Posts Tagged ‘Seven Continents Club’

Running through the struggle like a golden thread was the indomitable human spirit and a capacity for self-sacrifice and discipline.
– Nelson Mandela

Mike Sohaskey at 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

(Howdy! For those interested in a full treatment of the Comrades Marathon including its many unique and long-standing traditions, I recommend you start with my two-part report from last year’s “up” run HERE. On the other hand, if you’re basically just here for the pictures, carry on…)

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

These quiet declarations reached my ears as little more than a mumble emanating from the gaunt runner to my right. Despite my fatigue, I couldn’t help but smile. The two of us strode forward slowly yet inexorably, like iron filings drawn toward the great white magnet looming directly ahead. Every step brought us closer to our ultimate destination and the object of his desire: Moses Mabhida Stadium, its central arch rising in defiance against the afternoon sky.

Despite our conspicuous outer differences — his deep ebony skin and Old World accent vs. my own melanin-challenged physique and New World English — the two of us moved as of one mind and body, eyes locked on our mutual Mecca as we approached the end of this arduous pilgrimage together. Eternal glory and an ice-cold soda beckoned.

At that moment we were kindred spirits, brothers in arms (and legs), intimate associates pulling in the same direction and with the same focused fervor for the same compulsive cause.

Or what Webster’s Dictionary would call comrades.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at 2018 Comrades Marathon expo


Had it really been a year?

371 days to be exact, since I’d stood in a similar position at the start line of my first Comrades Marathon, sweating incongruously in the cool morning air while the butterflies of the moment treated my stomach like children treat a bounce house.

This was like déjà vu all over again.

The scene around me now was electric — not surprising at the start line of the world’s oldest and largest ultramarathon. The collective human electricity of nearly 20,000 tightly packed runners intermingled with the harsh electric floodlights, the latter sending the pre-dawn shadows into hiding along the back alleys of downtown Pietermaritzburg.

Directly ahead at one end of the sea of heads stood the brighly lit red arch with “Bonitas” written in script letters on either side of the word “START.” The scene felt very much the same as I remembered it from a year earlier.

And yet different. Durban City Hall, which had towered over these same start corrals one year ago, had been replaced with the equally majestic brick façade of the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. This, of course, is one defining feature of the Comrades Marathon: its course reverses direction in alternating years, so that whereas last year’s “up” ran started in Durban and finished in Pietermaritzburg, this year’s “down” run would travel the opposite route, starting in Pietermaritzburg before finishing 90.184 km (56 miles) away in Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium.

Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Moses Mabhida Stadium, Durban

The familiar face alongside me was also a welcome difference from the 2017 run. IRONMAN triathlete power couple Jimmy and his wife Catherine had accepted our invite to join us for this year’s down run, with Jimmy running and Cath joining Katie in providing all-important crew support (or “seconding,” as it’s termed in South Africa). This would be not only Jimmy’s first Comrades but also his first ultramarathon, in recognition of a milestone birthday. What better way to celebrate half a century on this planet than by traveling halfway across it to run 56 miles?

Likewise Beth from Vancouver, whom we’d first met five years earlier when she’d won the half marathon in Antarctica, had decided this year’s down run would be her first Comrades and first ultramarathon in celebration of her own milestone 40th birthday. Because you’re never too old to make questionable decisions!

Beth’s husband Miguel, the only soccer player among us, would be joining Cath and a now-experienced Katie to form the day’s most bad-ass seconding crew. Having the three of them on the course armed with a beautifully detailed map courtesy of 12-time Comrades finisher Rory — another Antarctica pal and our excellent host for Comrades 2017 — gave me a huge sense of confidence. Talk about strength in numbers.

Relaxing at Southern Sun Elangeni leading up to 2018 Comrades Marathon

The days in Durban leading up to Comrades are just packed

Another notable distinction from the 2017 race was my nerves, or more accurately my unnerving lack of nerves. Standing in the monolithic presence of Pietermaritzburg City Hall chatting with Jimmy, I felt none of last year’s anxiety or apprehension. Sure, a lot of unknowns lay ahead on the 90 km journey to Durban, and for that the butterflies in my stomach were up to the challenge. But this time they all seemed to be flying in formation, rather than each doing its separate thing — the moment brought to mind the 80s video game Galaga, with the enemy warships all flying in formation at the start of each new screen, compared to the ensuing swarm of every ship for himself. And as the South African national anthem reached its conclusion, I felt relaxed and strangely at ease.

That said, even the best-behaved butterflies can’t help but be thrown off course by the power and beauty of what comes next: the Ndebele mining song, “Shosholoza.” Rather than observe in awestruck appreciation as other runners around me joined in the performance, though, this year I joined in myself. This despite the fact my voice was little more than a vibration in my head against the sonic wall of vocal harmonies, which resonated deep in my chest like a lion’s roar at close range.

“Shosholoza” segued predictably into “Chariots of Fire” as I made a last-second adjustment to the safety pins holding my bib number. Moments later the last notes of Vangelis’ classic score faded away, and the pregnant pause in its wake sent a few more butterflies fluttering out of formation. Adrenaline flooded my bloodstream.

Then, as loudly as if I’d been carrying a restless rooster in the lightweight pack on my back, the ear-splitting sound of Max Trumbull’s recorded cockerel crow pierced the morning quiet, signaling the start of the 93rd Comrades Marathon just as it has every Comrades Marathon for the past 71 years.

The decisive crack of a gunshot followed and with that, every one of the 19,116 starters assembled outside Pietermaritzburg City Hall — from the eventual champions in Corral A to the final finishers in Corral H — was at the mercy of the ticking clock. Because no matter our corral seeding or how long it would take us to cross under the official red START arch, we would have exactly 12 hours from the moment of that opening gunshot to cross the finish line in Moses Mabhida Stadium some 90 km away. “Gun to gun” (rather than “mat to mat”) timing is one of the signature traditions of the Comrades Marathon.

2018 Comrades Marathon start line selfie of Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam

NO TURNING BACK — except for a start-line selfie

As Jimmy and I joined runners from 79 other nations in the relentless march toward Durban, I reflected on the irony of my being here after last year’s race. Comrades 2017 had left me so emotionally and physically depleted that I’d been unable to get comfortable for hours after crossing the finish line at the Scottsville Racecourse. Even my palate had hurt the next day.

But as every ultrarunner can tell you, miserable is memorable, and it wasn’t long before the siren song of the coveted back-to-back medal (earned by running the up and down runs in consecutive years) had reached my ears in Los Angeles some 10,000 miles away. And as the official Comrades Coach Lindsey Parry had pointed out at the pre-race expo three days earlier, you haven’t really run the Comrades Marathon until you’ve run both the “up” and “down” runs.

In other words, what goes up must come down. And gravity ain’t got nothin’ on Comrades.

90 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon start

The calm before Comrades
Jimmy, Cath, Katie and I had arrived in Durban on Wednesday after back-to-back-to-back flights from Los Angeles to London, London to Johannesburg and Joburg to Durban. Based on our positive experience of the previous year, we’d again elected to stay at the Southern Sun Elangeni in coastal Durban near the pre-race expo, rather than save ourselves time on race morning by staying closer to the start line in Pietermaritzburg.

We’d taken advantage of our mid-week arrival to recover from jet lag and tackle the intimidatingly large expo at the Durban Exhibition Centre on Thursday, well before the crush of foot traffic that would descend on Friday and Saturday. (Luckily the registration line for international athletes is typically short on any day, not surprising given that South Africans account for over 90% of registered runners.)

2018 Comrades Marathon expo

After flying 11,000+ miles, you better believe there’s no turning back (Me, Katie, Jimmy, Cath)

All manner of vendors stood alongside their booths hawking various goods and services, from athletic gear and apparel to other South African running events to Cape Town wineries and even an aggressive, aerosol can-wielding team of fellows who seemed hell-bent on shining my New Balance running shoes.

Several local charities had set up tables to raise awareness, and we sought out the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children — the school itself is located near the 37 km mark of the down run — to make a donation. In one corner of the exhibition centre we purchased tickets for the Sunday shuttle to Pietermaritzburg, while in another a convenient food court boasted a diverse selection of lunch fare.

I could only imagine how claustrophobic this hall would feel come Saturday.

[Comrades Tip #1: The earlier you can hit the pre-race expo, the better — things start to get very busy on Friday afternoon.]

Along with the Old Mutual stage where Coach Parry shared his tips and tricks for the down run, the highlight of this year’s expo was the food court, where during lunch we met Benny and his wife Monica, an enthusiastic couple from Johannesburg. With Monica’s support, an infectious smile and an easy laugh, Benny was preparing to run his first Comrades. Nothing unusual about that, except that he’d only run his first mile a year earlier, and so was not only a novice to Comrades but to the sport itself.

Benny was clearly eager to embrace the opportunity and put his best foot forward; at the same time, he harbored no allusions as to the challenge ahead. And though in the end he’d just miss the Pinetown cutoff and be among the 13.8% not to finish this year’s race, he’d message me afterwards to say that he’d had “so much fun” and that he’d start preparing for 2019 just as soon as his “penguin walk” subsided. And I have no doubt he’ll be ready.

Breaking bread with Comrades first-timer Benny (left) and his wife Monica (third from left)

Because that, in a nutshell, is what Comrades does to your brain — like your favorite childhood memory, it takes hold and never lets go. I can’t imagine many Americans following Benny’s ambitious “Couch to Comrades” program. And it’s probably fortuitous that Katie and I don’t live in South Africa, because despite the distance I’d have a helluva time saying “no” to a hometown race like Comrades.

On Thursday evening we’d attended the International Runners Reception at the Hilton Durban, which this year was sparsely attended and featured an obnoxiously loud musical score that quickly drowned out every conversation I tried to start. As usual, the highlight of the reception was 9-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce with his waggish energy and bottomless quiver of amusing anecdotes. Everyone appreciates Bruce — he’s a magnetic personality and the best ambassador this race could ever hope for.

As it had last year, our Saturday began with thousands of our fellow Comrades runners at the packed Durban North Beach parkrun, where we’d met up with our buddy John from Anchorage, like me a returning runner chasing his back-to-back medal. Along the 5K route we’d also met “Marathon Granny” Joyce from Kenya, who apparently had taken up running after developing arthritis in her knee and who would be running her first Comrades at age 64. Not only would Joyce start her first Comrades, but she’d finish her first Comrades in an astonishing 10:27:15, easily eclipsing runners half her age to become one of the weekend’s most inspiring stories. Rock on, Joyce!

Durban North Beach parkrun day before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Durban North Beach parkrun (clockwise from top left): Shaking out our selfie muscles with John from Anchorage, center; Cath turns parkrun into a full-body workout; catching up with Marathon Granny Joyce from Kenya; Cath and Katie do their best human butterfly impression

The rest of our Saturday had been overly restful, so that after a solid five hours of sleep I’d awoken on Sunday morning feeling well rested and ready to go, with the voice of experience in my head calming any potentially skittish butterflies in my stomach. After all, as noted American poet Peyton Manning once said, “Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” With one Comrades finish under my belt, I liked to think I knew what the hell I was doing.

After a semi-normal breakfast (as normal as 2:00am breakfast can be), Jimmy, Beth and I hopped aboard the 2:45am shuttle bus for the long and (luckily) uneventful ride to the start of our personal journey in Pietermaritzburg.

2018 Comrades Marathon profile map

Asijiki: No Turning Back (Pietermaritzburg to Little Pollys)
Now, with confetti falling all around us, Jimmy and I crossed the start line two minutes and 30 seconds after the gun, 30 seconds slower than last year. As the sea of official red-and-white race caps disappeared into the darkness ahead of us, I fell into a comfortable jog alongside Jimmy, gauging the weight distribution of the lightweight Ultimate Direction pack on my back that held my limited assortment of baby food pouches and GU packets. Learning my lesson from last year’s race, I’d left the hydration bladder at home.

[Comrades Tip #2: Resist the urge to carry a hydration bladder — there’s plenty of water, Energade etc. along the course. If you must carry a pack, limit its contents to solid nutrition.]

Our game plan was simple: start strong to give ourselves a realistic shot at a 9-hour finish (Bill Rowan medal) and then adapt on the fly. Though I knew Jimmy’s competitive streak would drive him to push for 9 hours, I also knew I hadn’t trained to run a sub-9 finish time myself. After a high-mileage training program that enabled my come-from-behind run for charity at January’s Houston Marathon, I’d barely squeezed in a Corral C qualifying time at my hometown Los Angeles Marathon in March, registering at the last minute before beating the cutoff by a whopping 11 seconds. So I didn’t exactly arrive in Durban Bill Rowan-ready.

Even if I had trained properly, pausing along the route to take pictures would easily add 10-15 minutes to my finish time. If everything went according to plan, I saw 9:30 as a more likely scenario, with my primary goal being sub-10 hours as in 2017.

2017-2018 Comrades Marathon course signs

Not only had I not trained for a sub-9, but downhill running isn’t my strength — I’m much more consistent on the uphills. Whereas many runners naturally post faster times on the down run (with its 6,000+ feet of elevation loss vs. 4,000+ feet of elevation gain), I’d diligently trained my quads to survive and hopefully thrive on the extended descents between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. To my usual training regimen I’d added twice-a-week lunges and eccentric quad strengthening, the latter on the recommendation of Rory who’s completed the down run six times. I’d even run the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon in late April, a doozy of a test run boasting a net elevation loss of 5,300 feet over 26.2 miles.

So my quads were as ready as they’d ever be to tackle the challenge of the Comrades down run.

Luckily we’d have the ultimate wild card on our side this year — the South African winter. Unlike the previous year’s unseasonal heat and unrelenting sunshine, this year’s temperatures were expected to peak in the mid-70s with regular cloud cover to keep the sun at bay. Given that my spring training regimen had included spending 20-30 minutes a day six days a week in a 180°F sauna to build my heat tolerance, this was welcome news. And it would help to make up for the fact that the 2018 course would be the longest in 23 years.

At 90.184 km, this year’s down run would be the longest Comrades course since 1995 and nearly 3½ km longer than last year’s up run, which measured 86.73. Assuming I matched last year’s average pace of 10:53/mile, the extra distance would add over 23 minutes to my projected finish time. So never mind sub-9 hours — I’d have my work cut out for me if I hoped to improve on last year’s finish time of 9:52:55.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Comrades Wall of Honour

Paying homage to Rory’s Green Number plaque on the Comrades Wall of Honour

Like a gracious host reminding us that this was indeed the down run, the narrow road leading out of Pietermaritzburg started on a gentle descent. As my nerves fired and my pulse rate quickened, I did a full-system check to ensure all systems were go. My gut had dodged a bullet thirty minutes earlier after each and every porta-potty outside the start corrals had inexplicably run out of toilet paper, with no one to refill them. Talk about a helpless feeling, and only a bit of last-minute ingenuity had saved the day…

[Comrades Tip #3: That gauzy Bonitas hospital gown included in your pre-race goodie bag for warmth on race morning? It can also be torn into convenient strips for use as toilet paper.]

