Posts Tagged ‘road marathon’

A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky.
Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse Monument Oct 2011

The devil, we’re told, is in the details.  In which case some readers may deem me a practicing Satanist.  In an effort to document the races I run for myself and like-minded runners, I prefer to err on the side of ample detail.  Creating and writing this blog hasn’t necessarily changed how I observe and absorb the world around me, but it has given my brain a more compelling reason to do so.  I now appreciate the importance not just of seeing but of noticing – noteworthy facts, amusing details, poignant behaviors.  The stuff that makes every race – and even the most ho-hum training run – unique from every other.

BC&H was born after my near-literal meltdown on Mt. Diablo in April 2012.  More recently, though, in considering the 44 races of varying distances (including four marathons) that I logged prior to Diablo, it struck me that I really should have begun the blog six months earlier.  I should have begun with a race that still ranks among my favorite running experiences, and whose blow-by-blow details remain remarkably vivid in my mind two years later.  I should have begun with the 2011 Run Crazy Horse Marathon.

And so, with the help of Garmin, Google Maps and Katie’s own memory and record-keeping, I’ve decided to put my pre-blog perspicacity to the test, and right this wrong before it gets any wronger.  Besides, I’d hate to look back years from now, once I’ve hopefully medaled in all 50 states and on all 7 continents, and end up kicking myself because I’m left with only vague, surreal memories of an extraordinary weekend in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Here then is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (as I remember it) about marathon #2 in state #2 – inspired by a single-minded sculptor who was every bit as crazy as the legend he sought to immortalize.

The Motive
I live in a scenic warm-weather state full of amazing races.  Why, then, for my second marathon would I travel to the middle of the country to run in a state that most Americans think of (if they think of it at all) as Flyover Land?  A state that too often gets grouped with its northern counterpart under the collective heading of “The Dakotas”?

I’d visited South Dakota nearly a decade earlier, with buddies Pete and Matt on a road trip through several of the less populated states.  Realizing Katie would get a similar charge out of its natural beauty and majestic monuments, I resolved to bring her back with me on a future visit.  Nine years later, while training for the 2011 California International Marathon, I remembered hearing of an October marathon in South Dakota that allowed runners to start from either of the state’s two deftly chiseled mountains, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial or the Crazy Horse Memorial.  That was all I needed to know, to know I’d found my next race.

My interwebs research quickly revealed that the “Monument Challenge” Marathon had been discontinued two years earlier, in 2009.  Fortunately, it had been reborn the following year as the inaugural Run Crazy Horse Marathon.  More importantly, what hadn’t changed was that the two memorials still sat nestled in the Black Hills, only 16 miles apart.

Mt Rushmore - day and night view

The difference between these two is like night and day

So it was that Katie and I found ourselves on Friday flying into South Dakota over the dark, tree-covered terrain that earned the region its Lakota designation – Paha Sapa, or “hills that are black”.  Our flight touched down in Rapid City, which lies in the southwest corner of the state and is its second most populous city after Sioux Falls.  Luckily for us, the timing of race weekend happened to coincide with the final evening lighting ceremony of the year at Mount Rushmore, which was scheduled to start 90 minutes after our plane landed.  So we hit the ground renting (a car, that is) and made the 45-minute drive in time for Katie to witness Mount Rushmore as few visitors do their first time – with the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln slowly emerging out of the Black Hills darkness and into (artificial) light.

Mount Rushmore is one of the few national icons that every American recognizes.  In fact, its façade is so ubiquitous in American culture that you could be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that the real thing couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.  But you’d be wrong.  Seeing those four intricately carved faces gazing like silent sentries from atop the mountain is breathtaking even in broad daylight, against the typical backdrop of visitor traffic and vocal toddlers.  But at night, under dramatic lighting and with life’s usual exhortations muted, the majesty of Mount Rushmore speaks softly and carries a very big stick.

City of Presidents

Rapid City’s “City of Presidents” includes (clockwise from upper left) Franklin Pierce,
James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt
(It’s unclear whether the real Buchanan had a rhino-like horn on his head)

After bidding Mount Rushmore goodbye, we headed back to Rapid City, where we enjoyed a late dinner at Wine Cellar, a local restaurant with the look and feel (if not quite the food) of a Napa Valley bistro.  Our waiter welcomed us with the news that we’d arrived in the midst of an unseasonal heat wave (my 8th grade English teacher would call this foreshadowing).  He also shared his story of how, the previous summer, Guns N’ Roses had dropped by the restaurant for dinner prior to playing the nearby Sturgis Monkey Rock USA Festival, their first U.S. show in four years – and how, in typical Axl Rose fashion, their time to hit the stage had come and gone while the band’s members sat in the restaurant.  I had to smile at the comforting thought that – nearly 20 years after I’d twice experienced that same G N’ R volatility as a college kid in Houston – the more Axl changed, the more he stayed the same.

Saturday began with a short morning run along the Mickelson Trail near our hotel in Hill City (my 8th grade English teacher might point to the town’s name as a second example of foreshadowing).  We then grabbed lunch on Main Street, site of the next day’s finish line.  I would say Hill City looks like a land that time forgot, except I’m not sure the town cares to be remembered.  With business names like the Bumpin Buffalo Bar & Grill, the Mangy Moose Saloon and Broken Arrow Trading Company, Hill City gives the impression of a dusty one- or two-horse town that embraces its Wild West ethos.  Amidst the quaint local shops that line Main Street, the town’s Harley-Davidson dealership offers a nod to the pervasive and freewheeling biker (i.e. motorcycle) culture that puts this region on the national map for one week a year in August.

