Posts Tagged ‘Special Olympics’

With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.
– Eleanor Roosevelt

Blisters spectator sign at Walt Disney World Marathon

In case you’re still wondering about my blog title…

2015 was a busy year. In fact, with apologies to the semester I took all those AP classes, it’s no exaggeration to call it the busiest year of my life so far. With RaceRaves gathering steam and new home ownership engulfing our spare time like The Blob, Katie and I felt very much like I’d imagine the proud parents of newborn twins must feel.

So my 2015 racing landscape was notably more sparse than in recent years. For instance, between May and November I ran exactly zero races, my longest streak without crossing a finish line since 2008. I notched marathons in only two new states (Florida and – race report still to come – Arizona), a rate of progress that will see me celebrating state #50 right around the time Puerto Rico & Guam gain admission to the Union. All the while, I watched through the envious lens of social media as friends took to heart our RaceRaves slogan to Run the world, collecting medals across the globe in countries such as Belize, China, Cuba, Greece, Hungary, Myanmar and South Africa, to name a few.

All that said, I was able to celebrate a few major milestones of my own this year (blogging frequency not among them). And though I’m not a big believer in looking back, how could I not revisit a few highlights of 2015 before looking forward to what’s shaping up as a can’t-miss 2016:

1) Walt Disney World Marathon (January): Florida was state #9 in my quest to run a marathon or ultramarathon in all 50 states. And freakish though the state itself may be (high praise from a Californian), with every day that goes by my memories of the 3 hours, 41 minutes, 42 seconds spent racing through the Disney World complex grow fonder. Not that they weren’t at the time – after all, I did stop nearly 20 times for photo-ops with the full spectrum of characters along the course. And I have a sneaking suspicion that before I reach state #50, I may be hopping another cross-country flight to Orlando to relive my WDW experience. (Current overall score on RaceRaves: 4.4/5.0 based on 13 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey at Walt Disney World Expo & finish line

2) Carlsbad 5000 (March): The Competitor Group’s signature event was the first time I’d ever paid to run a 5K, and only the second time I’d ever timed myself at the distance. And though I missed my goal of a sub-20:00 finish by one second, this oceanside race is easy to recommend. Where else can you run your own race, cool down and grab a front-row seat to watch the elites compete in theirs? Or meet an American running legend like Bernard Lagat, graciously shaking hands at the finish line? Or serendipitously bump into American marathon record holder Deena Kastor at her favorite local brunch spot? The word “race” doesn’t do it justice – Carlsbad is an all-out celebration of running. (Current overall score on RaceRaves: 4.9/5.0 based on 7 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey with Carlsbad 5000 elites

(L to R) Lawi Lalang (2015 Carlsbad winner), Bernard Lagat and Deena Kastor

3) Qualifying for Boston (May): I entered 2015 having shakily qualified for Boston in Berlin (3:24:14) and at the California International Marathon (3:24:15). With competition for much-coveted Boston slots at an all-time high, though, I knew those qualifying times had as much chance of earning me a Boston bib as a forged Kenyan passport. So rather than await September and the inevitable disappointment of a rejected application, I cranked up my weekly mileage to 60-70 and got down to work with my sights set on May’s local Mountains 2 Beach Marathon, one of SoCal’s finest. The result was a solid 3:22:07, a Unicorn-worthy time that seemed all but assured of landing me a spot at Boston in 2016.

That was, until the cheetahs showed up and nearly ruined the party. During application week, competition became so fierce that when the dust settled, beating my official qualifying time by nearly three minutes meant I’d survived the cut by 25 seconds. But the bottom line: survive I did, meaning Katie and I will be celebrating Patriot’s Day with the locals come April. And not a year too soon, since I’m suffering from Fenway withdrawal and my Red Sox cap is in desperate need of replacing. (Current overall score for Mountains 2 Beach on RaceRaves: 4.4/5.0 based on 5 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey - Mountain 2 Beach 2 Boston

4) Volunteering at The Special Olympics World Games (July/August): The World Games may have been the highlight of our first 2½ years in Los Angeles. As overused and diluted as the word “inspiring” has become, watching 6,500 athletes from 165 nations refuse to be defined by their intellectual disabilities was all-day inspiring. And volunteering at the World Games was that rare moment in time when spectating is more satisfying than competing. During the Closing Ceremonies, the high-five I shared with a gold medal winner from the Isle of Man was a fitting finale to an amazing week. If you ever have the chance to be part of a Special Olympics event, do yourself a favor and seize the opportunity.