Jimmy and I cruised through the darkness of Pietermaritzburg and into Ashburton, the early route narrower and more tightly packed than it had been on last year’s up run, when we’d exited Durban via the well-lit N3 highway. In the pitch black I fell into a rhythm, quieted my mind and focused my mental energy on avoiding potholes as well as other runners carelessly drifting across invisible lanes of traffic.

On that note, I found myself frustrated by the sheer number of runners who seemed either unable or unwilling to run a straight line. And I know I wasted a nontrivial amount of energy pumping the brakes as restless runners insisted on weaving in front of me.

Though Jimmy and I would run together in the early going, each of us had every intention of running our own race. Because despite the fact that you’re surrounded by thousands of other runners and countless screaming spectators throughout the day, Comrades — more so than any other race I’ve run — is a very personal affair. It’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: Comrades is 90 km of you vs. you, and for most of us that’s plenty of competition.

After wearing RaceRaves gear in my Comrades debut, I’d decided to go the patriotic route this year with USA flag shorts, Statue of Liberty calf compression sleeves, an American flag behind my bib number on front and back, plus stars & stripes sunglasses I’d bought for $1 at Target to round out my wardrobe. Bruce Fordyce had recommended wearing our national colors the year before — “I can’t understand why someone travels all this way to run Comrades, and then runs in a San Diego Marathon shirt” — and I’d witnessed first-hand the raucous reception other runners had received for proudly sporting their national colors.

As I’d soon discover the red, white and blue elicits a curious mix of reactions, and especially among 80 nations in which Americans account for less than 1% of the field. Sadly I missed this exchange, but according to Jimmy a woman behind us in the early miles saw my shorts and yelled, “Go America!” to which a salty Brit behind us responded with, “Said no one evah!” In response to Jimmy’s sideways glance he added sheepishly, “Sorry, don’t hate me.”

Comrades is the perfect opportunity to showcase your patriotism

Daybreak’s pale, pink-tinged lips kissed the sky as we reached Polly Shortts — the last of the “Big Five” hills on the up run — at the 82 km mark. As the pace accelerated on the mile-long descent, I paused for important business by the side of the road while Jimmy shot ahead. Though he quickly vanished out of sight, I reeled him in on the next short climb before the pace again increased down Little Polly’s.

It was on Polly Shortts and her sister Little Polly’s (Little Mpusheni) that I realized Jimmy and I were running different races. While he attacked the downhills with gravity as his muse, I worked to keep my pace in check without riding the brakes. Because starting too fast is the #1 cardinal sin of Comrades, and I hadn’t come all this way just to shred my quads before sunrise.

77 km to go.

2018 Comrades Marathon at Camperdown

Little Pollys to Harrison Flats
After Little Pollys, we switched gears once again for our longest extended climb of the day up to Umlaas Road. Along the way we passed under the N3 to reach the first of six cutoff points at Lion Park (~75 km to go). Unsure of the best way to mentally divvy up 90 km, I’d decided the six time cutoff stations would be my best landmarks, as they stand 10-15 km apart.

Despite its significance as the highest point on the course (2,700 feet), Umlaas is nondescript and easily missed during the race — and especially on the down run, where it arrives so early. Except that this year, rounding a corner I happened to glance Rory’s tall distinctive frame among the spectators lining the road.

Unfortunately by the time my brain processed the moment I’d passed Rory by, and so not wanting to slam on the brakes and risk causing an accident, I turned quickly, yelled his name and threw up my hand in greeting as I continued on my way. I saw him respond to his name, but whether he’d recognized my voice or seen me in the crowd, I had no idea.

2018 Comrades Marathon on way to Camperdown

Savoring sunrise on the way to Camperdown

One advantage of the down run is the opportunity to cover the relatively quiet, wide-open stretch through Camperdown and Cato Ridge early in the day, before the sun is high in the sky. I could still recall how interminable these long, desolate and unshaded miles had felt during last year’s up run, with Inchanga in our rear-view mirror and Polly Shortts yet to come.

A pungent odor hit my nostrils, more like rotting animal carcass than the familiar Camperdown chicken farm smell I remembered from the year before. Luckily it passed as quickly as it had appeared. No harm, no fowl.

I texted Katie to let her know we were 2 km away from where she, Cath and Miguel would be waiting. I’d missed her and Rory at our first meeting place last year, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. We’d also made the sage decision this year to invest in a South Africa SIM card for our iPhones upon landing at the Johannesburg airport, so we’d be able to text freely throughout the trip.

We reached our terrific trio at the 66 km mark with Jimmy about a minute ahead. He passed the trio quickly without stopping while I paused for a couple bites of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich to supplement the baby food pouch I’d downed earlier. And I laughed as Cath, responding I think to Jimmy’s own sense of focus, urged me to get going while I took a minute to stretch my legs and pose for a picture with Katie.

Even the best seconding crew in South Africa’s gotta eat!

Seconding is a key part of the Comrades experience for both runners and crew; I appreciated their being there, and the excitement on their faces was a definite pick-me-up. I also knew that one or two minutes per pit stop wouldn’t make an appreciable difference in my final time. My nonchalance was fueled by my desire to enjoy race day to the utmost, but also by what I consider to be the most glaring oversight on the part of the Comrades Marathon Association. Let me explain…

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Comrades is its distinctive finisher medals, awarded on the basis of finish time as follows:

  • Gold: Top 10
  • Wally Hayward (named for the 5-time Comrades Marathon champion and oldest runner to finish the race): Out of the top 10 but less than 6 hours
  • Silver: Greater than 6 hours but less than 7½ hours
  • Bill Rowan (named for the first Comrades Marathon winner in 1921): Greater than 7½ hours but less than 9 hours
  • Bronze: Greater than 9 hours but less than 11 hours
  • Vic Clapham (named for the Comrades Marathon founder): Greater than 11 hours but less than 12 hours:

What jumps out at me from these numbers is the sizable two-hour gap between the first and last Bronze medalists. In this year’s race, bronze medalists accounted for 39% of finishers, compared to 31% for Vic Clapham and 13% for Bill Rowan. To my mind, the difference in performance between a runner who finishes Comrades in 9:01 and one who crosses the finish line in 10:59 is significant enough to merit distinct medals.

So then why not introduce a new medal, say the Bruce Fordyce medal, for runners who finish between 9 and 10 hours? Named after the race’s 9-time champion and its premier ambassador, the promise of a Bruce Fordyce medal would immediately inspire many runners who are on the cusp of 10 hours to train harder and run a smarter, more focused race. At the same time, it would set an exciting new standard for sub-10 runners like me — who currently know a Bronze medal awaits us whether we finish in 9:45 or 10:15 — and encourage us to treat the race with less nonchalance, knowing a sub-10 finish means the difference between a Bruce Fordyce medal and a Bronze.

So how ‘bout it, CMA?

The aid stations were as efficient and energetic as I remembered, though thanks to the cooler temperatures I didn’t need to visit quite as many this year. But despite the availability of trash bins, the streets around each aid station were littered with discarded water and Energade sachets, some still partially filled so that they emitted a last-gasp {POP} when stepped on.

[Comrades Tip #4: Unless you’re in the lead pack, toss your used cups and sachets off to one side of the road, near a trash bin. If you don’t like tramping over discarded trash and half-filled water balloons, why should the runners behind you?]

The 12-hour “bus” (pacing group) rolls through Camperdown

During the course of running 90 km you’re bound to experience at least one aid station snafu, and my most memorable came courtesy of a harmless-looking orange slice which I gratefully accepted from a proferred plate. Biting down to release the sweet juice, I was instead greeted by an unwelcome saltiness that nearly caused me to gag. Instinctively I spit out the foul fruit, my taste buds scrambling to reconcile the sensation of salty where there should only have been sweet.

Unfortunately by this time I’d already passed the aid station, and so it would be another km before I could wash the salty aftertaste {blech} from my mouth. Later in the race I’d grab another orange, but not without first interrogating the poor volunteer as to the flavor profile of his fruit. To his credit my ramblings didn’t faze him, and I thanked him as I jammed the sugary slice in my mouth.

Given my newfound suspicion of something as familiar as oranges, you can bet that I politely declined the offer of mageu, a milky drink made from fermented mealie pap and offered at aid stations in plastic yellow bags.

An aid station volunteer offers water sachets to thirsty runners

My stars & stripes running kit was a great conversation starter, with both international runners and fellow Americans curious to know where in the U.S. I was from and eager to share their own home country or state. And my kit complemented the race’s own strategy to distinguish South African and international runners — its colorful bib numbers.

True to the camaraderie of the event, the Comrades bib numbers communicate a wealth of information at a glance. I enjoyed congratulating other back-to-back runners, first-time international runners (as indicated by the “0” under “Medals” on their blue bib numbers) and especially Green Number hopefuls, whose yellow bib numbers distinguish them as 9-time finishers in pursuit of that coveted 10th finish. For the recreational runner, few achievements rival that of earning a Comrades Green Number, and the Green Number Club currently boasts 13,000+ members from the race’s 93 years.

Passing the second cutoff point at Cato Ridge (~60 km to go) brought us to the ironically named Harrison Flats. Luckily its rolling roads struck me as less challenging from this direction with their net downhill profile, and so I was able to make up time as the Old Main Road led us down into the belly of the waiting beast, my old buddy Inchanga.

56 km to go.

Harrison Flats to Drummond (Inchanga)
Though my energy levels remained high, all the climbing and descending was starting to wear on my legs as we made our way up the backside of Inchanga. And speaking of backsides, I can now appreciate that even though the Big Five — Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s Hill, Fields Hill and Cowies Hill — are notorious landmarks on the up run, they’re just as much a pain in the ass on the down run. Because it’s not like they suddenly flatten out in the opposite direction.

Climbing up the back of Inchanga we reached my favorite section of the course, the Ethembeni School for physically disabled and visually impaired children. At the same time emotionally disturbing and hugely uplifting, no memory of Comrades race day stands out like seeing the troubled children of Ethembeni, many with unfocused or faraway looks in their eyes, lined up with hands outstretched in the hopes of securing a high-five from passing runners.

Still wearing the beaded bracelet I’d received last year from the school’s headmaster, I smiled and high-fived every tiny hand available to me, in the hopes that feeling my encouraging slap on their palm might lift their spirits and, for even a brief moment, bring a smile to their face or heart.

Turning down the backside of Inchanga at the 2018 Comrades Marathon

Turning down the backside of Inchanga

Our brief visit to the Ethembeni School, coupled with the view from the top of Inchanga as runners below us descended the beast like two-legged ants, was well worth the struggle. Particularly since that struggle hadn’t been waged under direct midday sunlight.

Then down, down gravity carried us once again as I lay off the brakes and opened the throttle, taking the opportunity to catch my breath before the course briefly leveled out at its ceremonial midway point (cutoff mat #3) in Drummond. There the folks from Hollywoodbets greeted us alongside their familiar purple-and-yellow inflatable arch with music blasting and spectators screaming, as though we were celebrities, rock stars and supermodels. And while “loud” typically isn’t my scene, I tried to appreciate the raw energy of the moment before we’d immediately shift gears and start climbing again.

Because in case you hadn’t noticed, much like labeling Earth as “blue,” the terms “up run” and “down run” can be pretty misleading.

46 km to go.

Comrades Marathon halfway point: Drummond

Drummond to Winston Park (Botha’s Hill)
Unlike the up run where the second half begins with the nasty climb up Inchanga, this year we had something to look forward to on the climb out of Drummond and the Valley of 1,000 Hills.

First I paid a brief visit (along with a steady stream of fellow runners) to Arthur’s Seat, a shallow alcove carved out of the rock embankment on the south side of the road where 5-time Comrades champ Arthur Newton reportedly used to rest during his training runs. Legend has it that those who greet Arthur and leave him flowers during the race will enjoy a strong second half. And though my greeting had apparently fallen on deaf ears the year before, there was no use tempting fate by being an ugly American.

“Good morning, Arthur,” I said, leaning in and tapping the rock face gently as if to awaken its sleeping denizen. Who am I to flaunt tradition?

Arthur's Seat at 2018 Comrades Marathon

Just beyond Arthur’s Seat on the north side of the road stands the Comrades Wall of Honour, with its collection of plaques set in individual stones and labeled with the names and bib numbers of previous Comrades finishers — yellow plaques signify those with fewer than 10 finishes, whereas green plaques recognize members of the Green Number Club with 10 or more finishes. Amazingly, anyone with an official Comrades finish can buy their own plaque to be displayed on the Wall. Can you imagine the folks at the Boston Athletic Association doing something similar for Boston Marathon finishers? Talk about great fundraising for the B.A.A.

Rounding the corner from the Wall of Honour I spied Katie, Cath and Miguel waving to get my attention. Pulling alongside them, I was psyched to see that Rory and his brother Kirby had joined them. Rory apparently had recognized me at Umlaas and had texted Katie to coordinate their positions. They all looked to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Katie informed me that Jimmy was about five minutes ahead and that they’d been able to see Beth in Camperdown. Good news all around.

Seeing the five of them was a solid pick-me-up, as was the Tailwind mix I sipped while catching my breath and stretching my legs. I could feel my quads growing heavy from all the hill work, and worried that they’d only continue to tighten as the miles mounted. Luckily the course would be largely downhill from here (= “down” run). So I did what I could to quickly loosen my weary legs before pulling back into traffic and continuing on toward Durban.

Miguel and Beth celebrate her farthest run ever in Drummond — only a marathon+ to go!

Looking around at the caravan of runners, I reflected on the fact that as a woman Beth was definitely in the minority here. Female runners made up less than ¼ (23%) of Comrades registrants and only 31% of international runners this year, consistent with the disproportionately lower number of female participants in ultramarathons around the world. This despite the fact that in the United States, women runners now outnumber their male counterparts. Attracting female runners should clearly be a priority for the Comrades Marathon and ultrarunning in general.

On the up run, Botha’s Hill is the third of the Big Five. On the down run, as Lindsey Parry had noted in his pre-race briefing, Botha’s is in fact three separate hills. And while none of the three is particularly steep, the road just seemed to roll ever upwards toward the sky, a physically and psychologically exhausting reality that turns many runners into walkers.

At last we crested Botha’s Hill and reached Kearsney College, where the students had apparently returned home early from a rugby tournament so as not to miss Comrades Day. Some boys lined the road while others sat in bleachers off to one side, each sporting his distinctive blue blazer with its “CARPE DIEM” crest on the lapel.

