us united in our common goal and in our common desire to see one another achieve that goal.

All of us Comrades.

2017 Comrades Marathon Start line VIP view

Start-line perspective from the VIP seats: that’s Rory front & center with glasses

Case in point, a simple but meaningful gesture: moments before, the race announcer had instructed all of us in the start corral to turn to the individuals on our left and on our right, shake their hand and wish them good luck. It was a heartening display of sportsmanship, one that reminded us we’d be competing for much more than a finisher’s medal over the next 12 hours.

Ironically, no race in the world gets its name more right or more wrong than the Comrades Marathon. First run in 1921, the event was the brainchild of World War I veteran Vic Clapham, who wanted to create a unique test of physical endurance to commemorate his fellow South African soldiers killed in the war and to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. Clapham envisioned a grueling physical and mental challenge, yet at the same time one accessible to any well-trained recreational athlete. Now in its 92nd year, the race has succeeded beyond its founder’s wildest dreams.

On the other hand, Clapham apparently wasn’t a stickler for details, at least when it came to naming his event. This distinction may seem trivial to non-runners, but a “marathon” by definition is 26.2 miles (42.2 km), much like a day is 24 hours or a ton is 2,000 pounds. Comrades, by contrast, is the world’s largest ultramarathon and over double the distance of a standard marathon. The course changes slightly each year, with this year’s course leading its runners nearly 54 miles (87 km) from the coastal city of Durban to the capital city of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, Pietermaritzburg.

So calling Comrades a “marathon” is a bit like calling Godzilla a “lizard.”

Durban view from Southern Sun Elangeni (for Comrades Marathon)

View of the Durban coastline from our hotel room at the Southern Sun Elangeni

My earliest recollection of the race was a 2010 Runner’s World feature on running icon Bart Yasso, who after a debilitating battle with Lyme Disease chose Comrades as his last official race. Trying to wrap my mind around the concept, I came away from the RW article with a Mad Max-meets-Cormac McCarthy sense of Comrades as an event for elite athletes and uber-fit desert warriors whose bronzed skin could convert the sun’s heat directly into raw physical energy. Ninety km in less than 12 hours? Who were these freaks?? I wasn’t immediately smitten because, well, Comrades was clearly way beyond my abilities—I’d yet to even run a marathon at that point. But the article stayed with me.

Fast forward to March 2013. Katie and I stand on the deck of the Russian research vessel the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, both of us speechless as we soak in our first view of Antarctica. A tall, good-looking fellow in a heavy jacket and pajama pants strolls up alongside us, sharing in our wonderment. The three of us get to talking—he has an awesome accent which adds to his charisma—and we learn he’s from South Africa.

The conversation naturally turns to running (we’re there to run the Antarctica Marathon, after all), and Rory regales us with entertaining tales of his favorite race back home, the absurdly challenging Comrades Marathon. I’m familiar with the race, though do I know anyone who’s actually run it? I’m not sure. In any case, it’s clear from the fire in his eyes and his animated tone that Comrades is Rory’s pride and joy—so much so that he’s completed the race a mind-boggling 12 times. Ten finishes was enough to earn him what’s known as a Comrades “green number,” which is now his to keep and which he can even bequeath to his three sons in his will.

Meeting someone who’d not only attempted Comrades but who’d completed it, and who’d not only completed it but done so 12 times, lubricated the gears in my brain and brought them spinning to life. For the first time the idea of Comrades—of someone like me running Comrades—started to make sense.

Fast forward to 2016. We’d stayed in contact with Rory, broken bread together during one of his business trips to Los Angeles, and learned he’d been head of security for President Nelson Mandela before starting his own private security firm in South Africa, with clients around the world. Meanwhile, the seed he’d planted in my brain that day on the Vavilov had blossomed into an uncontrollable weed. I’d committed to fly more than halfway around the world to run the longest foot race of my life. And Rory, upon hearing the news, had generously offered to host us during our stay. Of course we’d jumped at his offer.

I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

2017 Comrades Marathon motto – Zinikele

Zinikele: Give it all you’ve got
“Shosholoza” followed the South African national anthem and segued seamlessly into the timeless piano of “Chariots of Fire.” More goosebumps. The restless crowd around me remained still; the butterflies in my stomach did not. I distracted myself by recalling the “Count-Down” instructions from the 1961 race, which we’d received with our souvenir magazine. These included:

4.50 a.m.: Have your last cigarette.
5.15 a.m.: Amble along to the start.
5.54 a.m.: Make sure you join in with a hearty cheer for the Mayor.
5:59 a.m.: Be good boys and smile nicely for the Press, they are some of the best friends we have got.