Special Olympics World Games Los Angeles 2015

5) USA Half Marathon (November): I first heard about the USA Half from Boston Marathon Race Director Dave McGillivray at the Running USA conference in February. The idea of a qualifers-only half marathon – a Boston-like event that faster half marathoners could call their own – had been on my racing wishlist for years, and I immediately added it to my 2015 calendar. Despite a lower-than-expected turnout, the race itself didn’t disappoint. Event production (with help from McGillivray’s DMSE Sports) was flawless, the course was challenging yet runnable, and as late November race venues go, San Diego is a no-brainer. A few tweaks could (and should) be made to improve the experience and attract more runners in 2016, but for an inaugural event the USA Half pretty much hit it on the screws. (Current overall score on RaceRaves: 4.2/5.0 based on 33 ratings)

Mike Sohaskey at USA Half Marathon expo

Those wings came in handy on race day

Thanks in large part to inordinately high finishes at the Walt Disney World Marathon (793/20,048) and the Inaugural Sunset Strip Half (28/1,739), my overall race percentile for 2015 was a best-ever 94.2, meaning I finished in the top 6% of the cumulative field for the six races I ran. Not bad for someone who just stepped up to the {eek} 45-49 age group.

So “quality over quantity” sums up my 2015 nicely. But looking forward, I’m even more excited about the roadmap for 2016 which includes:

  • in February, the US Olympic Marathon Trials here in L.A. along with my second Los Angeles Marathon (which was moved up a month to coincide with the Trials);
  • in April, state #11 and the 120th Boston Marathon, followed six days later by a – fingers crossed – injury-free return to Big Sur as a participant in the Boston-to-Big-Sur Challenge;
  • in May, my first 50-miler in the woods of Wisconsin, where legs willing I’ll spend a Saturday with Otter and Dan chasing my pride around Kettle Moraine State Park – you know, for fun.
Dan Solera & Dan Otto in Chicago

It’s all fun & games ’til these two talk you into a 50-miler

Clearly my 2016 promises to stay true to this blog’s title… and that’s just the first five months. Meanwhile our vision for RaceRaves continues to expand and evolve, and we’re psyched to announce some key upgrades & new features that will make the Internet’s best all-in-one race resource even better. Curious what the fuss is about? Check us out at RaceRaves.com (and my own Staging Area HERE) – we’d love to welcome you into our fast-growing community of Raving Lunatics!

RaceRaves logos in 2015

As always, the most memorable part of 2015 was the people. Through running in general and RaceRaves in particular, I’ve gotten to know some amazing (and amusing) athletes from around the globe. Best of all, I’ll be seeing many of them again – and a lot of new faces – on my continuing journey across all 50 states, all seven continents and as many countries as time, budget & body will allow.

RaceRaves Raving Lunatic collage 2015

So stay tuned, and as always thanks for reading – I realize my blog doesn’t cater to short attention spans, but then again if length were my guiding principle I’d be writing “5 superfoods runners must eat NOW!” listicles for Runner’s World.

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2016 and your best running year yet. May the course be with you!

FINAL STATS of 2015:
2,222 miles run in 242 days (9.2 miles/day average)
0 days lost to injury (!)
107.9 racing miles
6 races (three marathons, two half marathons, one 5K) in 3 states (AZ, CA, FL)
Overall race percentile: 94.2 (up 5.0 from 2014, up 3.2 from 2012 & 2013) = 1,629/28,130 total finishers
Fastest race pace: 6:21/mile (Carlsbad 5000, my 5K PR)
Slowest race pace: 8:22/mile (Walt Disney World Marathon)
8 blog posts & 8 RaceRaves articles published
Check out my racing profile (past, present & future) on My Staging Area on RaceRaves

Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.
– Special Olympics athlete oath

Special Olympics World Games LA 2015 sign

There’s a lot to love about Los Angeles: its weather, its beaches, its diversity…

We’re lucky to live in the most diverse city in the country.  And nowhere has that diversity – and yes, that weather and those beaches – been on fuller display than at the Special Olympics World Games held here July 25 – August 2.

Billboards announcing the World Games appeared all over SoCal months in advance.  It would be the world’s largest sporting event of 2015, and the largest hosted by L.A. since the 1984 Summer Olympics, where American Joan Benoit captured the gold in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon.  So the World Games promised a unique opportunity for the city to showcase and embrace its trademark diversity.

Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and inspired by her sister Rosemary, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.  Today the organization supports 4.5 million athletes in 170 countries.  At the 2015 World Games 6,500 of those athletes from 165 nations would be competing in 25 Olympic-style sporting events at venues ranging from UCLA to USC to Long Beach.