Top of Botha's Hill during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Welcome to Kearsney College and the top of Botha’s Hill

Lindsey Parry’s advice on the down run is to run conservatively until you reach the top of Botha’s Hill, just past the 50-km mark. Then, if you’ve played it smart and still have your legs under you, you’ll be able to pick up the pace in the final 40 km. Luckily my legs felt no heavier than they had during my pit stop in Drummond.

On the other hand, my body was once again rejecting the notion of solid (or even gelatinous) food, and so I knew the next 40 km would be challenging from a nutritional standpoint.

Reaching the bottom of Botha’s Hill, a nasty 1 km uphill jag welcomed us to the town of Hillcrest, one of the most raucous sections of the course. There, supercharged spectators lined the road, whooping and cheering their support for the runners. Many of them focused specifically on my stars & stripes with cries of “Go USA!” and “U-S-A! U-S-A!” I pumped my fist lightly in appreciation, not wanting to sacrifice too much adrenaline to the cause of patriotism.

Mike Sohaskey on Botha's Hill at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

If you were to close your eyes (though hopefully not while running) and judge solely by the music along the course, you could be forgiven for thinking Comrades was a US race. I heard plenty of American favorites including the theme song from Rocky and (twice) Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough like Jimmy to catch “Sweet Caroline.”

Aid station volunteers were pouring salt into runners’ hands; I recoiled like a red, white and blue slug. Was it really that hot? If so, I definitely wasn’t feeling it. Though the sun was approaching its zenith, extensive cloud cover ensured its influence would be minimal.

With 32 km to go, a quick left-then-right turn on Old Main Road brought us to the fourth cutoff mat at Winston Park. Here in the vicinity of Winston Park, I heard an announcement that the second female had entered the stadium in Durban. As much as hearing this underscored the freakish disparity between our respective athletic abilities, it also heartened me to realize I was far enough along that other runners were already finishing the race.

Have I mentioned how important a positive mindset is to success at Comrades?

30 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey crossing 4th cutoff in Winston Park at 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Crossing the 4th cutoff mat in Winston Park

Kloof to Pinetown (Fields Hill)
Raise the roof, I’ve made it to Kloof, I thought with a wry smile. The thought lifted my spirits, since Kloof would be my third and final meeting place with the terrific trio of Katie, Cath and Miguel.

“We’re on the right, past the Coca-Cola hoopla at ~26km to go!” Katie had texted moments earlier, and now rounding the corner on the downhill I saw the Coca-Cola aid station just past the red Bonitas sign with its countdown thermometer indicating 28 km to go. I was a bit confused until, passing the aid station, I saw the three of them waiting just beyond.

Katie estimated Jimmy’s lead at 8–10 minutes, and I was psyched to hear he was still running well. So too was Beth, who I was told had looked strong in Drummond.

Jimmy makes one last stop to refuel in Kloof

For my part, I was thrilled to discover my legs felt no worse for wear now than they had at the midway point. Sure, the final 28 km wouldn’t be pretty, but just how un-pretty would depend more on the state of my stomach than the life in my legs. The good news was that I no longer had any need for my lightweight pack, since it wasn’t like my stomach would suddenly start accepting solid food again. So I dropped it with Katie, high-fived each of them to get my blood pumping and reluctantly bid them goodbye for the last time, promising with one last deep breath that I’d meet them at Moses.

Much like last year I know Fields Hills was long; I just couldn’t tell you how long. I do know it ended in Pinetown, an ending that couldn’t come soon enough. Because while the fourth member of the Big Five is definitely long and steep, it’s neither of these endearing qualities that makes Fields Hill public enemy #1 on the down run. That distinction belongs to its awful camber, which punishes the legs like nothing else on the Comrades course. I could easily see how runners might succumb to the siren song of Fields and fly down its steep slope, only to blow out their quads before Pinetown. And while Pinetown features plenty of car dealers and auto body shops, I didn’t notice any businesses touting “quad and calf repair while u wait.”

So I was relieved to reach the fifth cutoff point in Pinetown with my quads intact, and I’m confident my strength training (plus the REVEL Mt Charleston Marathon as a downhill training run) made all the difference.

Conferring with Rory in Drummond

But though my quads remained intact, I can’t say the same for my stomach — because I still haven’t trained it to eat at the speed of Comrades. Thanks to the cooler weather I was able to snack more this year than last year, nibbling on a banana here and an (unsalted) orange there, along with two of my baby food pouches (200 calories, par-TAY!). Eventually, though, as has become its modus operandi, my stomach rebelled at any hint of solid food, so instead I resorted to the occasional sip of Coke or Energade to satisfy my body’s caloric cravings.

Turns out the problem with this strategy was the disconnect between mind and body — whereas my mind told me I needed the sugar/calories, as soon as I’d take another sip of Coke or Energade I’d feel the uncomfortable sloshing in my stomach. I ran ~15K from Kloof to Pinetown to Westville feeling like a human water balloon, even stopping once to answer nature’s call at a Pinetown porta-potty.

Finally, in the midst of my rising frustration it occurred to me to just ignore my mind and let my body use its fat stores as fuel, as I had for so many of my training runs. And though this certainly didn’t have the same magical effect as Popeye’s spinach, at least I was able to ease the bloating and get back to running (semi-) comfortably the rest of the way.

Again, it’s called the Ultimate Human Race for a reason: you have to be ready, willing and able to adapt, mentally and physically, to any challenge and any situation.

Mike Sohaskey and Jimmy Nam at Arthur's Seat

Pinetown was off the chain, much more so (understandably) than during last year’s up run when we’d arrived early in the day at around the half marathon mark. Now, loud and high-spirited crowds several deep lined the road, which narrowed at one point to almost single file as spectators pressed in from both directions. Boisterous chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” filled my ears, and I seemed to be running with my hand in a perpetual “thumbs-up” position.

Pinetown was amazing.

One of the human highlights of Comrades is the volunteers — like the race itself, they’re in a class by themselves. They do a remarkable job maintaining their focus as sweaty glassy-eyed runner after sweaty glassy-eyed runner shuffles toward them, eagerly snatching two water sachets at a time from their outstretched hand and often dropping one in the process. So the undisputed lowlight of the day was seeing one runner in Pinetown pause to reprimand a volunteer who apparently hadn’t lived up to his lofty expectations. “Pay attention!” the runner barked at the volunteer, who I didn’t see.

If you have enough energy to be dressing down volunteers this late in the race, I thought, you should be running harder.

Leaving Pinetown, a mild-mannered older woman saw my shorts and replied, “Oh, America… so sorry about Trump, eh?” I smiled wryly and thanked her for her sympathy, waving over my shoulder as I passed. I was admittedly curious to see what reactions my USA running kit would evoke, and hers was the overwhelming sentiment within South Africa, from runners and spectators on the course to our safari ranger several days later who matter-of-factly referred to our 45th President as “a retard, eh?”

20 km to go.

Mike Sohaskey running 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Based on the crowds around me, I must have been leading the race at this point

Pinetown to Mayville (Cowies Hill)
With nearly 72 km (45 miles) in my legs, the last of the Big Five loomed large. On the up run, Cowies Hill makes an early appearance as a key part of the long, steady climb toward Drummond. On the down run, though, it includes a nasty ½ mile ascent that reduced me unashamedly to a walk and earned me with a 12:25 mile, my slowest moving mile of the day. Luckily the payoff for reaching the top of Cowies was a smooth downhill run into Westville.

[Comrades Tip #5: Uphill, downhill, it doesn’t matter — smile for the photographers when you see them. One moment of faux happiness is worth a lifetime of memories. And at very reasonable prices relative to other large races (I paid ~$33 USD for the entire digital package), you’ll likely want to purchase your race day photos.]

Descending toward Westville I thought Ah, so this is why it’s called the down run. Seeing the urban landscape of Durban laid out below me, I let myself relax as waves of suppressed fatigue washed over me. Having been on my feet for over eight hours, I let my mind wander as we cruised along King Cetshwayo Hwy, the encouraging shouts of the spectators now sounding muffled and distant as I retreated into my own head.

Last year the 10-hour “bus” (Comrades-speak for a pacing group) had caught me as we approached Little Polly’s with 10 km to go. I was determined that wouldn’t happen this time as I kept pushing forward whenever possible. At the same time, I still recalled the punishing latter stages of last year’s up run and had no desire to relive that misery. Because the thought suddenly struck me like a bolt of lightning on a clear day — this may be the last time I ever run Comrades.

With that sobering thought in mind, I allowed myself to look up, look around and use my walk breaks to soak it all in. I basked appreciatively in the adulation of the endless throngs with their tireless cheers, their uplifting chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and their altruistic offers of whatever we needed to help us get to Durban.

Yes, I wanted to run my best possible Comrades — but not at the expense of hating the final 20 km.

My reverie was shattered by a fellow runner dressed in African tribal gear who insisted on blowing his referee’s whistle as loudly and as frequently as possible. And while I appreciated both his enthusiasm and his outfit (and especially his ability to run 90 km in such an impressive headdress), at that moment I wanted to be anywhere else but running next to him and his freaking whistle. So whenever he’d pull alongside me with several shrill blasts to announce his whereabouts, I’d quickly speed up just enough to propel myself out of his direct earshot.

I’m sure the spectators appreciated his shrill whistle

In my bid to conserve energy, I wasn’t happy at being forced to accelerate in short, sporadic bursts. It felt like a bad dream where I’m trapped in drill team practice and can’t escape. And I wondered irately, Why blast a f@*#king whistle in your fellow runners’ ears for 10 hours?

Luckily I soon pulled far enough ahead to escape his one-note recital. The silver lining? His shrill blasts helped me stay sharp and maintain focus as we descended into Westville. After all, this stretch along King Cetshwayo Hwy is a quieter section of the course where, with Cowies behind and Durban ahead, it’s easy to lose your mental edge momentarily and feel fatigue setting in.

In the final ten miles or so as we neared Durban, every uphill seemed to require at least a short stint of walking, usually just long enough to take a few deep breaths and pull myself together. And though my legs were always reluctant to start running again after these slowdowns, once I did I found myself able not only to run but to run well, making solid progress and passing other runners. So I was definitely using the walk breaks to my advantage.

In Mayville we crossed the sixth and final cutoff mat, the last major milestone en route to finish line glory.

9 km to go.

The crowds thinned a bit between Cowies Hill and Westville — it is a highway, after all

Mayville to Moses Mabhida Stadium (finish)
One of the most memorable climbs of a long and memorable down run was also one of its shortest — the on-ramp from the M13 to the N3 at around the 83 km mark. After a sharp left turn, this steep uphill jag greeted us with a rise of 50 ft in just over 1/10 mile.

As I power-hiked upward to begin my final approach to Durban, a South African runner congratulated me on having my back-to-back medal “in the bag” — which at that moment sounded brilliant. I thanked him, and seeing my shorts his friend added that “Trump would be proud of you.” “Don’t think you want to go there,” the first fellow responded, and I agreed with a nod that our President’s approval was the furthest thing from my mind. Didn’t these two realize that exercise only depletes the body’s finite amount of energy?

[Comrades Tip #6: For all things coaching, Lindsey Parry is the definitive voice of the Comrades Marathon. That said, I’d respectfully disagree with his claim that the N3 on-ramp in Mayville is the last real uphill on the down run. With 84+ km in my heart and legs, the subsequent climb up to Tollgate and the N3 off-ramp into Durban both took the wind out of my sails.]

While it’s easy to predict the beating your legs will suffer over the course of 90 km, what may be less obvious is the steady pounding absorbed by the core muscles of your stomach and lower back. As we crested Tollgate my core muscles grew increasingly weary, and I did some quick high knee lifts in the hopes of granting them a momentary reprieve.

As it turns out, it’s tough to do much of anything without full cooperation from your back and stomach.

On the other side of the highway, drivers heading in the opposite direction honked (or hooted, as the South Africans say), and passengers hollered their support from passing cars. Which reiterated the insane fact that on this day we silly, selfish runners pursuing our silly, selfish hobby were the proud focus of a nation 56 million strong. And that humbling reminder immediately put a pep in my step.

Setting sights on Durban during 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Hello Durban!

With around 7 km to go the concrete, steel and glass skyline of urban Durban came into view at last. The moment was empowering, to be running on a national highway lined with cheering supporters as the sprawling skyline of South Africa’s third largest city — and our final destination — beckoned in the distance. Welcome, the soaring gray skyscrapers seemed to say. We’ve been expecting you.

Pulling out my iPhone for a picture, I happened to glance down at the time: 2:35pm. Which meant I had roughly 54 minutes to cover 7 km and still finish in less than ten hours, a much slower pace than I’d been running to that point. And I’ll be honest — after seeing the time and doing the math, it became increasingly difficult to push myself any harder. As long as I broke ten hours, what was the difference between finishing in 9:54 (last year’s finish time) vs. 9:44? Aside from my overall place in the final results, to my mind there was no meaningful difference.

Moments like this emphasize the importance of a well-defined goal to help maintain focus; without one, a race like Comrades becomes even more challenging than its 90 km distance.

Though barely a blip on my final Garmin tracing, the last uphill of the day would be the N3 offramp that would drop us down onto the city streets of Durban for the final 5 km. Though not a formidable climb at any other time, glancing up now I felt almost dizzy following the sweeping arc of the overpass as it curved upward and away toward Moses Mabhida Stadium. And so, with heavy legs and a light head, I walked.

From there the course did something it hadn’t done in the first 85 km — it leveled out.

Scenes from Durban before 2018 Comrades Marathon

Scenes from Durban (clockwise from top left): “Mzansi” is the Xhosa word for South Africa; Indian Ocean’s-eye view of the beachfront; with an expected R355 million (~$24 million USD) impact on Durban’s economy, Comrades is all around you; street market spices — the city is home to the world’s largest Indian population outside India

We’d been told so many times leading up to race day that the new course would pass by the old finish venue at Kingsmead Stadium, that by the time we finally passed the unassuming cricket facility with 3 km to go, I felt as though I’d been here before. But even with 87 km in my legs, I was more than happy to bypass Kingsmead in favor of shiny new Moses Mabhida Stadium, which as we rounded the bend just past Kingsmead came into full and glorious view.

From there, the final “Toyota Mile” was a straight shot past the cheering masses lining Masabalala Yengwa Ave, as though Moses (Mabhida) himself were parting the sea of spectators ahead of us.

“Hello, Moses.”

“I see you, Moses.”

“I am coming, Moses.”

I glanced over at the gaunt fellow mouthing these words to my right and smiled weakly as the object of his desire rose up to greet us. The screaming onlookers faded into the background as I focused on the stadium’s distinctive ladder-like arch, reminiscent of a DNA double helix. Meanwhile, the asphalt beneath my feet rolled by like an urban treadmill. One step at a time. Step, stride, repeat. Feel free to breathe.