Like some blog posts, a little “Chariots of Fire” goes a long way, and two minutes later Vangelis’ heroic score was quickly getting on my overwrought nerves. Okay okay I’m inspired already, how many times does this repeat?

View of Corral B at start of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Bird’s-eye view of Corral B (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Just as I started to think Vangelis himself had taken over the controls, the music faded. A brief hush was followed by the amplified sounds of a rooster crowing—actually, not a rooster, but the recorded tones of Max Trimborn, who at the Comrades start line in 1948 nervously let loose with his rendition of a crowing rooster (such is the anticipation of running 90 km). By popular demand, Max continued the tradition until his death in 1985, and to this day his recorded rooster crow starts every Comrades Marathon.

Like the first notes of a rock concert, which release the hounds of adrenaline and bring the crowd to its feet, Max’s cock-a-doodle-doo elicited pent-up cheers from the restless throngs. And the ensuing crack of a gunshot, fired promptly at 5:30am, opened the floodgates for the tidal wave of runners to pour through, red and white confetti raining down on the heads of the speedy runners in corral A.

Hurry up and wait, I thought as we pressed together, shuffling en masse toward the start line. There was a method to this madness: Comrades requires a qualifying time—for the marathon distance this is sub-5 hours—and runners are seeded in one of eight alphabetical start corrals according to that qualifying time, faster runners at the front (starting with corral “A”) and slower runners at the back (ending with corral “H”). I’d earned a solid corral C seeding with my 3:31 finish at January’s Louisiana Marathon.

As we crossed the start mat I glanced down at my Garmin: 1:58. Off to a good start, just two minutes lost.

Comrades is both cruel and unusual in many respects. One is the timing of the event. In most races, your official time starts not when the starter’s pistol fires (known as “gun time”) but rather when a timing chip on your bib number or shoe sends a signal that you’ve physically crossed the start line (known as “chip time”). Chip time is what matters, not gun time. In this way, slower runners who start closer to the back are not penalized the extra time it takes them to reach the start line.

Not so at Comrades. The race has a strict 12-hour time limit (a 13:20/mile pace this year); everyone’s time starts with the opening gunshot and ends when they cross the finish line mat. Add to that the race’s seeding system, which starts faster runners toward the front and slower runners toward the back, and you create a tense situation in which those runners who most need the extra time—the slower runners in corrals G & H—have already lost valuable minutes by the time they reach the start line.

Luckily the start corrals flow as smoothly as any in racing, inspired in part by the fear of gun time. It typically takes no more than eight minutes for everyone to cross the start line.

Comrades 2017 had begun, and we were all on the clock. We passed the VIP tent where, thanks to Rory’s connections, he and Katie stood watching the start with Comrades officials and celebrities, including 9-time winner Bruce Fordyce. I thought of the race’s one-word slogan: Zinikele, a Zulu word meaning “Give it all you’ve got”. I intended to do just that.

87 km to go. T-minus 12 hours to euphoria or heartbreak.

Zinikele_GoogleTranslate

Google-ese translation of “Zinikele”—not the best slogan for when the going gets tough.

Farewell to Durban
Once clear of the start line, the stampede of runners surged forward through urban Durban, its downtown district nondescript in the early morning darkness. I split my focus between the other runners and the asphalt in front of me, taking care not to step on the back of someone’s foot and end my day before it had begun.

A fellow to my right dropped his water bottle, the unfortunate container barely striking the asphalt before someone inadvertently kicked it, sending it careening off another runner’s ankle like a pinball and skittering out of view underfoot. The rapid-fire sequence reminded me of the puck drop in a hockey face-off.

The compressed crowds worked to my advantage by preventing me from going out too fast, a huge no-no in a race like Comrades. In fact, it’s the one piece of advice you’ll hear repeated most often around the expo and throughout race weekend. I’d listened to enough podcasts and pre-race advice to have the concept of patience drilled into me. So I knew there’d be no shot of me flying out of the chute with my hair on fire.

Respect the distance, don’t fear the distance.

The KISS (Keep It Slow, Stupid) rule is solid strategy for almost any ultramarathon, but particularly for this year’s Comrades Marathon. Why? Because another cruel and unusual aspect of this race is the course.