After lunch we made the quarter-mile walk across town to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Black Hills, where the low-key race expo was housed in one modestly sized room.  We quickly negotiated the 5-10 sponsor booths, with the exception of one booth where a chatty older woman selling alkalinized water bent our ear for several minutes, seemingly delighted to have someone to talk to.

Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011 elevation profile

The elevation profile agrees: the high point of the course was the monument at mile 2

Katie studied the posted list of registered runners and commented on how few out-of-towners would be running the marathon.  Meanwhile, glancing at the course map, I was taken aback to discover a key variable I’d completely overlooked in my twitterpated zeal to revisit the Black Hills: elevation.  Turns out the marathon would begin at 5,919 ft of elevation before reaching its zenith at 6,083 ft (foreshadowing hat trick complete).  But at just over a mile high, I tried to reassure myself, how much of an impact could altitude really have?  After all, I’d gained 7,815 vertical feet to finish the Pikes Peak Ascent at 14,115ft the previous summer – a ludicrous comparison that did absolutely nothing for my confidence.

With race bib and newfound trepidation in hand, we made the 30-minute drive back to Rapid City, where we strolled its impressive downtown “City of Presidents” display of life-size bronze statues honoring all 43 former U.S. Presidents (with Barack Obama in the works).  Collectively, the statues elevate Rapid City from “sleepy town near Mount Rushmore” to “sleepy town with cool historical diversion near Mount Rushmore”.

Feeling like participants in a South Dakota scavenger hunt, we hopped back in the car and returned to Mount Rushmore, where we were able to appreciate the monument in full daylight and from all possible ground angles, via a walking path that leads around the base of the mountain.  At last, the time came to bid Rushmore adieu for the second and final time – Crazy Horse beckoned, and who were we to keep a legend waiting?

Mount Rushmore as framed through a one-lane tunnel on U.S. Route 16A

The Monument
The sprawling horizon was reeling in a rose-hued sun as we pulled into the parking lot of the Crazy Horse Memorial.  Despite being the final listing under the heading of “National Parks and Monuments” on South Dakota’s Wiki page, Crazy Horse is an astonishing testament to one man’s vision, tireless resolve and get-‘er-done-itude.  Except that sadly, it isn’t done… and in fact it’s nowhere close.

The Memorial began life as the passion project of Korczak Ziolkowski, a Boston-born sculptor of Polish descent.  After assisting fellow sculptor Gutzon Borglum in the creation of Mount Rushmore, Korczak returned to the Black Hills in 1947 at age 38 at the invitation of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, who shared his idea for a similar mountain tribute to honor Native Americans.  “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too,” wrote Standing Bear.  Work began and the Crazy Horse Memorial was dedicated on June 3, 1948.

The sheer size and scope of Korczak’s project is mind-boggling.  The sculptor designed his carving of Lakota war leader Crazy Horse, pointing with outstretched arm astride his steed, to be the largest sculpture in the world: upon completion, it would measure 563ft high by 641ft long.  All four heads of Mount Rushmore would easily fit inside Crazy Horse’s own 87½-foot-high head.

Crazy Horse 1/34-size scale model

Sculptor Korczak’s 1/34-size scale model of the finished monument (with the real thing in the background)

Unfortunately, due to Korczak’s insistence that the project subsist entirely on charitable donations and private funding, work on the monument has proceeded at a lugubrious pace, and only the Lakota Chief’s face has so far been completed.  According to the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, Korczak twice refused federal grants of ten million dollars because he wanted his Memorial to be a “humanitarian project built by the interested public and not the taxpayer.”

Korczak’s master plan extends beyond the monument itself, envisioning an entire campus that includes an Indian Museum of North America and the American Indian University and Medical Training Center.  After his death in 1982, Korczak’s wife Ruth along with seven of their ten children took up the mantle and continue to oversee work on the project to this day.  If and when the Memorial might be completed, however, remains anyone’s guess.

So I was happy to support Korczak’s grand vision, and my support began with a pre-race pasta dinner at the Memorial’s Laughing Water Restaurant, followed by a laser light show projected on the monument itself.  Whereas the meal was excellent in its simplicity, the light show was well-meaning but surreal, thanks in part to its ’70s musical choreography.  In particular, “Music Box Dancer” is a discomforting instrumental that would – as bad music is wont to do – spend the rest of the weekend pirouetting its way through my impressionable brain.  Ouch.

Laser light show

The laser light show was projected on the monument itself

The Marathon
On Sunday morning we made the return drive from Hill City to Crazy Horse for the 8:00a.m. marathon start.  With the awakening sun stretching out over the Black Hills and the start area still swathed in shade, the already warm weather brought to mind our waiter’s words from two nights earlier: unseasonal heat wave.  I was wearing the most lightweight tech shirt I owned, carrying a bottle of my usual Cytomax/GU concoction, and hoping most of the course would be adequately shaded.  I might just as well have hoped for Pegasus to swoop down and carry me across the finish line.

I have vague recollections of Native American drum beats playing to start the race and send 700 eager runners on our way toward Hill City.  Beginning from the Memorial Visitors Center, the first 3.5 miles of the course would be run on Memorial grounds.  After initially leading runners away from the monument, the course looped back past the “BLASTING AREA CLOSED TO PUBLIC” sign and to a turnaround point just below the mountain.  Glancing upward yielded an awesome view of Crazy Horse’s meticulously chiseled face.  Then the monument was behind us once again, and the paved course headed downhill and out of the complex to meet up with the region’s famed George S. Mickelson Trail.