Absurd as it may sound, even better for me than seeing the finish line at Comrades is seeing the big red Bonitas sign announcing 1 km to go. Because that’s when I know the official victory lap begins. Being nearly 11,000 miles from home, soaking in that last ½ mile while basking simultaneously in the exhaustion and glory of the moment is like no other feeling I’ve experienced as a runner. And that includes right on Hereford, left on Boylston.

The understatement of the year — on Africa or any other continent — goes to the official-looking banner hung the full width of a pedestrian bridge just outside the stadium that read earnestly, “THERE IS NO TURNING BACK NOW!”

89km mark of the 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Nothing like a bit of last-minute motivation at 89 km

Then we’d arrived, and with a left turn we entered the stadium through a dark tunnel, emerging onto the bright green grass of the playing field. Ironically, after running under open sky for nearly ten hours, I suddenly felt very small under the venue’s massive open-air roof surrounded by 56,000 seats. Originally built to host the World Cup in 2010, Moses Mabhida Stadium is a breathtaking venue in which to complete your Comrades journey.

I’ve heard other runners, in the full throes of cliché, say there are no words to describe the finish of the Comrades Marathon. I disagree. There are plenty of words, with “freaking awesome” being the first that come to mind. The last stretch from entrance tunnel to finish line is a moment of sheer exultation that I wish I could have bottled to relive and share with others for the rest of my life. And when I die, the bottle could live on, inspiring other runners in its new home at the Comrades Museum in Pietermaritzburg.

The familiar green-and-white finish line topped with its double balloon arch welcomed us in full view — unlike last year’s winding finish inside the Scottsville Racecourse, there would be no game of “Find the finish line.” I savored those final 100m to the fullest, scanning the stands quickly for familiar faces before raising my arms in triumph and completing my back-to-back quest in an official time of 9:48:25.

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

0 km to go. AND… breathe.

Mike Sohaskey crossing finish line of 2018 Comrades Marathon down run

Holy Moses!
Wobbling to a stop after my longest run ever, the first booming voice I recognized was Rory’s, and I glanced up into the stands to see him clapping excitedly in my direction. I was psyched to see him, and I can’t tell you how much it means to receive personal congrats from a fellow who finished this race 12 times, who earned a Green Number and to whom this event means so much.

Shuffling through the finish chute, I gratefully accepted my second consecutive bronze medal and Comrades patch, though sadly a yellow rose was excluded from this year’s awards. Hopefully Katie would understand when I showed up empty-handed.

Looking up at the steps that led from the field to the International Runners seating area, the grim reality of Moses Mabhida Stadium reared its ugly head. Because after covering 90 km in less than 12 hours, there’s nothing a runner wants less than to climb or (worse) descend stairs, and especially a stadium full of them. On the bright side, thanks to the mild weather I was in better post-race shape than last year when I’d been unable to move, much less negotiate stairs.

Jimmy Nam in homestretch of 2018 Comrades Marathon finish

Jimmy’s day-glo calves put the finishing touches on their first ultramarathon

One slow and unsteady step at a time, I ascended the concrete stairs in search of the others. I saw Jimmy seated in a section by himself and waved — he’d run a brilliant race in his first Comrades, finishing in 9:25:23. From my vantage point, he looked comfortable and none the worse for wear.

For my part, I’d run 4½ minutes faster than last year, despite this year’s course being 3½ km longer. The mild weather had a lot to do with that, as did a familiarity and comfort with the event itself. And even with all else being equal, most folks clock faster finish times on the down run.

Reaching the top of the stairs and the inner concourse, I bumped into John from Anchorage who had finished just one minute and 52 seconds ahead of me to earn a second consecutive bronze of his own. Tiredly we congratulated each other and agreed that yes, two in a row was just about enough Comrades for a while.

But aside from finding Katie, my immediate post-race focus was on securing my back-to-back medal. Eventually I located its caretaker, a Comrades official on the move who wore the medals around his neck and who quickly presented me with mine before hurrying past on another mission. Why the back-to-back medals hadn’t been made available at the finish line with the other finisher medals is unclear, but who am I to tell the CMA their business?

The back-to-back medal is hands-down my proudest achievement in running. If I were to come home one day to find our house in flames and I could grab only one earthly possession, my Comrades back-to-back medal may just be it. I don’t know whether I’ll have the chance to add a third Comrades medal to my collection (though I’m already eyeing Comrades #100 in 2025), but in any event the first two — along with their back-to-back brethren — will never get lonely.

At last, ambling weakly around the concourse in search of familiar faces, I found Katie and threw my arms around her, lingering for a few seconds to let her hold me up. Because the alternative wasn’t pretty.

Exhausted finishers sprawled out on the floor of the concourse as other runners and supporters gingerly stepped around them. Unlike Scottsville Racecourse which last year offered grassy expanses on which to rest and recover, Moses Mabhida provided nowhere for finishers to comfortably gather their wits. The only available options were the cramped stadium seats with little room to stretch your legs, the cold concrete ground around those seats or the floor of the concourse with its busy foot traffic.

Acknowledging Rory’s support in the grandstands

None of the three options was ideal, but I needed to collapse somewhere. So while I sprawled uncomfortably on the floor of the concourse trying to a) get comfortable and b) avoid getting stepped on, Katie visited the concession stand and returned with nirvana in a cup. I don’t think I’ve had orange soda since I was like ten years old, but the Fanta orange soda she brought me at that moment was the best orange soda — and maybe the most amazing beverage — I’ve ever tasted. It was life itself, equal parts nectar, unicorn tears and liquid crack. Hello, insulin!

In addition to all the stairs and the lack of recovery spaces, massage tents (which last year were easily accessible) were inconveniently located on the outer concourse of the stadium, a fact I didn’t realize until it was time to leave. And immediately past the finish chute, South African runners were being directed to their club tents outside the stadium, meaning that unlike last year they were unable to mingle with the international runners. All because running clubs were prohibited from setting up their tents on the grass playing surface inside the stadium.

The five of us were on “Beth watch” as the clock ticked toward 11 hours. We wouldn’t be disappointed. As it turns out Beth paced the latter stages of her race beautifully, finishing with the 11-hour bus in 10:57:28 and earning her own bronze medal with 2½ minutes to spare.

With everyone present and accounted for we all reconvened, shared congratulations and then made our way toward the seats at midfield, directly in front of the finish line. Despite feeling like the walking undead, we weren’t about to miss what came next.

Cath and Jimmy wisely wasted no time in celebrating

The Spirit of Comrades
Without a doubt, the 12-hour cutoff for the Comrades Marathon is one of the most dramatic moments in all of sports. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, played out within yards of each other on a national stage. And I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to witness it in a venue like Moses Mabhida, with its warm fluorescent lighting and grandstand seating offering a full view of the finish line. Spectator viewing is where Moses Mabhida really excels as a finish venue — no offense to the rickety bleachers and overmatched floodlights of the Scottsville Racecourse.

[Comrades Tip #7: If you’re an international runner, and unless you were swept off to the med tent or have a bone protruding through your skin after the race, DO NOT MISS the 12-hour cutoff. It’s human drama like you won’t see at any other sporting event, and it may make you cling just a bit tighter to your own finisher medal.]

The announcer was again in top form for this year’s finish, setting the stage in dramatic fashion with his full-throated countdown. And it was in the final minute of the 12 hours that the Spirit of Comrades played out magically before our eyes.

View from the 2018 Comrades Marathon finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

View from the finish chute inside Moses Mabhida Stadium

Wobbling down the home stretch toward the finish line like a drunken schoolboy, a runner lost control of his body and collapsed to the grass roughly 30 yards from the finish. Several fellow runners, so close to glory themselves and risking their own finish, lifted the man off the ground and supported his limp body while propelling him forward, his head bouncing listlessly like a rag doll. Only his legs still seemed to grok their role, churning slowly beneath him as the rest of his body tried to call it quits. Apparently 11 hours and 59 minutes of concentrated effort had been enough.

It was like Weekend at Bernie’s meets reality television. About five yards from the finish he collapsed for the final time, and a volunteer signaled to his impromptu crew, presumably telling them he had to cross the finish line under his own power. And so, as the energized crowd cheered him to glory, he crawled on hands and knees past the waiting human chain of volunteers and across the finish line with 40 seconds to spare. It was then that I realized I’d been holding my breath behind my camera, and immediately I exhaled and erupted in applause of my own.

I’ve never seen anything like it, and I may never see anything like it again. And if I had to summarize the Spirit of Comrades in 45 seconds, I’d probably point to this footage:

Then the final countdown began, and seconds later the human chain swung into place, blocking the finish line as approaching runners looked on in a poignant mix of horror, disbelief and resignation. So close and yet so very, very far. Like marionettes who had danced for 12 hours before having their strings cut, several dropped to the grass within yards of the finish line and lay there with exhausted bodies and broken hearts.

The six of us stood for several heartbeats in shocked silence before our sympathy gave way to heartfelt applause. Two women seated nearby wiped tears from their eyes.

And with that, the curtain fell on the human theater of the 93rd Comrades Marathon. All the actors had played their roles admirably, and the performance would predictably garner rave reviews. The sequel opens June 9, 2019, and though the itch will undoubtedly be there when registration opens in October, I’m hoping to scratch it with a different South Africa race in 2019. But where Comrades is concerned, I’ll never say “Never again” — and especially since #100 happens in seven short years.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the day’s most remarkable story. Though he didn’t earn a medal, South Africa’s Xolani Luvuno earned a whole lot of love from his fellow athletes and countrymen by completing the 2018 Comrades Marathon — on one leg. Luvuno, a former addict who lost his right leg to amputation following a bone cancer diagnosis in 2009, started 5 hours ahead of the field and completed the 90 km distance on crutches in 15 hours, 50 minutes.

The next time your brain tells your body it can’t do something, think about Xolani Luvuno. Then stop listening to your brain and go do it. No less an authority than Nelson Mandela once said, “It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” He would know.

When the dust settled and the sun descended over Moses Mabhida Stadium, 16,478 of the day’s 19,116 starters (86.2%) had earned a finisher medal, with the distribution as follows:

618 = Gold + Wally Hayward + Silver
2491 = Bill Rowan
7,455 = Bronze
5,914 = Vic Clapham

(Source: Louis Massyn on Facebook)

As for the elites, Comrades 2018 was a clean sweep for the home team, with Bongmusa Mthembu claiming his third overall and second consecutive Comrades title in 5:26:34, while Ann Ashworth led the South African women to four of the top five slots, winning in a time of 6:10:04. (Defending champion Camille Herron of the US was forced to withdraw ten days before the race with a quad strain.)

2018 Comrades Marathon winners

Comrades champions Bongmusa Mthembu and Ann Ashworth led the way for South Africa (photo: Jetline Action Photo)

I’ve gotten the question several times now: Which direction do I prefer, the up run or the down run? And the honest answer is, both and neither. Because there’s so much more to this race than the placement and gradient of the hills.

On the one hand, given the amount of downhill in the second half, the down run is traditionally a faster course (Lindsey Parry agrees). If I were ever to seriously consider a run at a sub-9 hour finish and Bill Rowan medal, I’d do it on the down run. I also met a handful of Comrades veterans whose only successful finishes have been on the down run, along with several unsuccessful attempts at the up run. (I’ve yet to hear of the reverse happening.) If you’re a slower runner who’s concerned with beating the 12-hour cutoff, I’d recommend the down run.

On the other hand, the down run is consistently 3-ish km longer (89 vs 86) than the up run, and will punish your quads and calves if you haven’t adequately trained for downhill running. By the midway point of this year’s down run, my legs definitely felt more fatigued than they had after the first 43 km of climbing last year. So if your strength (like mine) is uphill running, the up run may be your best bet.

That evening, despite our sadly limited appetites, Rory generously hosted dinner at the Japanese restaurant in our hotel. Dining at a nearby table, Bruce Fordyce dropped by to say hello and shake Jimmy’s hand in recognition of an excellent performance in his first Comrades. It was a singular moment and, together with dinner itself, a perfect ending to a day I didn’t want to end. Because it’s not often you earn a personal congratulations from one of the planet’s greatest athletes, amirite?

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run

Nine-time Comrades champ Bruce Fordyce congratulates Jimmy on a race well run, while I steal a handshake

Turns out our day wasn’t quite over — or at least not our night. With wire cutters in hand, Katie and I drove the darkened streets around Moses Mabhida Stadium, snipping yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards from lamp posts to keep and distribute as souvenirs. (I’d secured my matching 2017 placard, signed by both Bruce and 1982 women’s champ/current CMA Chairperson Cheryl Winn, via a charitable donation at the International Runners Reception.) The street crews were happy for the help, since they planned to remove the signs within the week anyway.

[Comrades Tip #8: Want a cool unofficial souvenir? If you have a car, on the night of the race borrow a set of wire cutters (we got ours from the hotel) and go snip one of the yellow Comrades “ROUTE CLOSURE” placards that are affixed to lamp posts along the route. This also helps with post-race clean-up.]

Amazingly, come Monday morning my legs were minimally sore, and even that low-level soreness faded by Wednesday. Either I hadn’t run hard enough, or I’d training my quads well for the downhill pounding — or maybe both. As usual after a tough marathon or ultra, though, my immune system was the real casualty. Over the course of the next week I developed a nasty cold and cough, just in time for back-to-back 11+ hour return flights from Johannesburg to London and London to Los Angeles.

Having crossed finish lines in both Pietermaritzburg (up run) and Durban (down run), I can now say by any standard that I’ve completed the Comrades Marathon. And I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s nothing else like it in the world. It certainly isn’t the most scenic event — there are many more picturesque courses including South Africa’s own Two Oceans Marathon, which bills itself as the “World’s Most Beautiful Marathon.” But it’s hands-down the best, owing to its epic scope — its 93 years of history, its uniquely time-honored traditions, its diverse brotherhood of runners from around the globe, and its cultural and spiritual significance to an entire nation that has fought long and hard to embody the values of dignity, respect and equality that are the cornerstones of the Ultimate Human Race.

Bruce Fordyce has said that “If you don’t shed at least one tear during Comrades, you must have ice in your veins.” He may be right. But even if you’re not the misty-eyed sentimental type, you’ll never be the same once you’ve experienced this event for yourself. And my suggestion for next year’s race slogan would simply be Liyakushintsha, from the Zulu meaning, It changes you.

Though unthinkable a year ago, the truth is that this year’s sequel more than lived up to the original. This was in large part thanks to the excellent companionship of Jimmy, Cath, Beth and Miguel, plus the excellent returning companionship of John and Rochene from Anchorage and other friendships renewed and forged throughout the weekend. The only thing better than competing in the Ultimate Human Race may be sharing the experience with someone else.

Because while the 90 km marathon may be the focus of the weekend, and rightfully so, this race is all about the comrades.