Unlike other races which typically use the same route every year, in alternate years the Comrades course reverses direction between Durban at sea level and Pietermaritzburg at an elevation of 2,100ft. So whereas this year’s race started in Durban and ended in Pietermaritzburg, next year the opposite will be true. For obvious reasons, the route from Durban to Pietermaritzburg with its 2,100ft of net elevation gain is labeled the “up” run, while the opposite direction is known (cleverly enough) as the “down” run.

2017 Comrades Marathon up run elevation profile

Course elevation profile for the 2017 Comrades up run

Many Comrades coaches and veterans will tell you that the first 42 km of the “up” run is the toughest road marathon you’ll ever run—and that your immediate reward for conquering those 42 km is another marathon and change to the finish. This is a grueling concept both mentally and physically, and I understood that while my performance in the first 37 km wouldn’t necessarily make my race, it could very easily break it.

“Essentially, the ‘up’ run is all about self-control,” writes he who would know best, 9-time champion Bruce Fordyce. “And this control has to be exercised in the first half.”

I’d chosen the “up” run based on Rory’s advice. Apparently, as exhausting as the steady climb from Durban to Pietermaritzburg can be, the uphill struggle is far preferable to the discomfort of descending those same hills with 50 km already in your legs. Downhill running damages the leg muscles like nothing else, and requires a whole different type of training than uphill running. So by reversing the direction of the route, the Comrades organizers essentially create a whole new race.

And speaking of hills—while big-game hunters dream lustily of Africa’s Big Five (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino), Comrades runners have nightmares of a different Big Five. These are the five most notorious hills along the route, and they eschew muscular monikers like “Heartbreak Hill” and “Widowmaker” in favor of more dignified, understated names: Cowies Hill, Fields Hill, Botha’s Hill, Inchanga and Polly Shortts. And yet despite their innocuous names, each of the Big Five makes Boston’s Newton Hills look like zits on a lion’s back.

Comrades veterans will tell you that while the hills themselves are bad enough, it’s their placement along the course that will have you talking to yourself. Three of the Big Five (Cowies Hill, Fields Hill and Botha’s Hill) await in the first 37 km of the “up” route, with Inchanga positioned just after the halfway point and Polly Shortts just before the 80 km mark, the last real climb before the finish.

Bruce Fordyse-Katie-Rory Steyn Comrades Marathon VIP seating

Bruce Fordyce, Katie and Rory enjoy the VIP seats

But as intimidating as the prospect of tackling them on race day can be, it’s important to appreciate that the Big Five aren’t the only hills on the Comrades course—and in some cases they’re not even the worst. As I’d quickly learn, just because it doesn’t have a name doesn’t mean it can’t kick your ass. Comrades is like death by a thousand cuts, with a few machete blows thrown in for good measure. And for many runners, the line between success and failure is razor-thin.

Given the course’s unusual length (54 miles) and the oversized reputation of the Big Five, it didn’t feel natural to divide the route mentally into five 10-milers as I had at last year’s Ice Age Trail 50; rather, I couldn’t help but break it down in my head as six stretches of variable distance separated by each of the Big Five.

We left the city streets of Durban via the on-ramp to the N3 highway and soon after began our first test of the day, the steady climb toward the Tollgate Bridge. Here I remembered Comrades coach and official course measurer Norrie Williamson’s advice from the expo two days earlier. He’d called Tollgate the first “reality check” of the day, telling us that over 80% of runners will start too fast and destroy their best time by Tollgate.

And I could see why. The climb up to Tollgate is gentle enough to be deceiving, yet steep enough to do real damage to the reckless runner. With early adrenaline on your side, it would be all too easy to find yourself powering up the gentle climb toward Tollgate’s double arches. And by the time you realize you’ve made a mistake, it’s too late.

83 km to go.

Tollgate to Cowies Hill
Walk once before the sun rises, Rory had advised. And so I took 30 seconds to slow down on my way up to Tollgate, my mind protesting this early white flag. We walking already? Really, tough guy?

Pacing groups at Comrades are known as “buses”, and I hoped to stick close to the 9-hour bus throughout the race. Glancing to my left I saw the 10:30 bus pass me and realized that, if anything, I may have started out too cautiously. Which was fine with me—I had 80+ km to make up the difference. Energy wasted now was energy I wouldn’t have later. Once that muscle glycogen burns, it’s gone and you’re not getting it back.