Mike Sohaskey running Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

If the mountain won’t run to Muhammad…

The next ten miles, cruising along the crushed limestone and gravel surface of the Mickelson Trail adjacent to U.S. Route 16, infused me with a Bob Marley-like confidence that Every little thing, gonna be all right!  Verdant pines and golden autumn foliage threw wispy shadows across the sun-dappled trail, which periodically traversed a converted railroad bridge.  Adding to my confidence was the trail’s persistent downward trajectory, which enabled me to pass several runners and string together ten relatively easy 8-minute miles.  I resolved to bank time by running comfortably fast on this first-half descent, though not so fast that I risked flaming out before the more demanding second half.

As we approached the midway point of the race, the course transitioned from the comfy packed gravel of the Mickelson Trail onto the asphalt Main Street of downtown Hill City.  Here, across from the Bumpin Buffalo, the inflatable black-and-blue (coincidence?) finisher’s arch greeted joyful half marathoners while spurning the rest of us.  This struck me as the ultimate mind game, forcing the 26.2ers to pass within inches of the finish line while watching our fellow 13.1ers collect their medal and revel in their accomplishment.  The race organizers clearly have a sadistic streak, and even at the time I had to nod my approval.

Mike Sohaskey on Mickelson Trail during Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

Nearing mile 19 on the Mickelson Trail (left), where shetland ponies look on in bemusement (right)

If the first half of the race was the charming Dr. Jekyll, the second half morphed gruesomely into Mr. Hyde.  A hilly 13-mile out-and-back awaited, and the sun’s onslaught intensified as if seizing its opportunity to do some damage along this shade-free stretch.  Katie was waiting as always with a smile and encouragement as the course left Main Street, circled Major Lake and began its punishing ascent toward a reunion with the Mickelson Trail.

Returning to the smooth dirt surface of the Mickelson Trail, my pace gradually slowed.  I was already fighting the twin trials of escalating 80-degree heat and mile-high elevation, and strike three would come in the form of a steady uphill out to the turnaround point at mile 19.6.  The blunt-force reality of the situation hit me along that out-and-back stretch, when I looked up to see the leader and eventual winner – who was headed back in the opposite direction – stopped in his tracks and standing bent over with hands on knees.  That’s not something you want to see at any point in a race, much less before you’ve even reached the turnaround.

Katie had driven to the aid station where Deerfield Rd intersected with the Mickelson Trail, and was waiting to cheer me on just after mile 18.  We traded a few words as I walked through the aid station in an attempt to cool down and rehydrate.  Unfortunately the aid station doubled as a transfer point for the marathon relay – and as annoyances go, there’s little to rival the bouncy, fresh-faced relay runner who starts their race at mile 20 and clearly expects your dragging ass to yield the right-of-way to them as they fly by.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie at finish line of Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

Katie would be front and center on the Mount Rushmore of support crews

By the time I returned to that same aid station 3½ miles later, I was feeling light-headed from the combination of elevation and sun exposure, and also embarrassed that Katie was still there to see me slowly shuffle by like an overheated mule.  Four painfully long miles lay ahead, and as Katie cheered me on with promises to meet at the finish, I reflected bitterly on the FAQ section of the race website:

Will I be affected by the altitude, especially if I am flying from a place at or near sea level?
The short answer is “no,” you won’t be affected.  The slightly longer answer is that any minimal affect from the altitude is offset by the perfect running conditions, cool and dry.

All I want, I told myself more than once, is to finish this race… Crazy Horse ain’t got nothin’ on this insanity.  Suddenly, the Bumpin Buffalo and Mangy Moose felt very far away.  And I couldn’t imagine how the few runners I’d passed must be feeling.  I walked my oxygen-deprived muscles through yet another aid station, dousing myself with water in a futile attempt to revive myself.  By this time my pace had crept up into consistent 10-minute/mile territory (mile 24 even crawled above 11 minutes), and I entered the runner-populated town of Bonk City – a city devoid of homes, offices or even roads, but with only one impassably high Wall encircling the entire city.  And struggle as I might, there was no way I’d be scaling The Wall in my overheated state.

Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011 finish line approach

The shortest distance between two points is NOT this convoluted path to the finish (Google Earth)

I had heat-induced visions of the race organizers surreptitiously extending what now seemed a never-ending stretch of trail.  Damn thing has to end eventually.  And at long long last it did, transitioning back on to now-blessed asphalt.  Wearily I took a few deep breaths as I shuffled my way down that final incline, not daring to look at my Garmin for fear I’d already blown past the four-hour mark.  I reached Main Street and approached the finisher’s arch from the opposite direction.  And whether I was thinking of myself or the finish line, the only two words my sun-addled brain could register were dead ahead.  This time the finish line couldn’t turn me away…

Except it did.  Roughly 50 yards from the finish, we were unexpectedly detoured by a right turn, followed by a quick left that led us down one last 0.1-mile stretch of alleyway parallel to Main Street.  And I’d thought the race organizers were sadistic at mile 13.1.  With that final blow to my psyche, I honestly felt I might collapse in that alleyway, propped up against a fence and unable to stand after running 26.1 miles.  I felt none of the home-stretch euphoria that’s typified every other marathon I’ve run – only a grinding, full-body exhaustion.  But stay upright I did, long enough to make two more quick left turns that led me back to Main Street and across the finish line in a surprisingly triumphant time of 3:55:22.  Turns out my strong first half had more than covered for my shaky second half.

Mike Sohaskey approaching finish of Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011

Desperado may be Lakota for “desperate to finish this race before it kills me”

The Aftermath
Crossing that finish line might have elicited more emotion if my equilibrium hadn’t been in such turmoil.  Gratefully I accepted my ceramic finisher’s medal from a smiling volunteer and, after eschewing (because there’d be no chewing) solid food in favor of a few sips of Powerade, I sprawled out awkwardly on my back on a knee-high brick wall.  The rough brick was only slightly more forgiving than lying on stairs, but at that moment I needed to lie down somewhere I wouldn’t be underfoot.