U-S-A! Ca-na-da! U-S-A!

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.
  • Bruce Fordyce’s blog is another invaluable source of tips & tricks. And though I’ve not read them myself, 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!
  • Though we planned our own itinerary this year, our friends at Marathon Tours & Travel helped out with logistics, flights and lodging for Comrades 2017 and for our post-race travels in South Africa.

2018 Comrades Marathon finish line selfie with Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho

BOTTOM LINE: At the risk of sounding like a (happily) broken record, the Comrades Marathon is the greatest running event on the planet. Not only is it the oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, but no other event can match its epic scope and time-honored traditions, its all-day adrenaline, and the easy camaraderie forged among runners from around the globe. Comrades is truly a race that celebrates all runners and wants everyone to succeed, from international runners who travel halfway around the world to local runners who qualify for the race but can’t afford lodging — for these athletes, the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) sets up cots to sleep on near the start line the night before the race.

But to whom much is given — in this case, the opportunity to participate in the Ultimate Human Race — much is expected, and you can expect the journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (or the reverse) to be anything but smooth. Because Comrades is a trial by fire. Both mental and physical hardships await on the long, hot, hilly road to Durban, each of which will test you, test your resolve, and ultimately change you. As the 2016 race slogan predicted, Izokuthoba: It will humble you. And if you’re anything like me or the many other runners from around the world who return to this event year after year, you’ll discover that 90 km cycle of destruction and renewal to be cathartic and even downright addictive — physically, spiritually and psychologically. You’ve been warned.

2018 Comrades Marathon and 2017-18 back-to-back medals

PRODUCTION: Awesome, except for the post-race logistics in Moses Mabhida Stadium, which despite its sleek modernity was less runner-friendly than the smaller Scottsville Racecourse last year. I won’t be the first or last person to tell the CMA that the stadium as a finish venue is a work in progress. Whereas its grandeur and spectator-friendly viewing arrangement are beyond reproach, as a post-race recovery zone for runners it leaves a lot to be desired.

There’s plenty of work to be done to reimagine Moses Mabhida as a more comfortable and inviting post-race venue, and hopefully that starts with letting finishers and running clubs gather on the grass playing field. While I’d imagine there are liability and security issues that limit its access, it seems absurd to have exhausted runners dragging themselves up and down concrete stairs, sitting in cramped plastic seats and sprawling underfoot on the floor of the concourse while an immaculate grass surface lays unused below them.

Aside from that, race day was perfect. And a special shout-out of appreciation to all the volunteers without whom Comrades would be impossible — I’m constantly amazed at the selflessness of the folks who voluntarily stand on their feet for hours in any weather to help runners like me achieve our personal goals. You all are the real heroes of the Comrades Marathon!

Appropriately, Jimmy’s shoes get the last word

SWAG: At roughly the size of an American quarter or RSA 5 Rand coin (the back-to-back medal is only modestly larger), the Comrades finisher medal may be the smallest in distance running. And yet it’s also among the most coveted. My three Comrades medals — two bronze, one back-to-back for running consecutive years — are the guests of honor in my collection alongside my Boston Marathon unicorn. To me, the medals are beautiful in their simplicity. Plus, they’re great conversation starters, particularly for puzzled non-runners who balk at the notion of running 90 km for something that small.

Unfortunately, the official race shirt this year was downright ugly. As Jimmy suggested, it’s almost as if Mizuno learned they’d won the Comrades sponsorship and immediately sent someone into the back of the warehouse to find a bunch of blank tech shirts on which to print a Comrades logo, year and distance. The royal blue shirt has the beginnings of a honeycomb pattern on front which morphs into a strange geometric pattern reminiscent — to this lab rat — of viruses viewed under an electron micropscope. All of which adds nothing to the design. The shirt lacks the design sensibility of last year’s New Balance merch, a truth that extended to everything in the Mizuno store at this year’s expo. I showed up at the expo ready to support all things Comrades as I had in 2017, only to be disappointed by Mizuno running shoes with no Comrades branding and Mizuno t-shirts that simply said “Osaka Japan” on the front. In the end, I grudgingly saved my money and opted for a simple black tech shirt with a tiny Comrades logo on the sleeve. So a word to the wise at Mizuno: get back to the drawing board before next year’s event and KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. You could sell hella more merch with even the slightest bit of foresight and design sensibility.

(Huge thanks to Cath, Katie and Miguel, without whose photos I couldn’t have filled up a 13,000-word race report!)

2017-2018 Comrades Marathons medals

RaceRaves rating:

FINAL STATS:
Jun 10, 2018 (start time 5:30 am, sunrise 6:49 am)
56.58 miles (91.1 km, officially 90.184 km) from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa
Finish time & pace: 9:48:25 (second time running Comrades, first “down” run), 10:24/mile
Finish place: 4,957 overall, 1,760/5,710 in M 40-49 age group
Number of finishers: 16,478 total (78% men, 22% women)
Race weather: cool (57°F) & partly cloud at the start, warm (72°F) and partly cloudy at the finish, overcast throughout the race
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 4,024 ft ascent, 6,134 ft descent
Elevation min, max: 20 ft, 2,710 ft

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One chance is all you need.
– Jesse Owens

Berlin Marathon - runners finishing through Brandenburg Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at Berlin Marathon Expo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon - Tiergarten start & finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho straddling boundary of former Berlin Wall

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

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

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

KT_6K finish

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

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

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

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

Tom Grilk_Executive Director Boston Athletic Association

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey at 7KM marker - Berlin Marathon 2014

Almost missing Katie at the 7-km mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey on Berlin Marathon course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon - Top 3 female finishers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - finishing Berlin Marathon through the Brandenburg Gate

On the shiny happy side of the Brandenburg Gate

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey - at Berlin Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Daniel Otto at Reichstag post-Berlin Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Sohaskey and Herzel celebrating Berlin Marathon finish

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

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

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

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

Berlin Marathon 2014 medal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berlin splits

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

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Paul Butler is to marathons what Ryan Seacrest is to hair — not one out of place.

I met Paul and his wife Sharon on our recent Antarctica Marathon adventure.  Actually, I met a lot of people on our trip, a dizzying array of endurance types with remarkable racing résumés.  Some older runners had completed over 100, over 200, over 300 marathons in their lifetimes, while several less veteran runners were clearly headed down that same path.  As the temperamental ocean swirled around us, so too did stories of marathoning exploits that circled the globe, in some cases more than once.  These were restless minds and bodies forever in search of The Next Big Challenge.

So why, on a ship full of hyperaccomplished running juggernauts, did my focus gravitate to Paul Butler?  After all, Paul — a 61-year-old dentist from Center City, Philadelphia — had run “only” 56 marathons prior to boarding the Akademik Sergey Vavilov bound for Antarctica.  Compared to some of his fellow passengers, whose medal collections could be melted down to build a life-size Optimus Prime, Butler’s own collection of race bling is relatively modest and could reasonably hang from both sides of one sturdy doorknob (my preferred method of showcasing medals).

Speaking of juggernauts…

No, it wasn’t necessarily the quantity of his marathons that attracted my attention; it was their quality.  Because Paul may be, without exaggeration, the most efficient marathoner in the history of the sport.  His pre-Antarctica total of 56 marathons incorporated all 50 states plus Washington D.C., as well as six different continents.  He’s never run two marathons in the same state nor — aside from North America — on the same continent.  He’s run his hometown Philadelphia Marathon only once (although he has competed at shorter distances in the city).  Unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t choose a marathon based on what his friends are running, or its proximity to his home, or because he’s easy prey for modern-day race organizers who promise a one-of-a-kind finisher’s medal to anyone who completes all three races within a series.

So it was that on the morning of March 30, only 26.2 miles in Antarctica stood between Paul and a résumé that would make even the most dehydrated marathoner salivate: membership in both the 50 States Marathon Club and the Seven Continents Club, as well as one of the more compelling personal stories in a sport rife with fascinating characters and amazing accomplishments.  Antarctica would appropriately serve as the coup de grâce to his marathoning career.

At least, that was the plan.  But as we all quickly learned on the Last Continent, sometimes the best-laid plans of ice and men…

Paul’s own best-laid plans went awry at mile 20 when, with 6.2 miles to go in a 15-year journey, his Antarctica Marathon came to a premature end.  And four days later, on the Vavilov’s stomach-churning return voyage across the Drake Passage, as most passengers struggled with the concept of “upright,” I seized the opportunity to chat with him in the ship’s library, to learn more about his meticulously executed racing past, his unexpectedly bittersweet present, and his uncertain post-Antarctica future.  I’ll let him fill in the details.

Paul&Sharon_Vavilov

Paul and Sharon Butler, aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov

(The following conversation took place on April 3, 2013; the original transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity)

Mike S:  What motivated you to start running in the first place?
Paul B:  I was a runner in elementary school, in the 5th and 6th grade, and then I gave it up until I was in the Army, in Germany.  I was married with three children, and I wanted to get myself into shape and be job-worthy before I came back home to the States and looked for a job.  So my wife Sharon and I started jogging around the American base in Germany.  We both lost about 40 pounds and got back in 1980 in great shape.

MS:  So you came back from Germany and settled down in Philadelphia?
PB:  Yes.  And then sort of forgot about running until my youngest son was going to be bar mitzhvahed.  In our congregation, you then do something charitable.  I got something in the mail from the Leukemia Society — you raise money, and they’ll pay your way to a marathon.  So I chose the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in June 1998.

We sent out letters to raise money, and our whole family went — the six of us, Sharon and I and our four children.  I think we raised about four or five thousand dollars for the Leukemia Society.

That got me hooked, to do a marathon.  And I was disappointed – I think I did it in 5 hours 45 minutes.  I expected to finish, but I developed blisters.  So then after that was over, and I was disappointed in my time, I said “I’m going to try this again somewhere.  Hey, there’s one in Las Vegas, let’s go to Las Vegas.”  And I actually finished that in under 5 hours, like 4 hours and 59 minutes.  I really ran hard at the end and all my muscles spasmed, and Sharon had to take me back to the hotel room in a wheelchair.  That’s how horrible it was.

So then I decided, I like doing all this stuff but I’m not going to kill myself anymore, I’m just going to finish.  I had 3,600 frequent flyer miles built up from my credit card, and I took all six of us to Vermont.  And I ran pretty good, just missed five hours by under a minute.

And we said, let’s go to some different places, doing these marathon things.  When I got to about eight or nine, I saw something about the 50 States Marathon Club.  That got me really motivated, and I ran over 40 marathons between 2002 and 2009.  Sometimes I did 12 a year, and one time I ran two marathons on consecutive weekends.

So that’s what I did — I decided just to finish, not to hurt myself, not to worry about whether I finished in five hours or seven hours.  And I just kept doing them.

San Diego, 1998: the race that began a 15-year marathoning journey

MS:  And always used your running as a reason to travel with the family and visit another state?
PB:  Well, the kids went with us to Vermont and then to Alaska — the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage in June.  We made it a family vacation where we did the marathon first and then flew up to Barrow, took the train down to Fairbanks, and did the whole thing for a couple weeks.  It was great.

The trick was planning everything, because I only did one marathon in every state.  My last one was supposed to be in Atlantic City.  So my whole family, all my friends came out… and that year they canceled the race last minute because they didn’t have a sponsor.  Luckily for me there was another race that weekend, the Asbury Park New Jersey [Relay] Marathon.  I’d never been to Asbury Park, so that was a new place to see, and it was their inaugural run.

But the bad news was, there was a nor’easter that weekend — it was 40 degrees, the wind was sort of like this [indicates the lurching ship], and it was raining heavily I’d say 90% of the time.  It was a horrible day to do a marathon.  I wouldn’t want friends and family to come out in that weather, but a lot of them did.  So a lot of my family was able to see me finish, but the odd thing was… less than a minute before I crossed the finish line, two of my kids were swinging my oldest grandson back and forth and dislocated his shoulder.  So when I crossed the finish line hardly anybody was there, they were all worried about him.  Luckily, a family member who’s a physician was able to reset my grandson’s arm, so everything was ok.

After that, I didn’t think about running marathons anymore until February or March 2010.  I had built up a ton of frequent flyer miles to run all these places in the states, and I discovered you could fly from Philadelphia to Dublin for 20,000 miles.  That was a really good bargain, since it was in October during low season.  And the weekend I picked out, the Dublin Marathon was that weekend.

Even M.C. Escher would have been impressed by how Paul made all the pieces fit

MS:  So you hadn’t thought about running the continents?
PB:  No, not until that point.  And I said well, I can do a marathon in Dublin.  On the 50 States Marathon Club website, under “Membership” it has “Conquering the Continents.”  I saw that not many people had done all the states and all the continents, and I said wow, that’d be a pretty neat thing to be one of those people.

We can’t take too much time off work, so we did several of the international races as a four-day trip — leaving on a Thursday night, arriving on Friday, sightseeing on Saturday, marathon the next morning and then leave that night.  We did the same thing with Marathon Tours for their inaugural marathon in the Outback in Ayers Rock, Australia.  That one had an eight-hour finishing time — that’s my kind of marathon, I always try to get the slowest.  Dublin was also eight hours.  So I signed up for that [Ayers Rock] and it worked out great, it was a nice marathon.

And then Phuket in Thailand — I did that in 2011, and that was the worst race ever, ever, ever.  I wear orthotic inserts all day when I work and during races too, and they’d never bothered me before.  But in Phuket, it was so hot and humid that I developed horrible blisters, and the orthotics kept irritating the blisters.  I didn’t really know what was going on the whole race, until I got home and saw what had happened… I kept thinking there were stones in there or something.  But I had blisters — I peeled the whole thing off the back of my foot, from the bottom of my foot, both feet.

The bottom line was that after about 5 miles, I was limping… and I limped the whole way, 26.2 miles.  But I finished, and that was my slowest finish time, like 7 hours 15 minutes.  I crossed the finish line, and I was like the last one to finish.  I knew I wasn’t going back there to do it again — I had to do it.  So that was gratifying, the fact that I did it.

Then I ran Mt. Kilimanjaro the following February, Easter Island in June, and the Marine Corps Marathon [in Washington D.C.] was in there at some point.  And I was done last June, after Easter Island.

I signed up for Antarctica probably three years ago.  I was signed up for 2014, and Thom [Gilligan, President/Founder of Marathon Tours and Antarctica Marathon race director] called me a year and a half ago to ask, “Do you want to move up a year?”  Believe it or not, I trained harder for this race than I did any other race because I knew it was going to be more difficult.  I like to run on a treadmill, and that was probably my downfall — even though I would run 15, 16 miles and elevate it every once in a while to get used to hills, it just wasn’t like this.  You can’t duplicate this on a treadmill. [laughs]  So that was probably my downfall.  This was supposed to be 57 and done, and… now it isn’t.  But I did get a half marathon medal, I did 20 miles, I just… I would never come back here, I would never do this again.