On my forearms were tattooed two pace charts, which I’d purchased at the expo from Comrades coach Lindsey Parry: one outlining a 9-hour finish (my “A” goal) and the other a 10-hour finish (my “B” goal). Needless to say, my “C” goal was to get across the finish line in less than 12 hours, and by any means necessary. Flying 17,000 miles just to earn a DNF (Did Not Finish) was not an option.

“I reached my 10,000 steps!” shouted a voice in the darkness to my right.

2017 Comrades Marathon 9- and 10-hr pacing bands

The “A” goal (left) and the “B” goal (right)

I accelerated slightly to put the 10:30 bus behind me and sipped at the Tailwind (sports drink) in my hydration pack. I’d elected to wear the pack for at least the first half of the race, in part so I’d have a steady supply of Tailwind to sip on, but also to carry the baby food pouches and PB&J sandwiches I’d prepared the night before.

I could always drop the pack with Katie and Rory along the course, but I was reluctant to disregard the most battle-tested piece of racing advice: nothing new on race day. Nougat bars and biscuits hadn’t struck me as appealing aid station fare, and my own menu of snacks had served me well at the Ice Age Trail 50. So I wasn’t about to reinvent the wheel—though as it turned out, I’d end up having to fix a flat tire or two along the way.

C’est la vie. It’s the ultrarunner’s mantra: Expect the unexpected. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And it’s up to you to make it right.

Just past Tollgate we reached the first of what would be 46 aid stations. I’d heard it said that the Comrades aid stations are so long, you can look up from the end of one and see the beginning of the next. Turns out this is fake news—there’s plenty of space between aid stations, particularly later in the race when you need them most.

Which brings us to the water sachets. I know some folks—particularly Americans who aren’t used to them—deem the drink sachets to be another cruel and unusual element of Comrades. But I actually preferred them. The sachets are small plastic pouches filled with water or Energade (the South African equivalent of Gatorade), and you use your teeth to tear open the sachet to access the liquid. After one or two tries at biting open a water sachet on the run, you’ll be a pro.

In the early miles, the sachets provided not just hydration but also entertainment. Seeing newbies bite open a sachet awkwardly only to take a full spray of water in the face, I couldn’t help but laugh. And the occasional {POP} of someone stepping on an unopened sachet in the darkness was like the occasional firework. I stepped on a couple myself, dousing my ankles in water and Energade.

Congrats on 45 Comrades Marathons sign

WOW, congrats indeed Louis! (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Exiting the wide highway surface of the N3, we downsized to the more narrow, two-lane M13 (Jan Smuts Highway). I was happy to trade in excess elbow room for a more tree-lined stretch of road, though I’d been warned about the “cat’s eyes” (reflectors) between lanes, which are easy to trip over in the dark.

My pre-race hydration began to take its toll, and I ducked into a porta-potty on the side of the road, emerging less than a minute later to see the 9-hour bus pass me by, leading a large group of runners. Huh? Apparently I wasn’t the only one trying to figure out my pacing in the early going.

We made our way through Westville as the sun peeked above the horizon, transitioning onto the Old Main Road that connects Durban and Pietemaritzburg. Palm trees lined the road, and coming from SoCal I felt right at home. In general, South Africa is a very easy country to travel in as an American—most of its people speak English, the street signs are in English and the weather (particularly in the winter) is temperate.

“Hey there Michael, where you coming from?” asked a voice behind me in a South African accent—or was I now the one with the accent? It took me two heartbeats to catch up to the question and realize it was directed at me, my blue bib number on front and back announcing me as an international runner with exactly zero zilch zip nil nada Comrades finishes.

“California,” I responded. “United States,” I followed up quickly, not wanting to come across as that ugly American who expects all the world’s citizens to know where California is. I chatted with my new friend—a South African native and 6-time finisher—for a few seconds, and he and I wished each other luck on the journey to Pietermaritzburg.

Even the bib numbers at Comrades are fraught with meaning. White bibs identify South Africans, blue bibs international runners. Not only that, but yellow bibs identify Comrades veterans who have completed the race nine times and are competing for their green number. And green bibs, of course, are for those who have already achieved that feat. The bibs also list your start corral and the number of Comrades medals you’ve earned.

In a race as grueling as Comrades, you take motivation anywhere you can get it. And all along the course as the going got tough, I found strong motivation in the runners with 10+ or 20+ finishes on their bibs, chugging along purposefully. If they can do this 20 times, I can damn well do it once.