Fortunately I was able to avoid making any gastric sacrifices to the running gods, but suffice it to say I’ll always have naus-talgic memories of Crazy Horse.

As I lay there trying to regain some sense of normalcy, Katie checked the results and discovered that my sub-four finish had earned me third place in my age group.  For my effort I received a very cool dreamcatcher, which remains the most distinctive award (age group or otherwise) I’ve received to date.

Although my pose – flat on my back with sunglasses shielding my eyes – couldn’t have looked too inviting, another fellow stopped alongside me to ask “Hey how do you like those compression socks do you wear them for all your marathons I tried to wear mine for a 50K a while back but they really messed up my Achilles so now I can’t wear them anymore but I was just wondering how you like ‘em I mean do they give you any problems ‘cuz like I said mine rub my Achilles and…”  Still queasy and getting queasier by the word, I croaked out a weak “They’ve been great.”  This seemed to either satisfy his curiosity or clue him into my plight, because he continued on his way without another word.

Devils Tower photo taken by Mike Sohaskey

Devils Tower was our first national monument (1906), and still is one of many good reasons to visit Wyoming

Eventually I stumbled to my feet and we returned to our nearby hotel, where I collapsed on the bed for another few minutes before dragging myself into the shower.  After checking out we settled on Subway as a safe and familiar lunch option to appease my disgruntled GI tract.  Then it was time to put South Dakota in our rearview mirror, and we were able to admire the not-quite-autumnal textures of the Black Hills one last time as we crossed the border on Interstate 90 into rugged Wyoming.  That evening and the next morning we hiked around Devils Tower, the nation’s first national monument and another awe-inspiring testament to the power and beauty of Flyover Land.

The American philospher George Santayana warned us that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Hopefully one day, in the case of one memorable weekend in the Black Hills, those who can remember it will have that same chance.

Run Crazy Horse Marathon 2011 finishers & age group medals

BOTTOM LINE: The race’s official name says it all – Run Crazy Horse.  The Marathon offers a wicked combination of picturesque beauty, historical context and a challenging course you’ll both love and hate in a span of five miles.  As such, Crazy Horse is a no-brainer for any runner looking to get out, explore a less ballyhooed region of the country and spice up their race catalog.  I appreciate the argument against desecrating nature, but at the same time if you’re going to vandalize a mountain, you’d better have a Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse to show for it.

PRODUCTION: Sadistic though they may be, the organizers of the Run Crazy Horse weekend did a terrific job from start (expo and pre-race dinner) to finish (medals).  The Marathon had the comforting feel of a low-key trail race, yet without any wrong turns or logistical glitches.  Though I carried my own bottle and the details of the aid stations escape me, I recall them being there when I needed water to dump on my head.  As swag goes, the race shirt was a serviceable red short-sleeve tech tee.  But the stars of the show, other than the Memorial itself, were the ceramic finisher’s medal and age-group dreamcatcher, both of which will always evoke the spirit of Crazy Horse and the dedication of those who have toiled to keep his memory alive.

For another perspective, I’d recommend Dan’s eerily similar experience at the 2012 Run Crazy Horse Marathon.

October 2, 2011
26.19 miles from the Crazy Horse Memorial to Hill City, SD (State 2 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:55:22 (first time running the Run Crazy Horse Marathon), 8:59/mile
Finish place: 21/119 overall, 3/9 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: Sunny and unseasonally hot (temperatures reached the low 80s)
Elevation: 5,919ft at the start, 6083ft max

Crazy Horse splits

The marathon can humble you.
Bill Rodgers

Portland Marathon 2013 street banners

First and most important things first… HAPPY 40th BIRTHDAY, KRISTINA!  Please consider this blog post my present to you, in the form of another fun place to take the family.  Though with today being particularly busy, you should feel free to wait to read it until, say, 12:01am tomorrow…

Admittedly I‘m no connoisseur of marathon training programs, but I’d imagine very few recommend the following regimen for weeks 10-12 of a 16-week training cycle:

(From Bart Yasso’s race-tested intermediate marathon-training program, Runner’s World July ’09)

Unfortunately, thanks to a nasty ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon in August, this is exactly what my training Franken-program would look like leading up to the Portland Marathon last Sunday.  Yes, I was acutely aware that cramming in 50-mile weeks was a risky remedy for two weeks on the couch.  But I was equally determined not to go first-time marathoner, fizzling out at mile 20 and death-marching my way across the finish line.

After my first four races this year alternated among rain, snow, ice, extreme heat and darkness – along with a healthy dose of hillage – I was looking forward to my first legitimate opportunity of 2013 to get out and run.  And Portland would be just what this doctor ordered: a largely – though as I’d soon learn, not entirely – flat course under cool, sunny skies.  In fact, Portland would be the coolest running weather I’d experienced since moving to L.A. from the Bay Area in April.  So I was hoping that a summer’s worth of heat training would give me a literal leg up toward a new PR in the Pacific Northwest.  Turns out I really should pay attention to course maps before the race.

I chose Portland as my autumn road marathon for two reasons:  1) Katie and I hadn’t visited the Rose City in over a decade and were eager to return; and 2) Fellow running blogger (runnogger?) Dan, whose goal is to run a half marathon or farther in all 50 states, had chosen this year’s Portland Marathon as his Oregon race.  Dan and I first met after he found my Chicago Marathon post last October, and his blog quickly became a must-read thanks to its fluid style and narrative knack for making the reader feel like a strategic third eye in the middle of his forehead.  Though our physical paths had never crossed (not counting the 2011 Austin Half Marathon, where we apparently finished 72 seconds apart), over the past year I’d watched him morph from 3:30:00 wannabe into hardcore ultrarunner whose no-joke marathon PR of 3:23:12 I now find myself chasing from a distance.