Paul (wearing bib #20) greets the camera during the Antarctica Marathon (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  There are companies that fly into Antarctica, race immediately and fly out again.  Would you ever think about doing that?
PB:  I probably would… because it’s going to gnaw at me for a while, that I didn’t finish it.  I can’t help it — no matter what anybody says to me, it’s going to bother me.  Even though it’s the same medal, and it’s going to be up on my wall, it doesn’t mean the same in my heart.  I know there are two other races that fly in here, so I would definitely do that.  But we can’t really afford to do it this way [by ship] again.  Our house needs to be painted, the bathroom needs to be redone, and we put that off so I could do this.  Who knows, I’m only 61, there are a lot of guys here older than me who finished a marathon, so… I’ll see.

MS:  So then what’s next?  Will you keep running, maybe start over?
PB:  Well, I’m going to still run, but I have no marathons planned.  I signed up for the Broad Street Run in May — Philadelphia has a Broad Street 10-mile run which is the best, most successful and most popular 10-miler.  They have like 40,000 runners, and it’s a lottery like the New York City Marathon.  It’s a nice easy run, and I’ll do that.  And then I’ll see.  I’ll look into… I know I’m not going to not look at the website for those two other [Antarctica] marathons.  But I have to find out, is there a time limit on that one?  I don’t want to go there and get yanked off the course in 6 hours 15 minutes if they’re only giving you six hours.

I’ve been emailing my daughter, who’s a professional trainer.  She’s done a couple marathons with me in Hawaii and Florida, and she was a professional basketball player.  When she was in high school, in the state semifinal game, her team was behind by two, and as the point guard she was dribbling down court for the tying or winning basket with five seconds left.  She was dribbling down, and the ball dribbled off her knee, went out of bounds, and that was the end of her high school career.  She said, “Dad, that haunts me all the time.”  Not every day — she has three boys of her own now, she’s got a nice life, great husband, but every once in a while she thinks about that ball dribbling off her foot, just like I’m going to think about me stopping at the 20-mile mark and not finishing this race.  She says things happen: “You know, whatever caused you not to have the energy to go on, it happened.  Just like I dribbled off my foot, I can’t go back to change it.”  Like the guy who makes the last out in the World Series, you know, or the guy who drops a perfect pass in football.

MS:  So you decided to stop the Antarctica race yourself, you said?
PB:  Yes, it was my choice.  I guess I looked ok, and Thom said “Paul, I’m stopping all the runners after you, and we’re going to monitor you.”  I was on that harder loop [out to the Uruguayan base and back] at the 20-mile mark, and I saw a hill.  At the 20-mile marker there was a big dip right there, and I had already fallen twice, I’d really hurt myself [indicates his wrist].

I said to myself, I’m going to fall if I try to go over that hill, and I’m never going to get back up to go the other way.  And there were still hills beyond that.  I just felt that I was going to hurt myself.  I’d already fallen twice, and I didn’t want to really cause any problem for me or anybody else getting me out of there.  I just didn’t feel confident… I lost my confidence.  Because I wasn’t out of breath, I just didn’t have the inner strength.

MS:  So… you mentioned Phuket, but would this qualify as your most challenging race?
PB:  The course in Phuket wasn’t crazy hard, it was just the feet that got me in trouble there.  I never professed to be a great marathon runner, but this is the first I had to drop out of.  I always finished every race — even if I had to walk it, I always had that strength to finish.  This one just… like I said, I trained for this one more than any other marathon, and I didn’t take it seriously enough, even at that point when Thom sent that email about “You’d better train for the hills.”  The ice and the hills just got to me.

For 18 runners, crossing the finish line in Antarctica secured their place in the Seven Continents Club

MS:  Do you have a most memorable race?
PB:  I like Vermont because it was a tough course that I finished pretty well, for me — a little over five hours.  Actually, that was a beautiful course.  Marine Corps I liked also because I did a pretty good time on that, and once you do that, you feel like you’re a real Marine, you know? [laughs]  Every race I felt really good about because I’m not a super athlete.  I’m sure I’m 20 pounds overweight.  In my mind it’s hard to even walk a marathon, and I usually would run more than half of it, then run and walk the rest of the way.

But I always felt that I was able to pick my races.  I couldn’t pick this one, this was it — this was the one, I couldn’t change it.  I always thought I could do what I had to do with this one.  Because I talked to a few people who had done it, and they said “Thom will let you finish as long as he sees you’re going at a good pace.”  And he did… he was going to allow me to finish.  I made the choice to stop.  And that’s not like me.

Bob [a fellow runner] picked me up when I fell.  He saw me go down the second time, and I didn’t get up right away. I wasn’t knocked out, but I was like in shock, like where am I?  He yanked me up and asked me if I was ok, and I said yeah I’m fine, and I kept on going at that point.

MS:  What’s been your favorite destination, not necessarily for the race itself, just a place you visited?

PB:  Actually, believe it or not, Mount Rushmore.  There’s actually two marathons there, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse [MS note: the Mt. Rushmore Marathon was discontinued after 2008].  I chose the Crazy Horse Marathon because it’s more downhill.  If I can go fast on the first half — I usually walk a lot of the second half — I’ll finish in a good amount of time.  I love that course, and Sharon loved to see Mt. Rushmore.

These races have given us chances to see the whole country.  When we went to do the Lake Okoboji Marathon in Iowa, we took a three-hour side trip and saw the Field of Dreams, from the movie.  Every time we went somewhere we tried to see an attraction.  Even if we had to drive a long distance it was worth it, because you never know when you’re going to go back to these places.

MS:  What’s your PR?
PB:  It’s like 4:59:02 I think, something like that.  That was in Las Vegas.  I figure there’s no way I’m ever going to get under four hours, so that’s fine for me.

MS:  Have you run any trail races, or do you stick to roads?
PB:  No, I don’t do any… in fact, I would consider this a trail race, I think it should be advertised as a trail race.  Whether it’s muddy or icy, it’s still a trail race.

This definitely has the look of a trail race (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  Do you run any other distances?
PB:  I’ve done the Broad Street Run many times, the 10-mile one, and I do a few half marathons in Philadelphia.  But not much lately.  I really just tried to do marathons, and now it’s a new part of my life, so I haven’t really figured out what I’m going to do next.

MS:  Do you do any other sports besides running?
PB:  I played basketball with an adult league for ten years.  When I decided to do this running thing I gave it up, because in this league guys like you – younger guys – would come in and play, and they would play for real real.  I was scared I was going to get hurt… so I decided just to make sure if I was going to hurt, I was going to hurt myself [running].  So I might try that, I might go back and do the basketball thing.

MS:  Have you sustained any injuries through all of this?
PB:  Yes, this happened about two months ago — I switched shoes, I didn’t do it right away, but I did a 15-mile run, and after the run this big toe got totally black.  I had to go to this podiatrist who saved me many times in my running career.  He gave me some shot and had to slice between the nail and the thing, and the thing bled out.  I was able to still run, and it finally eased up, but that sidelined me for a couple weeks about eight weeks ago.  So that’s the worst of my injuries.

MS:  Wow, so no shin splints, no stress fractures, no tendinitis, no plantar fasciitis, nothing too serious?
PB:  I did… in 2001 I had a problem with plantar fasciitis, and I didn’t run for about a year.  I must have bought three or four different gadgets to try to cure that, and the orthotics finally helped.  That was all my injuries.  It wasn’t all easy, but I never had knee problems, I never had shin splints, never really had hip problems.

Yeah, I was pretty fortunate.  And I always say to myself that if I could lose 20 pounds and keep it off forever, I probably would’ve been a really good runner.  Because I had no knee injuries, no problems — but I didn’t have the self-control, I enjoy eating too much.  I’m a vegan, but I eat a lot of that too.

MS:  If you were to start on day one and do this all over again, would you do it the same way?  Would you do anything differently?
PB:  For my whole running career?

MS:  Yes, from San Diego, 1998.
PB:  No, it was such a great run.  I spent so many hours planning to make sure I could get all the states at a certain time to finish up Saturday [in Antarctica].  It was all planned out, and it took so much effort — enjoyable effort.  It was a good part of my life, 15 years.  And who knows what the future’s going to bring.  I swore to everybody this was going to be my last marathon… I said “This is it, I’m not doing anymore.”  It takes up a lot of time; I wake up at 4:00 in the morning on the treadmill, I’m running two hours before I go to work, and then I’m falling asleep at 7:00 at night.  I know if I were to say to Sharon right now, “Let’s not paint the house, let’s not fix this,” then she would go with me, she would do this again… she would.  But it’s not fair.  She’s given up enough at this point, and she was at every finish line, every finish line.

Reunited at the finish: while Paul raced, Sharon provided support as a volunteer (photo credit Anita Allen)

MS:  As far as advice for other runners who look at you and say, “Wow, 56 marathons, I couldn’t even run one,” or really anybody who’s looking at some kind of daunting challenge, would you have any guidance for them?
PB:  Yes, I would.  I think anybody could do it, could do what I did.  I don’t consider myself a great athlete.  But I bought this book called The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, written by two professors from the University of Northern Iowa who taught a course about training for a marathon as part of their college curriculum.  It was a 16-week course, and they gave you eating advice and training advice so that any non-athlete could get through a marathon.  So I read and followed the training guidelines in that book for the first three or four marathons.  And it worked.  So anybody who’s not a real athlete, buy that book.

MS:  Is there any other race that you really want to run, that you have in mind?
PB:  No, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on in my life right now.  But I’ll be thinking about Antarctica… definitely that’s going to be on my mind, and who knows what’s going to happen.

A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
– William Shedd

Continued from Act 1:

The 14th Antarctica Marathon (Saturday, March 30)
Race morning arrived in the usual manner, with Andrew’s comforting voice reminding us over the Vavilov‘s PA that it was time to run a marathon on the coldest, highest, driest, darkest and windiest continent on Earth.  Hooray!  Fortunately the day promised to be optimal (in the Antarctica sense of the word), with temperatures hovering around a balmy -5°C (23°F).  More importantly though, wind speed was a near-negligible 12 knots (14 mph), assuaging my concerns that I’d be stumbling 13.1 miles through an unforgiving headwind (and the other 13.1 with a brisk tailwind).

I inventoried my gear one last time.  All race-day nutrients – energy bars, gels, etc. – had to be removed from their original packaging and all paper wrappers left on the ship, in accordance with the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.  This wasn’t a problem, since for convenience sake I always liquify my race-day nutrition in my water bottle.  Per Thom’s instructions I’d prepared two such bottles, which I planned to leave at the start/finish area.

In a dining hall alive with the clatter of breakfast dishes and the buzz of pre-race jitters, I waited as long as possible to eat my usual stomach-sanctioned meal of granola and peanut butter, which I’d brought with me from California.  Several steps stood between us and the starting gun – the donning of the tomato-red Wet Skins that would keep us warm and dry, the loading of the zodiacs, the short ride to King George Island, the process of funneling everyone from zodiac to start line – and with 4+ hours of running ahead of me, I wanted to maximize the nutritional payback of my carefully choreographed breakfast.

blue iceberg

The first zodiacs launched at 7:15am, with 12 passengers per zodiac.  After a short 5-minute ride under gray skies and across smooth water, we beached near Bellingshausen Station and stepped ashore for the first time in 3½ days.  Two Gentoo penguins splished and splashed in the water nearby.  Stepping out of my Wet Suit, I could still feel the ground swaying underfoot as I tried to coax out my land legs.  Moreover, the residual effects of the Transderm patch that I’d removed 36 hours earlier continued to wreak havoc on my short-range vision.  Discomforting as my still-dilated pupils were, I was confident they wouldn’t upset my ability to run in a straight line for several hours.

How does a warm-weather Californian train for a marathon in Antarctica?  Much as I hate to divulge trade secrets, here it is: I bought stuff.  More specifically, windproof stuff.  Compared to my typical all-season California running attire, I felt like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in my three upper-body layers (REI wool base layer, synthetic Under Armour mid-layer, Columbia wind- and waterproof outer jacket) and two lower-body layers (REI fleece-lined tights, Pearl Izumi lightweight running pants), plus balaclava that I was hoping to shed early in the race.

Talk about happy feet… Rich’s own have carried him through over 300 marathons

Katie – who as a spectator would be doubling as a volunteer – was even more polar-ready, given that she’d be standing around for an indeterminate amount of time.  She wisely wore her Wet Suit and rubber boots at all times, together with her Arctic Parka from The North Face that was so down-filled and poofy, I entertained the thought of hanging bricks from her sleeves so she wouldn’t blow away.

As Thom announced two minutes to start, the One Ocean crew hurriedly set up plastic buckets lined with green trash bags to serve as makeshift latrines.  Fortunately I’d been able to attend to my most pressing needs on the ship, and after a lightning-quick stop at the latrine I jogged to the start line.  For many of the bundled-up runners gathered beneath it, the unassuming white canvas banner represented the culmination of a lifetime of marathon-inspired blood, sweat and tears (with more to come).  For others of us, this would be continent #2.  And for two runners, this would be their first marathon on any continent.

This is how I envision an Antarctica Walmart on Black Friday (footage courtesy of Anita Allen of Marathon Tours):

Regardless of what road you’d taken to get there, Thom’s starting-gun cry of “GO!” triggered a collective release of whole-body tension, as the slow-moving stampede of runners – including members of the Russian and Uruguayan bases – followed the leaders along the dirt and up the initial ascent.  And almost immediately, I dismissed all thoughts of a sub-4:00 finish.  The first mile (which, given the course layout, we would be running six times) was an absolute mess.  This was trail running at its damnedest.  The deep, hardened ruts carved by the Bellingshausen ATVs, combined with the sporadic patches of ice, brought to mind the frozen-over ribcage of a recently excavated T. Rex.

Footing in places was unpredictable at best.  Trail running typically demands that your eyes constantly scan the ground two steps ahead for your next foothold.  But on King George Island, it also became necessary to anticipate several steps beyond that, as the course at several points became an exercise in “Choose Your Own Adventure”: foot-deep powdered snow to your left, slushy ice straight ahead or a seemingly frozen-over stretch to your right.  The demand for constant vigilance gradually took a mental and physical toll and led to lapses in attention, resulting in either (best-case scenario) choosing the more difficult and treacherous route, or (worst-case scenario) a hard and jarring fall on slick rocky terrain.