The best thing that can be said about the first 15 km of the up run is that, barring the occasional undulation, the climb is so gradual and consistent that after a while you hardly notice your own steady battle against gravity.

73 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey's bib for 2017 Comrades Marathon

Cowies Hill to Fields Hill
At last we reached the base of Cowies Hill. With the sun rising and the first of the Big Five stretching ahead of me, I felt like Comrades had officially begun. Passing the road sign announcing Cowies, I glanced up to see a steady stream of runners flowing up the hill. I forced myself to power walk for another minute as I snapped a photo. Then I pushed forward, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

After so much time spent hyping up the Big Five in my mind, I was disappointed to discover that its first three members arrive with very little fanfare. The first 37 km of the up run are such a steady ascent, I’m honestly not sure I would have realized we were on Cowies if I hadn’t seen the sign and heard the chatter around me. Cowies will definitely make you work, don’t get me wrong, but it may be more memorable for its subsequent downhill than for the steepness of its ascent.

Base of Cowies Hill at 2017 Comrades Marathon

Powering up Cowies Hill

Powering up Cowies we entered Pinetown, where throngs of spectators stood on both sides of the road, cheering loudly. One of the many amazing and unforgettable aspects of Comrades is the support of the locals—untold numbers of supporters line the course, and I was reminded of Patriots Day in Boston.

A group of strong-voiced young women sang “Shosholoza” a cappella, providing motivation and their own hand-clap accompaniment as we passed.

Cowies is neither the steepest nor the longest of the Big Five, and the mile+ ascent was challenging but doable. Then we were headed back downhill, with sweeping views of Pinetown to our left before the course again leveled out and resumed its ascent.

Shortly after Cowies we passed the first of the six cutoffs along the course—these are designated points that all runners must pass by a certain time, otherwise they’re pulled from the course and disqualified. And I pondered which would be worse: being pulled at the first cutoff of the day, or being pulled at the last.

Channeling my inner toddler, I downed my second baby food pouch of the morning. On longer runs, baby food is easier to digest than sugary gels, since it’s real food. I’d planned on a schedule of one pouch every five miles (8 km), supplemented with Tailwind every mile plus peanut butter & jelly. In this way, I hoped to avoid the aid stations for as long as possible.

Let’s hear it for wishful thinking.

The stretch through the commercial sector of Pinetown, with its businesses and car dealerships, was fairly uneventful. A generous but deluded spectator offered runners his jug of whiskey, the fellow next to me responding in a gentlemanly South African accent: “Ah, fuck you mate.”

Runners in Toyota Zone at 2017 Comrades Marathon

You never run alone at Comrades (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Continuing on the Old Main Road, the commercial, industrial and residential scenery struck me as wholly familiar: Pinetown could easily be blue-collar America.

Then it was back onto the M13 where the longest of the Big Five awaited. An official race km marker announced Fields Hill ahead, and I almost felt like a patient waiting for the doctor. Fields Hills will see you now, sir.

Fields Hill is the longest of the Big Five, and I honestly couldn’t tell you where it ends. Nor apparently can the organizers—look at the official Comrades elevation map above, and you’ll see an arrow pointing into the middle of a steady ascent with the label “Top of Fields Hill”. I do know I was running and power-walking up that sumabitch for too long—though again, I had such great expectations for the Big Five that it really didn’t feel so bad once I got on it.

Here I followed another sound piece of advice from Comrades coaches Parry and Williamson: I tried to keep my effort (rather than my pace) steady as we wound our way up and around the hill toward the summit.

I was also distracted by the fact that I’d expected to see Katie and Rory at the base of Fields Hill, around the 20 km mark where we’d planned to meet. Once we began our ascent I continued to keep an eye out for them, with no success. Finally I pulled out my phone and texted Katie on the fly. “61 km to go! Where are you?” Then a few minutes later, “60 km to go! Phone’s going off.” No overages on the international data plan, please.

I speak of “km to go” because the distance markers are yet another cruel and unusual aspect of Comrades. The markers are big and red and easy to see from far away, all of which I appreciated. But rather than celebrating how far you’ve come, the distance markers at Comrades confirm how much farther you still have to go. Psychologically, it’s daunting to be reminded of distances like 80 km and 70 km so early in the race. And it was only once I passed the “21 km” (= a half marathon) sign late in the day that I started to feel like that light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t another train.