Dan and his buddy Otter (whose self-deprecating blog chronicles his own entertaining path to ultrarunning enlightenment) would be tackling Portland as the back end of their own personal gut check: back-to-back marathons.  On consecutive days.  In neighboring states.  After running the Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon in Washington on Saturday, they would be driving five hours to knock out another 26.2 in Portland on Sunday.  Like me, Dan’s most recent race had been truncated by injury, so I was psyched when he texted me shortly after noon on Saturday to say “3:57 for the first one.  Tomorrow should be… interesting.”  How prophetic he was.

Hotel-room view of the Hawthorne Bridge over the Willamette River, with snow-capped Mt. Hood beyond

We arrived in Portland on Friday afternoon.  As we settled back for the 38-minute light rail ride from the airport to our downtown hotel, what struck me was the number of trees and the sheer amount of greenery (and autumn orangery, pinkery, and goldery) that lined our route.  Not your typical urban train ride.  A short time later, wheeling our luggage along city blocks that looked like they’d been washed down with a fire hose, my lungs filled with the crisp, newly scrubbed air that follows a good cry from Mother Nature.

Although Portlanders and Seattleites will argue over whose city gets more rain, Portland’s reputation as one of the soggier cities in the country is well-earned.  Case in point, the week before our arrival saw the city buffeted by the tail end of a Pacific Typhoon that led more than one local to tell us how lucky we were “not to be here last week”.  Portland is a very green city, and a beautiful place when the sun shines (as it would for us all weekend)… but with great greenery comes great precipitation.  Such is life in the Pacific Northwest.

Even if I’d had no race the next day, Saturday alone would almost have justified our trip.  The day began with a relaxed 3-mile run north along the western banks of the Willamette River (a friend now living in Portland reminded us that when in doubt of the river’s pronunciation, it’s the Willamette, damn it!).  As I passed the Portland Saturday Market, the spirited sounds of weekend gaiety and the smoky smells of char-grilling billowed from an eclectic collection of white tents.  The law of conservation of energy was on clear display in the sun-dappled park, with restless children chasing and giving chase while drowsy adults lay sprawled out on the grass in full repose.

After lunch we hit the bustling race expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton.  With its red velvet stanchions and awkwardly slanted floors, the venue felt like a low-budget amusement park ride.  Sponsor booths, which were confusedly distributed among two rooms and a hallway, featured the usual combination of high-profile brands and less established companies.  But the hands-down highlight was the opportunity to meet running legend Bill Rodgers.  The line at Rodgers’ table was surprisingly short, and we chatted for a couple of minutes before he signed my copy of his new memoir, Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World (based on the title, I’m halfway there!).  He also recommended former teammate Alberto Salazar’s own autobiography.

Mike Sohaskey with running legend Bill Rodgers

 With running legend Bill Rodgers… between us we’ve won 4 Boston Marathons, 4 New York City Marathons and 1 Limantour Half Marathon in Point Reyes, CA

The second highlight of the day would come that evening, as fellow Antarctica travelers Donn and Rod hosted us and several other guests at their beautiful floating home on the Willamette River.  Rod’s veggie lasagne was carbo-perfect, the camaraderie was excellent, and we spent much of the evening admiring the view of the river from their gently swaying deck.  Donn recounted their first morning in the house, when he’d glanced out the window to see a seal feasting on a salmon, followed by two bald eagles swooping in to scavenge the leftovers.  By the time he dropped us off at our hotel, I felt rested and ready to leave my non-carbon footprints all over this city.

Sunday morning’s alarm rudely interrupted our sixth hour of sleep.  Pulling back the curtains on a still-darkened and slumbering city, I dressed and prepared my standard pre-race meal, an easily digestible mush of granola, peanut butter and almond milk yogurt.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, my rapid metabolism compels me to eat no earlier than an hour before the starting gun, so I don’t burn through my glycogen stores by mile 10.  Legs feel good, feet feel good… race day adrenaline gradually kicked in as we made our way through the nascent twilight toward Lownsdale Square, where the start line awaited.

On this day Portland would be honoring those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings.  I was relieved, then, to see no overt indicators of beefed-up security as we made our way through the throngs toward corral A.  Kudos to the organizers for recognizing that you can’t police random acts of hatred without sacrificing a whole lot else.

It struck me how long it had been since I’d seen race-day weather like this: clear skies and a starting temperature in the low 40s.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need to reference the warning signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke listed on the back of my oversized race bib.

Mike Sohaskey at start line of Portland Marathon 2013

Who let the slow guy so close to the start line?

Finally 7:00a.m. arrived.  After a moment of silence in remembrance of Boston, the assembled runners joined together in an a capella singing of the national anthem, followed over the PA system by a few bars of “Sweet Caroline,” again in tribute to Boston (I’d be sporting my own “I Run For Boston” shirt).  Then my good buddy Bill Rodgers counted us down to zero, the crowd surged forward, and the streets of Portland beckoned.

Taking care not to fire out of the gate too quickly, I fell in with the 3:25:00 pace group and reached the mile 1 marker in a disappointing 8:16, already 33 seconds behind last year’s Chicago PR pace (an eventual 3:28:45 finish).  I resolved to stick with the 3:25 group for as long as possible – if I could stay between the 3:25 and 3:30 pacers (and preferably closer to 3:25) from start to finish, I’d be a happy running man.  This would be the first time I’d chosen to fall in with a pace group so early in a race.