Mike Sohaskey running Antarctica Marathon 2013

Just a boy and his balaclava, out for a springtime jog

And fall people did: this edition of the Antarctica Marathon might appropriately have been subtitled “There Will Be Blood”.  Many runners fell multiple times, sustaining scrapes and bruises of varying severity.  Two women broke their falls with their faces, yet soldiered on with impressive battle wounds that testified to their toughness.  And post-race rumors circulated that one runner had even suffered broken ribs (yes, plural).  I was among the fortunate few to speak of “fall” rather than “falls” – I got too aggressive and lost my footing during my second loop of that first out-and-back, landing on my backside and bouncing right back up again.  No blood, no foul.  But in homage to March Madness going on back in the states, I adopted a mantra of “survive and advance” that served me well at all remaining icy stretches.

Although the prevailing concern had been shoe-sucking stretches of gooey mud, as it turned out postponing the trip until late March (i.e. closer to winter) meant that most of the would-be muddy bits were now iced over.  Every once in a while I’d hit a slushy patch and submerge my foot, though fortunately wet feet never became a concern.  I think by mile 4, most runners – myself included – gladly would have swapped the ice we had for the mud we didn’t.

Whether it was due to the half-week spent on the ship, or my racing in lower-body layers for the first time ever, I could quickly tell that on this day my legs wouldn’t be their trail-running best.  Fortunately I wouldn’t need them to be – this wasn’t the Chicago Marathon, and the only PR to come out of this day would be Thom’s post-race press release.  I’d run (and specifically trained) on tired legs many times before… the question wasn’t whether I’d finish, it was whether I’d do so before the other 40-something-year-old males on the course.

Alan&Inez

(Top) Overall winner Alan Nawoj leads the way up another icy hill (photo credit Anita Allen);
(Bottom) Third-place finisher & women’s champ Inez Haagen appropriately sports bib #1

Whereas the first 4+ mile stretch out to the Uruguayan base and back was fairly brutal (though with a striking glacier view to distract the mind), the second out-and-back was much more manageable.  After a mile or so of smooth footing on dirt, a series of undulating hills led past the Chilean base and out to the second turnaround near the Chinese base, where yoga guru Liz sat waiting to cheer us on.  Her enthusiasm was a welcome pick-me-up.

With one iteration of the course under my belt, I shed my balaclava and passed through the start/finish area to a chorus of cheers from the most amazing volunteer contingent on the continent.  And as soon as I began my second ascent of that first nasty hill, the assorted aches and pains that had nagged me throughout the first nine miles faded – the lifelessness in my legs, the tightness in my left adductor, the overstretching of my arch that comes and goes in my Merrell Mix Masters.  Even the Patch-induced fog around my head lifted… maybe I’d succeeded in sweating out the residual scopolamine.  In any case, it all vanished.  And finally I was back to doing what I do – I was running.  On rugged trails, and up and down hills.  In one of the most mythical and breathtaking places on the planet.  Life was good.

Gentoo-men, start your engines!  Footage with narration by Martin Evans on the marathon course (thanks, Martin!):

Not that I was running every step with my arms raised and fists pumped.  To be sure, I was enjoying and appreciating the scenery of the course, stopping briefly to breathe in the views and snap a few photos along the first two out-and-backs.  But other runners did a much better job of flipping their switch to carpe diem mode.  Luckily the course layout was motivating for the frequent opportunities it afforded me to see my fellow runners.  Because everyone seemed to be having (cue Dirty Dancing soundtrack) the time of their lives – even the lead runners greeted passing runners with a smile and a wave.  Although in passing, I did overhear one of several marathoners with a cold-weather Canadian pedigree admit, “I wish I could fast-forward the next three hours.”

Some fatigued runners inevitably narrowed their focus later in the race to conserve energy; after the 17-mile mark, for example, I acknowledged and encouraged everyone I passed with the same silent thumbs-up.  But a surprising number of runners I passed during my final out-and-backs still looked like kids riding a roller coaster for the first time – eyes wide, arms raised, huge grins seemingly painted Joker-style across their faces (Why so serious?, their body language seemed to ask).  I admired and respected their live-in-the-moment mindset, in part because I couldn’t relate to it.  The faster I run a race the more I enjoy it, with few exceptions (I can’t think of one right now).  My overall enjoyment of a race is, in large part, a function of how long it takes me to get to the finish line.  I realize expectations change, often in ways we can’t predict, and I know it won’t always be this way… but for now it is.  I can live with that.

We interrupt this running program for some polar humor

Regardless of continent, no trail race would feel official without my taking a wrong turn.  Despite Thom’s clear warnings to stay watchful for arrow signs and not blindly follow the person ahead of us, I unwittingly slipped into auto-pilot mode during mile 14 and blindly followed the person ahead of me.  Ginger, who had recently passed me and was running a strong race, blew by the Chilean airstrip and had almost reached the base itself before realizing that neither the Chilean airstrip nor that large red building on her left was part of the course.  I’d just reached the airstrip when she turned to look over her shoulder, and I gestured in sweeping windmill-type motions for her to turn around.  Fortunately she did, and as I reversed course I saw yet another runner on auto-pilot heading our way.  Retracing my steps to the suspect turn, I continued on my way and within minutes was passed by Ginger again, this time for good.

And that’s how I turned this into my own personal 26.5-mile Antarctica Ultramarathon.  And yes, there was a runner named Ginger on Gilligan’s ship, as well as at least one (assistant) professor.

By my third time around the course the temperature had begun to drop, and the icy uphill stretches along miles 18 and 19 had refrozen and become even trickier to negotiate.  This third out-and-back to the Uruguayan base was the low point of my race, as reflected by the uninspired 13:07 it took me to complete mile 19.  Did you run in Crocs?, I could hear the peanut gallery back home asking.

Official "aid station" for Antarctica Marathon 2013

The official Last Marathon aid station

Once I passed through the start/finish area for the final time and approached mile 22, I could see – check that, feel – the light at the end of this tunnel.  As the course approached its final uphill at mile 24.5, I was able to push the pace enough to pass two runners (was he in my age group?) who looked – as I had felt 5 miles earlier – to be running out of gas.  Surging down the final stretch past the Russian base, I felt that unmistakable sensation of “This is why I run” wash over me as Katie and her fantastic fellow supporters cheered me across the finish line in a time of 4:29:50.

The raw, electric thrill of accomplishment overwhelmed me as I embraced Katie and then my fellow Mike from California, with whom I’d trained in Buenos Aires and who had run an inspired race, finishing fifth overall in a time of 4:20:26.  One of the younger volunteers handed me a medal still folded up in its plastic bag, which was perfectly fine with me – by that point he could have handed me a lump of frozen penguin guano and I would have thanked him giddily.

Mike Sohaskey finishing Antarctica Marathon 2013

Lookin’ for someone to hug after just missing a Boston qualifier by a mere 1:14:50

After hanging around the finish area to bask in the moment, take a few photos and cheer across the next two finishers, Thom encouraged me to change out of my wet running gear and into dry clothes.  And as soon as I pulled on a dry base layer, I could feel my body temperature start to drop.  My shiver reflex kicked in, and the feeling drained from my fingers and toes as I hurried to don my cold-weather gear.  Ewan of the One Ocean crew sprang into action, jamming hand warmers into my gloves, zipping me into my parka and Wet Suit (since my fingers had lost all dexterity), and directing Katie and me to a waiting zodiac.  As I’d later learn, Thom and the One Ocean staff were carefully monitoring all finishers after marathon winner Alan and runner-up Billy each ended up in the Russian medical tent with hypothermia.

Whether it was the warm glow of accomplishment, or more likely the dry clothes and hand warmers, by the time the zodiac reached the ship my body temperature had self-regulated.  Maybe, as I’ve referenced before, I really am chasing the endorphin dragon.  But if I could just bottle the pride and elation that gripped me as I crossed that finish line….

Instead, I settled for five blissful minutes in the Vavilov sauna, followed by a hot shower that, if it didn’t quite bring me back to life, at least made me feel a lot less undead.

Mike Sohaskey and Katie Ho at finish line of Antarctica Marathon 2013

Admittedly I was too euphoric to check, but I’m pretty sure that’s Katie inside that Antarctic sumo suit
(photo credit Anita Allen)

The Vavilov continued its spiritual rebirth as more and more runners returned with stories to tell, memories to share, and wounds to heal.  Some of these wounds would be psychological, as with the dozen or so runners who found themselves unable to complete the marathon and were credited with the half marathon instead.  And 78-year-old Wes, appropriately fearful of falling, walked off the course for the first time in his 201 marathons.  Runners – particularly runners willing to travel to the end of the earth – are understandably a proud bunch, but hopefully all bruised egos, like their physical counterparts, will heal with time.

When the dust settled, 60 of the 72 runners who started the marathon, finished.  This may sound harsh or arrogant, though that’s not my intent – but the truth is, there’s a lot to be said for a race that not everyone finishes.  Inextricably wrapped up in its unsurpassed beauty is the harsh reality that Antarctica is a brutal, unforgiving backdrop for any activity, much less a marathon.  You can admire and respect it from afar, you can agree to its singular demands, you can formulate the best-laid plan to overcome it.  But at the end of the day you don’t choose this race, it chooses you.

Joao’s prediction had been correct, of course; with the race in our stern-view mirror, the mood aboard the Vavilov lightened considerably.  But the revival wouldn’t be immediate, and the bar/lounge would masquerade as a quiet zone for one more evening while the rest of the ship surrendered itself to the inexorable force of post-marathon exhaustion.

Antarctica Marathon 2013 course elevation profile

Even without the icy patches, the undulating course would have left a lasting impression

To the victors go the handshakes: BBQ and awards ceremony (Sunday, March 31)
Official results weren’t immediately posted, so as Sunday afternoon rolled around I wasn’t sure where I’d finished overall or whether I’d placed in my age group.  I knew the top five finishers, but beyond that I was in the dark as to who finished where, much less how old anyone was.  I knew that Winter, who’d finished shortly after me, was 14 years old, but that was pretty much the extent of what I knew.

So I was looking forward to the world’s frostiest BBQ and awards ceremony that afternoon on the ship’s third deck.  The food choices – who can say no to macaroni and cheese? – were excellent, the drinks were on ice (seriously, they were on ice), and after lunch had been served Thom stepped to the microphone to present the awards.  Rather than having a prepared list of winners, he seemed to collate the overall results in his head on the fly, and there were long pauses – and the occasional incorrect winner announced – as he arranged each set of age group winners in his head before making the call.  Standing on that deck, I was glad I’d invested in a kick-ass parka.  Thanks, Patagonia.

Mike Sohaskey, winner of M(40-49) division for Antarctica Marathon 2013

Thom (center) congratulates me and Maarten Vroom (great running surname!) on winning the men’s 40-49 division

Alan Nawoj (33) from Boston was the overall marathon winner in an astonishing time of 3:29:56.  Billy Nel (27) from Australia finished second with his own crazy-fast time of 3:37:48.  And Inez Haagen (49) from the Netherlands, the first women’s finisher who has now won five marathons on five continents, rounded out the sub-4:00 finishers (and won the “non-hypothermic finishers” subdivision) with an impressive 3:41:52.  Amazingly, Inez accomplished this mind-boggling feat at age 49, a number I had to read three or four times on the overall results page and which I still don’t actually believe.  Among the runners, I particularly enjoyed watching her and Alan as we passed along the course – each has a smooth, flowing stride that even gravel-strewn patches of black ice couldn’t suppress.

Winter ran a strong race of her own, crossing the finish line in 4:49:45 and seizing the title of youngest runner to complete a marathon on the White Continent.  As such, she remains on track to conquer her larger goal of becoming the youngest runner to finish a marathon on all seven continents before she turns 15 next year.  And more importantly, she’ll raise a whole lot of money for prostate cancer research while doing it.

Despite finishing a solid hour (actually 00:59:54) behind Alan, I managed to win the men’s 40-49 age group in 4:29:50.  In fact, all three Mikes on the roster – me, Mike Hess (34) and Mike Ahrens (62) – won our age group.  ‘Tis a powerful and athletic name, that one.  As their name was called, each winner stepped to the front to receive their award: a handshake from and photo op with Thom.  This was, needless to say, the source of some playfully snide commentary from several age group winners, who’d clearly been hoping for something more, well, medal-y.

Thom with the top 3 women finishers: (left to right) Ginger, Winter and Inez

The awards ceremony culminated with the presentation of Seven Continents Club medals to those 18 marathoners and half-marathoners for whom Antarctica had been their 7th racing continent.  That was, fittingly, one proud and beaming group.  Like the Antarctica Marathon itself, the Seven Continents Club was Thom’s brainchild.  As a runner I’d known of the Club for some time, but only recently did I become truly cognizant of its existence.  My own motivation for wanting to race in Antarctica was my twin desire to (a) visit Antarctica, and (b) race in every compelling locale we visit.  The Seven Continents Club provides the appealing opportunity to race in places we’re already inclined to visit, as well as in some intriguing, out-of-the-way settings we might not otherwise consider.  I can definitely envision myself as a member of the Club someday.

The Last Great Continent (Sun – Tues, March 31 – April 2)
Once the marathon ended and the Vavilov left King George Island behind, our collective stress melted away – and for once, Antarctic thawing was a good thing.  Wes’s sweatshirt spoke for nearly everyone with its proclamation of “GOOD-BYE TENSION, HELLO PENSION”.  People animatedly recapped their race day from start to finish and swapped stories from the course.  Runner-up Billy claimed the marathon “makes Comrades look like a baby,” a comment quickly dismissed by Comrades veterans Rory and Billy’s father Pieter.  Jeff from Manhattan Beach summarized his thoughts succinctly, saying he felt “like I was beaten with a stick.”  Susan from Nova Scotia proudly labeled it her “best personal worst ever.”  And still others compared (and re-bandaged) open wounds.

For the remainder of our trip, we’d have the opportunity to stash our running shoes and immerse ourselves in Antarctica.  And for those who have yet to visit, the best description I can manage is “nature porn.” Every stark, pristine landscape looks as though it were professionally airbrushed for maximal effect – visual features, textures and lighting coalesce in seemingly unreal ways. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart might just as easily have been a naturalist talking about the Antarctic wilderness when he wrote, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”

Fournier Bay

Over the next three days we would:

  • witness unique, dramatically lit landscapes – deep blue icebergs framed against a backdrop of solid gray skies and unblemished white peaks – that looked more like Superman’s home planet of Krypton than unspoiled nature.  Staring up from the quiet of our floating zodiac at the exquisitely oriented layers of ice and snow, it was mind-boggling to think these layers had been accumulating, building to their present-day dimensions, unperturbed for… ever?  Plus or minus a few thousand years.
  • visit Gentoo penguin rookeries (and sighted Adelie and Chinstrap penguins) in Mikkelsen Harbor and on Cuverville Island.  Like most of the group I was fascinated by these goofy-looking, -sounding and -acting birds, many of whom passed their days conserving energy while waiting – in a race against time – for their swimming feathers to replace their down covering.
  • experience some of the most awe-inspiring moments of our lives in Neko Harbour and Fournier Bay, courtesy of breaching minke whales and several intimate encounters with humpback whales.  The humpbacks curiously chose to stay and socialize with our kayaks and zodiacs, either of which the whales easily could have flipped had they been of the mind to do so.  To appreciate the combination of power, grace and empathy that the humpback embodies, check out the video below that I filmed from our zodiac.
  • get up-close and personal with Weddell seals, Antarctic fur seals, crabeater seals, and even a leopard (penguin-munching) seal.  They may not get the attention afforded their whale and penguin brethren, but the Antarctic seals never ceased to amaze and amuse.
  • hear Assistant Expedition Leader Mark – check that, Maahk – entertain and fire up his audience with his account of how an encounter with a humpback whale – and looking the gentle creature right in the eye – changed his life.  Mark was like a man possessed as he told his story: he was animated, he was jazzed, he was pumped, and you couldn’t help but be inspired by his energy and sense of purpose.