No Katie and no Rory meant no familiar faces. More importantly, though, it meant I’d need to ration my remaining food, since I wasn’t sure if/when I’d see them next. Right around the midway point in Drummond I hoped, and yet I couldn’t be sure. One more baby food pouch plus a peanut butter & jelly sandwich should be enough to last me at least another 20 km… right?

63 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running strong at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

I was one of the few runners wearing a pack (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Fields Hill to Botha’s Hill
By the time we reached Kloof, the sun was starting to flex its muscle in a cloudless sky. The day was shaping up to be warmer than forecast, a consistent breeze providing some respite from the heat. A relatively level stretch followed Fields Hill and led us through shaded, tree-lined neighborhoods. With the mounting heat and frequent palm trees, I got a sense of running in either Hawaii or Florida.

One thing I noticed as the km ticked off: none of the runners around me had wires dangling from their ears. Some of these folks would be out here lost in their own thoughts for nearly 12 hours, and yet none of them wore earbuds. Because Comrades demands (and deserves) every ounce of mental and physical focus you’ve got, and experiencing it from under earbuds would be like attending your own wedding while hopped up on pain meds.

59km marker at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

(photo: Jetline Action Photo)

Checking the pace bands on each forearm, I realized I was slightly ahead of schedule for a 9-hour finish, despite taking things slow to this point. I continued to churn out ten-minute miles through Gillitts and Hillcrest, the latter disappointing me with its abundance of hills and lack of crests.

Even if you knew nothing about the race itself, you’d still notice a common theme along the Comrades route: many of the towns and landmarks have “hill” in their name. Crazy coincidence, that.

My focus now was on getting to the 37 km mark, where the course leveled out. And all that stood between me and that goal was Botha’s Hill.

Like Cowies and Fields, Botha’s arrived with little fanfare. But it was steep and winding and nearly 3 km long, not to mention it had the sun on its side. Once again steady effort plus a bit of power-walking carried me to the top, where the shade of tree cover awaited us. So too did the well-dressed boys of Kearsney College, a private boarding school founded (like Comrades itself) in 1921 and located at the top of Botha’s Hill. Maybe it was my mindset coming off the hill, but none of Kearsney’s finest seemed particularly psyched on a hot day to be greeting a bunch of sweaty runners while dressed in a suit and tie.

And with that I’d reached the 37 km mark, the toughest miles of the Comrades up run in my rearview mirror. My rush of accomplishment, though, quickly yielded to sobering reality. Pietermaritzburg was still 50 km away. And the sun was still climbing in the sky.

50 km to go.

Mile 25 view of Alverstone at the 2017 Comrades Marathon

View overlooking Alverstone, 47 km to go

Botha’s Hill to Drummond
With the majority of the climbing behind us, the course continued to roll for the next couple of miles before treating us to our first extended downhill, the largely unshaded descent into Drummond. Here I was psyched to see Katie and Rory for the first time. I’d polished off my last baby food pouch several miles earlier and had tried a bite of my peanut butter & jelly. Bad idea—the consistency was like paste, and even with plenty of water to wash it down, my body had instantly rejected the idea.

Rory flagged me down, and I pulled over to catch my breath and refill my hydration pack before reluctantly moving on. With the heat intensifying I could tell my body was circling the wagons, approaching its Tailwind limit and with no appetite for either baby food or peanut butter. Even so, I decided to carry my pack until at least the 25 km-to-go mark, when I’d see them again.

My brief pitstop invigorated me, and I rode a surge of energy downhill into Drummond. Approaching the up run’s de facto halfway point, we passed two key landmarks on the Comrades course: the Wall of Honour and Arthur’s Seat.

Rory Steyn and Mike Sohaskey at Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour

Getting inspired by Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Wall of Honour

If you’re planning to run Comrades, take some time before or after the race to visit the Comrades Marathon Wall of Honour (you’ll likely be too rushed and too tired to appreciate it on race day). Erected along the side of the road just before Drummond, The Wall is a collection of plaques set in individual stones and decorated with the names of past finishers, along with their bib numbers. Yellow plaques signify runners with between one and nine finishes, while green plaques identify those who have earned green numbers. Best of all, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy a plaque to be displayed on the Wall.

The Wall of Honour is a remarkable and ever-changing tribute to human endurance and to 92 years of Comrades finishers. And we were fortunate to have a host in Rory who drove us out to the Wall the night before the race, so we could take the time to appreciate it without having to commit to the official pre-race course tour.