Within the first mile, a female punk band supported on a platform over the street provided our first musical entertainment.  The next few miles along the waterfront then featured, in rapid succession, an amusingly diverse collection of incongruent acts:  a female singer/guitarist, solo harpist, honky-tonk bluegrass band, pan flutist and some sort of wind chimes which I thought might segue into “Silver Bells”.  Apparently unimpressed by this latter selection, the fellow next to me shouted “Play ‘Eye of the Tiger’!”  Ah, what highly trained creatures of habit we are.

Inspirational or not, the music in the first three miles distracted from the course’s steady uphill trajectory between miles 1 and 3.  I retreated into my own head for the early stages of the race, mentally ticking off each muscle group in turn to ensure we were all on the same page.  After that I focused on a game of “Name That Shoe,” as I tested my knowledge by guessing the brand – and in some cases the model – of shoe being worn by those around me: So those are the Brooks PureProject line, but PureFlow or PureCadence?  I think that color scheme is only offered for the PureFlow… and the Brooks logo on top of the upper tells me PureFlow 2, second generation.  The early “get-through-em” miles of a marathon can be kinda boring.

Portland Marathon 2013 elevation chart

That inexplicably sharp dip at mile 17 is, somehow, the St. John’s Bridge

After a 4-mile out-and-back hairpin loop through a typically urban mix of residential and commercial neighborhoods, we hugged the downtown waterfront for another mile before entering the least inspiring section of the course, another out-and-back through the train yards and industrial wasteland along Front Avenue.  But for me, Front Avenue turned out to be the most eventful section of the course.

First, it was along this stretch that Dan and I met, offering quick words of recognition and encouragement as we headed in opposite directions.  This was more challenging than it sounds, since the southeast-facing “back” segment I was running faced directly into a blinding sun.  As seen through sunglasses, runners approaching from the other direction were nebulous silhouettes, leading me to run with sunglasses in hand as I squinted into the steady stream of oncoming runners.  Fortunately Dan and I spotted each other around mile 10, as he looked to be well on his way to his second sub-4:00 marathon in 24 hours.  Nothing seemed more appropriate at that moment than two marathoners meeting for the first time mid-race and in mid-stride.

I kept an eye out for Otter as well, but not knowing his pace or what he was wearing, I’d have to wait to meet him at the finish.  Shortly after seeing Dan, we passed a loudspeaker blasting REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which despite being a catchy song did little for my motivation with its plaintive refrain of “Trying to keep, up, with you… and I don’t know if I can do it….”

But my gold star for “Worst Premeditated Idea” goes to the idiots in the pirate costumes, who apparently decided – with Boston still fresh on everyone’s mind – that firing off a cannon was a totally awesome way to show their support for the runners.  As the blast exploded, runners around me momentarily broke stride before seeing the setup ahead and angrily realizing what had happened.  Too bad we had no plank handy for those pirates to walk.


Thanks to the train tracks that regularly cross the course along Front Avenue, I found myself flashing back to my recent ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon and monitoring my footing closely.  On the bright side, any distraction (other than warring pirates) along this stretch of industrial nothingness was much appreciated.

Just before the mile 11 turnoff on to NW 17th Avenue, we passed one of Portland’s many (or so I hear) gentlemen’s clubs.  Some useful trivia for those looking to plan a bachelor party for a hippie buddy: With its “live and let live” attitude and sketchy past, Portland boasts more strip clubs per capita than Las Vegas.  And if I hadn’t been glancing around trying to distract myself at that moment, I probably would’ve missed the amusing sign advertising “hardwood” on the building next door to the strip club.  If we weren’t all adults here, I’d compliment Portland on its sly sense of humor.

Still feeling strong and with the Front Avenue out-and-back now thankfully out of the way, I scored a momentary burst of adrenaline upon seeing Katie for (already) the third time at mile 11.5.  We passed the midway point at mile 13.1 without fanfare and transitioned on to the spectator-free shoulder of busy NW St. Helens Road, where Smart cars, hybrids and a smattering of fossil fuel guzzlers zoomed by on our right.  Three miles later I paused at the mile 15.5 aid station to spill a cup of Ultima Replenisher on myself (about half made it into my mouth) before setting off again in pursuit of the 3:25 pace group, which was slowly creeping ahead.

Mike Sohaskey at mile 11.5 of Portland Marathon 2013

All smiles at mile 12 – clearly we are having an awful lot of fun

The course then veered left past a “Checkpoint Charlie” overseen by marines in uniform.  Here began the toughest and most noticeable ascent of the day, a slow ½-mile burn up to the St. John’s Bridge.  Pushing uphill as hard as I dared without risking a flame-out, I reached the roadbed of the St. John’s Bridge with the 3:25 pacers still in my sights about 25 yards ahead.  The bridge provided a much-needed respite as my hill-addled legs tried to recover from the brief but taxing climb.  And there I was able to appreciate the highlight of the course, a stunning panoramic view of Mt. Hood in the distance.

Unfortunately, the damage had been done.  Although I wouldn’t realize it until after the race, the hills had taken enough out of my legs that mile 16 (at 7:52/mile) would be my final sub-8:00 mile of the day.  Not coincidentally, as we reached the eastern (opposite) side of the St. John’s Bridge, I glanced up to see the 3:25 pace group gradually… pulling… away.  In that moment, I felt strong enough to convince myself that as long as I maintained my current pace, I might still be able to gain back some ground in mile 23 or 24.  And even if I didn’t catch them (a more likely scenario), I’d still set myself up for a 3:27-ish finish, which would send me home from Portland with a nice PR.