Antarctica is a land so completely devoid of artificial noise – no distant voices, no traffic, no machinery, no hum of electric power lines – that you soon realize: every sound out here matters.  And it’s worth your time to listen.  No static, no background noise, only nature as it has been for thousands of years.  What you see is what you get, and if you don’t like what you see… well, Antarctica doesn’t care.  And it’s not changing for anyone.

When I say “Antarctica,” chances are you think “cold.”  And yes, admittedly it’s cold down here.  But if you’re willing to close your mouth, open your mind and embrace your insignificance, then air temperature won’t be your lasting memory of this place.  Because that’s what this continent asks of its guests: feel free to keep your muddy boots on, but leave your first-world problems at the door.  In subtle, sublime ways that extend beyond the forced reality of the Drake Passage, Antarctica is a land of shifting perspectives.

The many faces of penguins_MS

The many faces of penguins (clockwise from upper left): fat and contemplative, fat and curious, fat and proud, fat and frenzied

On the evening of our final full day in Antarctica, John Bingham hosted a live auction to benefit Oceanites, a non-profit science and educational foundation that collects data for the Antarctic Site Inventory.  Oceanites recently lost their National Science Foundation funding and one-third of their total funding when the Sequester kicked in.  All proceeds from our auction would go to benefit Oceanites, and runners answered the call with generous and in some cases above-and-beyond contributions.  John started fast at a decidedly un-penguin-like pace, kicked it into gear – “I told ’em I could have us out of here in 30 minutes!” – and in no time flat had found homes for mile markers 1, 13 and 26; the start/finish line banner; a “one-of-a-kind” (turns out there were two) nautical chart of our voyage; an author-autographed biography of Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton’s right-hand man; and the opportunity to present the wake-up announcements over the ship’s PA on the final morning of our journey.

I took advantage of the silent part of the auction to score mile marker 20, a nice round number that to me signifies a key milestone in every marathon effort.

John Bingham & Mike Sohaskey at Antarctica Marathon auction for Oceanites

(Left) Auctioneer John Bingham raises money for Oceanites as Jenny Hadfield tracks the results (photo credit Maarten Vroom); (Right) The closest I’d come to taking home a penguin

Queasy come, queasy go (Wed – Fri, April 3 – 5)
During the auction and dinner that evening, the Drake Passage flexed its muscles once again as we bid the White Continent goodbye and set our sights once again on Ushuaia.  Quickly picking up where it had left off, the Drake rocked the ship with renewed ferocity – silverware clattered to the floor in the kitchen, diners had to side-step broken glass, occupied chairs slid several feet across the dining hall floor (much to the horror of the adults and the delight of the kids), and before dessert was served, half of those seated at our table had excused themselves to go lie down.

By 10:00pm the Vavilov resembled an abandoned ghost ship as people hunkered down in their cabins to ride out the “Drake Shake.”

Looking to preserve our vision during the return voyage, Katie and I both chose to forego the Transderm patch in favor of Dramamine, which worked well for me at a dose of one pill every 12 hours.  No drowsiness, no blurred vision and no seasickness.  Howl as it might outside the portholes in our cabin, the Drake would have to look elsewhere for easy prey.

Mike Sohaskey, Rory Steyn & Katie Ho on Vavilov in Antarctica

Coming together with like-minded folks like Rory, Nelson Mandela’s former chief of security and a 12-time Comrades Marathon finisher, was a highlight of the trip

But life on the Vavilov those two days was anything but comfortable.  As near-hurricane force winds buffeted the ship, the theater that played out from our front-row seats on the bridge could well have been Mother Nature’s production of “The Sound and the Fury.”  And again I felt very, very small.  Credit to the One Ocean staff, they tried to keep our minds occupied… but even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, it’s hard to keep your head in the game when the world is constantly shifting beneath your feet.  With the ship rising and falling unpredictably I felt like a human accordion: tall and stretched-out one second, short and compact the next.

But even the Drake couldn’t stifle all productivity.  Fortunately I had the opportunity during this time to sit and talk shop for a few minutes with Jenny Hadfield.  And I’m glad I did – her professional voice of experience was graciously shared and greatly appreciated.  I had questions about writing and blogging, and she shared her own story of how she’d gotten started in the exercise physiology field and had gradually transitioned to a now-successful writing career (her popular advice column “Ask Coach Jenny” offers training tips and can be found on the Runner’s World website).  She’s not only a terrific professional resource but also, like nearly everyone I met on the Vavilov, a genuine and thoughtful person.

We were all urged to submit our ten best Antarctica photos, and that evening Nate the great photographer of the One Ocean staff presented a slideshow he’d compiled (in record time) from our selected images.  Complete with its own soundtrack, the slideshow was a tour de force that alternately had the audience laughing, cheering, ooh-ing and aah-ing.  Best of all, the One Ocean staff provided each passenger with a USB jump drive containing – among other info – the slideshow, daily newsletters, staff bios, nautical briefing logs and spreadsheet of wildlife sightings from the previous ten days.  I probably should have saved myself (and you) a lot of time by just posting all the data from that jump drive in place of this recap.

They may seem bumbly fumbly stumbly on land, but… proceed to perceive a pleasing pack of porpoising penguins:

It’s been ice to meet you (Fri – Sat, April 5 – 6)
Our voyage culminated that evening with the Captain’s Dinner – salmon, hooray! – in which the Captain of the Vavilov was appropriately recognized by all and presented with a marathon finisher’s medal by Thom.  Throughout the meal glasses were raised, gratitude was expressed, egos were stroked and the microphone rarely sat silent.  Thom invited Winter to say a few words and she acquitted herself well, reminding us about Team Winter and urging everyone to commit their running to a cause important to them.

After dinner we set about trying to repack our once-efficiently crammed bags, a task that felt like trying to shove toothpaste back in the tube.  And the next morning we awoke before the sun in Ushuaia, where we began the dual process of reacclimating to civilization and saying our sentimental goodbyes.  Sadly, I realize some folks I’ll never see again, though my cyber-stalking skills will stay sharp.  But the world isn’t big enough to contain these runners’ passion for their sport, and I look forward to (pun intended) running into some of them again in other states, in other countries and on other continents.

Katie Ho leading penguin line in Ushuaia

Katie knows how to pick her running battles (Ushuaia)

Clearly Antarctica was a life-changing whirlwind of firsts and lasts.  And add one more to that list: it was the first time we’d traveled with a group of highly motivated, like-minded athletes… though hopefully it won’t be the last.  Opportunities like this one don’t knock – or in this case email – very often.  My thanks to Thom Gilligan and an anonymous iceberg with paint streaks on it floating somewhere in the Southern Ocean.

Eventually, 38 hours after last waking up on the Vavilov – and following a 3-hour delay in Ushuaia, 3½-hour flight to Buenos Aires, 4½-hour layover in Buenos Aires, 11-hour flight to Dallas/Fort Worth, 3½-hour layover in DFW (1½ hours once we cleared customs and security), 4-hour flight to San Francisco, one-hour train ride to downtown Berkeley and one-mile walk with our bags slung over our shoulders or trailing behind us – we found ourselves standing, exhausted but triumphant, on the doorstep where we’d started Mike and Katie’s excellent adventure 17 days earlier.  Climbing the short flight of stairs inside our front door, I dropped my bags on the top step and exhaled for what felt like the first time since Argentina.  Then I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do next.

I went for a run.

The sun rises over Ushuaia and sets on our Antarctica adventure

BOTTOM LINE:  Assuming I’m talking to running enthusiasts here, my summary statement is simple: run the Antarctica Marathon at least once in your life.  Unless of course you’re a compulsive type-A personality (and running attracts them like no other sport) who hates surprises, then you might want to skip this race.

It’s not an inexpensive outing, but that’s hardly surprising… you get what you pay for.

Was it the most challenging race I’ve run?  No, that distinction still belongs to last year’s sunbaked Mount Diablo Trails Challenge 50K.  But it was certainly challenging enough.  Preparation-wise, it’s important to bear in mind that the Antarctica Marathon is a bona fide trail race, which places it outside many runners’ comfort zone.  Unfortunately, if you want to race on this continent it’s not as though you have a slew of choices – you can’t just opt for the road version of the marathon.  Sensible expectations will go a long way toward optimizing your Antarctica Marathon experience.

PRODUCTION:  Thom and his Marathon Tours crew of Scott, Anita, John and Jenny did a commendable job of orchestrating all aspects of the Antarctica Marathon – from regrouping on the fly after the Great Iceberg Attack of ’13 to their near-flawless race day execution.  I certainly didn’t envy them their pre-race field trip over to King George Island to set up the course, with subfreezing gale-force winds blasting them in the face while they struggled to pound each marker stake through several inches of surface ice.  But set it up they did, and come race day the course was well marked (my own personal detour notwithstanding) and pretty much dead-on accurate at 26.2 ± 0.1 miles.

Other companies have hurried to cash in on the demand from runners seeking to run a marathon at the bottom of the world.  But no other company can boast Thom’s breadth of experience and connections in Antarctica.  At least two companies offer a one-day Antarctica experience in which they fly into King George Island, immediately organize a marathon and then fly out the same day.  To me that would feel like scoring tickets to the Super Bowl, showing up at the stadium and then watching the game on the TVs in the concourse.  Sure you could say you were there… but were you really there?

Apparently my expert editor on all things Antarctica grew tired of penguin pictures

My main critique of the Antarctica race experience would be the post-race awards.  For example, the finisher’s medal should vary from year to year, and should always include the year of the race (or barring that, complementary engraving on the back of the medal that includes name, finish time and year).  There’s no excuse for the fact that the Antarctica Marathon medal has remained the same for at least six straight years now (dating back to the image I found online of the same medal from the 2008 race).  This is particularly true when you’re hosting a group of dedicated, goal-oriented runners, many of them 50 States/Seven Continents Club members for whom race bling is all-important, and deservedly so.

In addition, it would be nice if age-group winners merited distinct medals – for example, a penguin holding up one flipper or two to signify first or second place – to accompany the handshake and photo-op that currently await them. I’d be happy to receive one retroactively.  I feel like these are easily implemented suggestions that would enhance the race experience, even in Antarctica.

UPDATE (15 May 2013): As a runner hell-bent on maintaining forward progress no matter what, I rarely back-pedal… but in this case I’m happy to make an exception.  Yesterday I received in the mail – no doubt delayed in transit because we recently moved – a stylish plaque emblazoned with the Antarctica Marathon logo and engraved to commemorate my first-place finish in the men’s 40-49 age group.  Clearly I had no idea of this impending accolade when I wrote the above sentiment, and I certainly understand why the Marathon Tours crew wouldn’t want to lug 100 race medals plus roughly two dozen plaques down to Antarctica.  And so I stand appreciatively corrected.

Overall, given their professionalism and intimate knowledge of the running community, together with their catalog of compelling international marathons, I look forward to traveling with Thom and his Marathon Tours crew again.

Liz of OOE secures a kayaker, then requests a rowing implement with the order to “Paddle me!”

But in the end, the One Ocean Expeditions staff (and the largely unseen Russian crew members of the Vavilov) were the stars of this show.  Andrew and his 12-person staff did everything in their power to ensure our Antarctica experience met – and in most cases exceeded – expectations.  Without exception, every member of the OOE staff was highly competent, professional, knowledgeable, experienced, entertaining, happy to answer questions and just plain fun to be around.  Granted I haven’t traveled to Antarctica with any other cruise company, but I can recommend OOE without reservation.  Based on conversations with and body language of other passengers, I’m confident the vast majority would echo my thoughts.

As with any successful race, the volunteers were a key element of the Antarctica Marathon.  No doubt I wasn’t the most happy-go-lucky and responsive runner out on the course – and they had to see me six times in my 4½ hours – but Kathy and her crew (Katie, Sharon, Sally, Wayne and company) stood by the start/finish line for the ENTIRE race, and were there to cheer emphatically and shout their support after every out-and-back.  I never dreamed that Katie would willingly – and dare I say happily – stand idly outside in Antarctica for five hours.  Yet there she was, smiling broadly and cheering loudly every time I passed.  Kudos to her solid layering strategery, Arctic Parka and Wet Skin for keeping her toasty and for inspiring that kind of gumption.

Rating the Antarctica Marathon experience based on the race t-shirt feels a bit like rating a 5-star restaurant based on the embroidery of the napkins.  But since I’m clearly not one to cut corners in recapping a race, here goes:  the t-shirt is nice.  Very nice.  And colorful, as long as you’re a fan of baby blue.  It’s a high-quality tech t-shirt with mesh shoulder and side panels.  And if you happen to like the Antarctica Marathon logo emblazoned on the back, then you’re in luck, because the Marathon Tours crew has an assortment of race-related apparel available for purchase in Buenos Aires and on their website.

Antarctica Marathon medal (2013)

For other (more concise) perspectives, check out Jenny Hadfield’s “10 Reasons to Run the Antarctica Marathon” on the Runner’s World website, as well as Winter’s report on “A World Record in Antarctica, and Much More” at Athleta.net.

FINAL STATS:
March 30, 2013
26.5 miles (including an unplanned 0.3-mile detour) on King George Island, Antarctica (continent 2 of 7)
Finish time & pace: 4:29:50 (first time running in Antarctica), 10:10/mile
Finish place: 8/60 overall (73 starters), 1/10 in M(40-49) age group
Race weather: penguin-pleasing cold, low winds (starting temps in the low 20s)
Elevation change (Garmin Connect software): 2,023ft ascent, 2,031ft descent

For a race in which my major concern was NOT doing the splits, these aren’t so awful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dear Mike,

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

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

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

[details omitted]

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

Please contact us immediately if you are interested.

Thom Gilligan
Marathon Tours & Travel

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

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

Take me to your freezer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ernest Shackleton

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

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

Thom

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

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

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

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

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

Katie and Mike Sohaskey in Ushuaia, Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Ocean Expeditions staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thom and his crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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