Speaking of the course tour—the notion of spending several hours aboard a bouncy school bus, a captive audience for 87 km worth of ups and downs, sounded about as appealing as running the route with my laces tied together. I was intimidated enough by the hills without seeing them ahead of time, and I was more than happy to experience the entire course for the first time on race day.

Just past the Wall of Honour on the uphill is a small sign that, if you’re running with your head down or lost in thought, you could easily miss. The sign reads “Arthur’s Seat” and points left across the street. Carved out of the rock embankment along the road is a shallow recess where 5-time Comrades champion Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his runs. Legend has it that Comrades runners who greet Arthur and place flowers on his seat during the race will enjoy a strong second half.

“Good morning, Arthur” I greeted the former champ tiredly, tapping the rock face along with other runners and snapping a picture before continuing on my way. Superstition or not, this wasn’t the time to be taking chances.

Paying homage to Arthur's Seat at Comrades Marathon

Runners say “good morning” at Arthur’s Seat

I continued to chat intermittently with fellow runners, most of them from South Africa. With more than a marathon in our legs, none of the conversations were particularly deep, but I enjoyed meeting both veterans and first-timers as well as congratulating several 9-time finishers on their impending green numbers.

Glancing down at my pace tattoo, I saw I needed to reach Drummond in 4 hours, 35 minutes to stay on pace for a 9-hour finish. I glanced at my watch as we passed the third cutoff point: 4:28. So far, so good—not too fast, not too slow.

My 9-hour goal wasn’t an arbitrary one. Because another unique (and some might attest, cruel and unusual) aspect of Comrades is the finisher’s medal. The first thing you’ll notice is that the medal is likely the smallest you’ll ever receive, at roughly the size of a quarter. At the same time not all the medals are created equal, with different medals being awarded based on finish time.

The first ten finishers are awarded a Gold medal. Runners who finish out of the top ten but in less than six hours receive the Wally Hayward medal (silver center with gold ring), named after the 5-time Comrades winner who, in 1989 at age 80, also became the race’s oldest finisher in a time of 10:58:03.

Runners who finish in greater than six hours but less than 7:30 earn a silver medal, while runners who finish in greater than 7:30 but less than nine hours—my “A” goal—earn the Bill Rowan medal (a silver center with a bronze ring), named for the first winner of the Comrades Marathon who finished the race in 8 hours, 59 minutes.

A sizable gap separates the final two classes of medal recipients. Runners finishing in greater than nine but less than 11 hours receive a bronze medal, while the Vic Clapham medal (copper) goes to survivors who cross the finish line before the 12-hour cutoff.

Mike Sohaskey at Drummond halfway point of 2017 Comrades Marathon

Halfway home in Drummond—we look like synchronized runners (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

As if running 87 km weren’t enough to test your limits, competing to earn a particular medal (in my case, the Bill Rowan) adds to both the excitement and stress of the race—excitement for those who set realistic goals, stress for those who try to do too much. And heartbreak is all too frequent. Rory had recounted the story of his 2003 down run, when he’d missed his Bill Rowan by 12 seconds and had watched in horror as the puff of smoke from the 9-hour gun went off meters away from him.

According to Coach Norrie Williamson’s Comrades calculator, nine hours was a realistic goal based on my recent finish times. Given the travel and the heat, though, I knew Bill Rowan was a best-case scenario. Had the race been held in Southern California, that would have been a different story. But since I’m much better at running the ups than the downs, I figured I owed it to myself to give it a shot in this, an up year.

Cruising through Drummond, there was no missing the halfway point—it was rocking, the scene decked out in purple and gold with an inflatable arch, banners lining the course, music pumping, spectators screaming and an announcer greeting runners like we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. The raw energy was overwhelming but a definite pick-me-up. And I wish I’d had more time to appreciate it. There was some relief in knowing we were halfway home, but with still more than a marathon to go the relief was short-lived.

Then we were on our way again. “Welcome to the Valley of 1,000 Hills!” someone shouted. There it was again, another landmark with the word “hill” in it. And hadn’t we run that many already?

If I’d known about the one hill that awaited us, though, I might have opted for the other 1,000 instead.

42 km to go.

Concluded in Act 2

2017 Comrades Marathon New Balance shoes

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

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.

Boston 2 Big Sur swag_bch

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


RaceRaves
rating:

raceraves-review_bch
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

bsim-splits_bch

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
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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