As we descended from the bridge on to Willamette Blvd, we re-entered the spectator zone where onlookers were once again vocalizing their much-appreciated support.  And though I paid little attention to the signage along the course, the crowds at Portland left a lasting impression for one reason: their unfailing ability to pronounce my last name correctly.  With my last name printed on my bib, I heard it included in shouts of support at least a half-dozen times.  It really is easy to pronounce – So-has-key – but newcomers almost always insist on throwing a “z” or “j” into the mix.  Yet with just a fleeting glance at my bib, the Portland literati nailed it time and time again.  At one point I trailed a runner with “Mike” printed on his bib, so I’d hear frequent cries of “Yeah, Mike!”, “Go Mike!” and “Looking good, Mike!” along with the sporadic cheer of “Go Sohaskey!”  These people love me! I hallucinated.  It was like I’d brought my own cheering section… which I had, except she was now waiting at the finish line.

St. John's Bridge

On the St. John’s Bridge (image and clouds courtesy of Google Maps)

The 6.5 miles after the bridge began with more tree-lined neighborhoods and led us down the eastern side of the Willamette, with occasional glimpses of the Portland skyline (unobscured by clouds!) visible across the river.

Throughout the race I kept reminding myself to smile, stay positive and do whatever I could to reduce my all-important perceived effort.  And I kept returning to one simple mantra: Just run.  Time to tackle another uphill?  Just run.  Hit an energy lull at mile 15?  Just run.  3:25 pacer fading in the distance?  Just run.  Boneheads in pirate gear firing off a cannon in my ear?  Freak out momentarily… then just run.  This mantra proved particularly helpful in the last six miles, as the world around me began to look more and more like a casting call for The Walking Dead.  Runners in front of me suddenly stopped running and started walking.  Several more pulled over to the side of the road to nurse cramps.  And still others trudged along wearily at a non-quite-running/not-quite-walking pace, eyes cast downward as though burdened with a lead brick around their neck.

Just run rhymes with Just fun.

Sometime around mile 20, when I could have used a raucous blast of three-chord distorted guitar, what I got instead was a lounge-style smooth jazz ensemble that made me want to curl up and take a nap.  I half-expected a cocktail waitress in Sauconys to pull up alongside me and offer me a martini.  As much as I appreciate a good saxophone solo in the right place and at the right time, this was neither.  Nearly three hours after I’d scoffed at the same request, this was “Eye of the Tiger” time.

"It's Almost Over" sign near finish of Portland Marathon 2013

Although my nutritional reserves weren’t noticeably dwindling, I paused at the mile 21 aid station to force down some Ultima and an Accel Gel, my first solid fuel of the race.  As my legs and hips slowly ossified, I wanted to ensure I’d have enough energy to maintain – if not increase – my pace over the last five miles.

And the last five miles felt surprisingly good.  Like a trip down memory lane, miles 23 and 24 led us through one last industrial stretch alongside one last series of train tracks.  We then looped around and crossed back over the Willamette River on the Broadway Bridge, which looked to have been constructed from a Paul Bunyan-sized Erector Set.  Returning the way we’d come along the waterfront, I barely registered the final aid station as I turned away from the river, waved to Katie one last time and fired down those final 385 yards to the finish line.  My stride still felt stable, and despite not having seen the 3:25 pacer in nearly 8 miles, I felt confident a PR was within reach…

… until I made one final left turn on to 3rd Avenue.  “3:30:17” read the finish line clock matter-of-factly as I entered the home stretch.  Crossing the blue and red finish line mat, I heard my name announced over the PA system (another perfect pronunciation!) and glanced down at my Garmin for the first time.  3:30:28.  Dumbly accepting my medal from one of the day’s many fantastic volunteers, my mind was already grinding away in search of answers.  How had I finished more than five minutes behind the 3:25 pace group?  And more stupefying than that, how had I finished behind a 3:30 pace group which I was almost certain had never passed me??

Mike Sohaskey in final stretch of Portland Marathon 2013

Officer, that speedy man just ran a red light!

Absent-mindedly I accepted a white rose and mylar heat sheet from two cheerful volunteers, before turning back toward the finish in search of the 3:30 pace group.  Sure enough, moments later I saw the “3:30” red lizard sign (all pace groups carried red lizard placards showing their target finish times) enter the finish chute.

Son of a @%*$#!

True, I had no way of knowing how far ahead the 3:25 pacer had finished.  But I’m accustomed to pacers finishing a minute or two ahead of their projected time, to ensure that all runners in their group meet their individual time goals.  And based on where I positioned myself in corral A, I don’t see how I could have crossed the start line that far ahead of Team 3:30.

So as I chugged a pint of chocolate milk and gnawed away at an orange slice, I was a bit dazed and a lot disap-pointed.  Not only hadn’t I scored a PR, I hadn’t broken 3:30.  Apparently I should revise my mantra to Just run faster.

But life – and more to the point, traffic in the finish chute – goes on, and riding the wave of triumphantly exhausted runners, I turned my attention to finding Katie.  Before I could reach her though, volunteers handed me 1) two small velvet pouches containing a finisher’s coin and mini-me pendant version of the finisher’s medal; 2) an eye-catching long sleeve baby blue and gold finisher’s shirt; and 3) a tree seedling I politely declined, having left my third hand back in the hotel room.  I wondered how much of Portland’s verdure had been planted by zealous marathon finishers.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho after Portland Marathon 2013

I know, kinda rude of me to jump in front of Katie’s selfie

As I hobbled through the finish chute, one of the friendly volunteer florists obliged my request for a red rose, which I shared with my all-in-one support crew/cheering section/race photographer.  As always, Katie the Ubiquitous had seen me off at the start, beaten me to the finish and cheered me on at several points in between…. all while capturing some pretty sweet shots of the action.  In fact, she took several impressive photos of Dan at mile 11.5… before she’d ever met him.  And as I wearily admired the deep red petals perched atop a long supple stem, it occurred to me that not every rose has its thorn.

After reuniting with Katie, we circled back to watch Dan complete his second sub-4:00 marathon of the weekend and check off Oregon as state 34 on his 50-states running tour (compared to the fifth state on my own less strategic tour).  With Otter still en route, the three of us convened at Portland Brewery’s “26.3 Mile Gathering Place,” a grassy street corner nearby.  There we relaxed on the grass, the late-morning sun warming us as we happily sipped local brews and compared notes.

With so many people now wearing their blue and gold finisher’s shirt, the area looked like a convention of Boston Marathon wannabes, myself included.  Otter was all smiles when he joined us, and though his second marathon of the weekend had hit a few more rough patches than Dan’s, he’d earned his medal like everyone else.  And his ills were nothing an IPA or two couldn’t smooth over.

Otter, Dan Solera and Mike Sohaskey... celebrating completion of Portland Marathon 2013

Otter, Dan and me… nobody told me to bring my own box to stand on

After following Dan’s Marathon for the past year and Otter’s I Drank For Miles in recent months, and after seeing so many photos from so many places, I got a kick out of finally matching voices to faces and personalities to blog posts.  And at 6’0”, it was one of the few times I’ve ever felt legitimately short.  Congrats to both of them on an amazing athletic feat… on amazing athletic feet.  I do relish the mind games of running, and theirs is an accomplishment that’s just crazy enough to have set my own mental gears in motion.

That evening we continued the celebration over a satisfying dinner at Deschutes Brewery & Public House in the Pearl District of Portland.  Both conversation and drinks flowed easily, as though among old friends who simply hadn’t seen each other in a while.  The discussion centered around all things running, but it didn’t stop there, and I was reminded that runners are some of the most genuine and sociable people you’d ever want to meet.  My head hit the pillow that night wishing I’d had more time to get to know these guys.  Hopefully I’ll have that chance – and in the meantime, I’ll keep reading to see what crazy shit they talk each other into next.

Once I’d had a chance to ice my legs and clear my mind, I had to admit – the weekend had come up roses.  Portland lived up to its reputation as a clean, green progressive machine.  The city had admirably hosted a marathon that, while not exactly scenic, provided a solid urban challenge.  And despite a two-week training hiatus, I’d run my second-fastest marathon on a relatively hilly course, and learned a valuable lesson about relying on pacers (i.e. don’t do it).

When I wasn’t running, we’d reunited with old friends and rendezvoused with new ones.  I’d met a bigger-than-life yet decidedly down-to-earth icon whose name is synonymous with American distance running.  And in a town maybe best known for its persistent precipitation, we hadn’t once opened our umbrella.

All told, I’d call it a pretty successful weekend along the Willamette, damn it.

Powell’s Books is the de facto center of Portland’s cultural universe

BOTTOM LINE:  Portland is a beautiful city when the sun is shining.  And while October isn’t the driest month in the Pacific Northwest, Les Smith claimed in his October Newsletter and Pre-Event Instructions that only once in his 33 years as Race Director had it rained on race day.  So chances are good you’ll get as lucky as we did.  I’d like to run every race Oregon has to offer, since much of the state is a trail runner’s paradise… but if road running is more your forte, I’d recommend Portland as a worthwhile urban footrace.  And I’d recommend you not underestimate those harmless-looking hills on the course map.

PRODUCTION:  Overall, the Portland Marathon was well organized and well executed.  For the most part, I enjoyed marathon weekend and my 3 hour 30 minute tour of the city.  The race medal is stylish (see below) in a “military service medal” sort of way, and the inclusion of two race shirts – one for registrants and another for finishers, both attractive, high-quality offerings from Leslie Jordan – was a very nice touch.  That said, I’d suggest a few changes to make the weekend even better:

First, the out-and-back through the train yards along NW Front Avenue is an uninspiring eyesore, a reaction I heard from several runners after the race.  In a city as green and picturesque as Portland, it’s unclear (aside from convenience) why the organizers settled on this 4½-mile stretch of industrial badlands.

Second, the aid stations in Portland featured gummy bears as their primary source of carbs.  Yes, gummy bears – a great choice if my 5-year-old nephew is running your race.  Unfortunately, it’s not like you can pop a gummy bear in your mouth and let it dissolve over the next ½ mile.  It’s hard enough for many runners to stomach energy gels, let alone a tiny pencil eraser.  And the last thing anyone needs at mile 20 of a marathon is a snack food that fights back.  So please Portland, talk to the folks at Gu, or Clif, or PowerBar, or Accel Gel, or Stinger, or any of a hundred honey companies before next year’s race.

One last on-course item: this isn’t a big deal for me since I always judge mileage by the twitter (not Twitter) of my Garmin, but the mileage markers were consistently short for most of the course.  One surprised runner asked, as we passed the mile 1 marker, “How far is this marathon?”  Only in the last five miles or so did the markers more or less sync with my Garmin.

Swag-wise, the two t-shirts and finisher’s medal are nice keepsakes, but I’m less sold on the finisher’s coin and mini-me medal.  While I appreciate the sentiment, I certainly don’t need more stuff, and I’m quite sure I’ll never again open those velvet pouches.

And finally the expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton, was organized (or disorganized, as it were) in a convoluted maze of rooms that made the whole thing difficult to negotiate.  I was never quite sure which aisles I’d already strolled and which booths I’d already passed.  In the end though (or was it the beginning?), the circuitous route was worth navigating for the chance to meet Bill Rodgers.

2013 Portland Marathon Medal

October 6, 2013
26.3 miles in Portland, OR (State 5 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:30:27 (first time running the Portland Marathon), 8:02/mile
Finish place: 610/6958 overall, 77/524 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 39°F), with an intermittent breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 728ft ascent, 742ft descent (compared to 121ft, 119ft at Chicago)

Portland splits