Special Olympics was founded on the principle that every individual deserves the opportunity to realize their full potential.  This emphasis on empowerment and human dignity is what’s always attracted me to the organization, and so with its flagship event happening in our backyard, nothing short of a tsunami or medical emergency was going to prevent us from signing on as volunteers to help promote Ms. Shriver’s vision.

Thanks to the organizers at Spectrum Sports, Katie and I were assigned to – what else? – the triathlon and half marathon.  The two events were held on consecutive weekends in Alamitos Beach in Long Beach, less than a mile from my brother’s place.  Weather-wise, both days played out in predictable Long Beach fashion, with early morning clouds burning off quickly so that by 8:30am, clear skies prevailed as temperatures climbed into the 80s.

Special Olympics World Games volunteers - Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

Volunteering for selfie duty before the triathlon start

The triathlon and half marathon events each got underway with the World Games competitors (~20 per event), followed 15-20 minutes later by the Unified division which featured a mix of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities competing together.  I’d briefly considered running the Unified half marathon before opting instead for volunteer status – bottom line, this week should be all about the Special Olympics athletes, and my front-row seat as a volunteer would allow me to be part of the action while cheering on the athletes.  Which sounded like a win-win to me.

Katie and I were stationed at different points along each course, and though I can’t speak for her, my own volunteer (or as Special Olympics calls them, “Hero”) responsibilities were pretty straightforward.  To prepare for the triathlon start I chatted with other volunteers, raked debris away from the start line and helped clear a path for the athletes to and from the shore.

Watching the triathletes prepare for the start, I quickly realized that competition at the World Games would not be taken lightly – this wasn’t suburban America, where competition is de-emphasized, games are played without scores and every kid gets a trophy just for showing up.  The athletes here took their responsibility to themselves and their countries seriously, and I was struck by their intensity of focus, which never wavered even in the face of mounting heat and obvious physical discomfort.

Noah Dellas - Special Olympics World Games triathlon winner, in the transition

Overall winner Noah Dellas sheds his wetsuit en route to the first transition

Eventual overall winner Noah Dellas of New Jersey was the first to complete the 750-meter (0.47-mile) swim and reach the transition point, followed by his U.S. teammates and a steady stream of pursuers from Costa Rica, Uruguay and other nations.  Once all Special Olympics and Unified athletes had completed the swim, I legged it across the beach to the aid station where Katie was already dishing out water and encouragement to triathletes in the final leg of the competition, the 5K run.

One highlight of the Games was seeing Dellas’ teammate Ben Heitmeyer approach our aid station heralded by his red, white & blue USA singlet.  Ben’s purposeful stride signaled a man on a mission, and in that moment I was reminded of Robert Patrick’s T-1000 character from “Terminator 2” – I even wondered whether freezing Ben in liquid nitrogen and shattering him into a million tiny shards would do much more than momentarily delay his progress.

Watching the singular focus on Heitmeyer’s face on his way to capturing a gold medal in his division, it struck me that “intellectual disability” in no way equates to “weak mind”.  In fact, add to the physical discomfort we all feel during races the physiological unease of an athlete living with Down Syndrome or fragile X syndrome, and you could argue that despite their disabilities, their minds are in fact stronger than what rests between your ears or mine.  How many of you have trained for and completed a triathlon?  I know I haven’t.

Benjamin Heitmeyer high five - Special Olympics World Games Triathlon

American Ben Heitmeyer shares a high-five on his way to gold (photo Chuck)

Of course what made the World Games shine, what elevated them above any other sporting event I’ve attended, were athletes like Noah and Ben.  Their personal stories wove a complex tapestry of emotions you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, stories such as:

  • Olivia Quigley of Wisconsin, who nearly sat out her 100-meter sprint final due to chemotherapy-induced exhaustion.  Diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, the 24-year-old chose to postpone her ongoing chemotherapy in order to travel to California and compete in the World Games.  Summoning all her remaining energy at the start line, she not only competed in the final but flew down the homestretch to win a gold medal, a victory which she later admitted she “really, really wanted.”  Quigley would also earn a silver medal in the next day’s 200-meter sprint final, before flying home to await surgery and at least a year of follow-up radiation treatment.
  • Mary Davis of Virginia, who at age 72 entered the Games as our nation’s oldest delegate, and who helped lead Team USA to gold in the Bocce team competition.  Davis also took home a bronze medal in the Bocce singles competition.
  • Patrick Yerman of Montana, who in an interview told ESPN, “I have low hearing loss, autism, and ADHD.  I do have vision trouble – my vision’s like 20:200, so I’m technically legally blind.”  After a pause he added matter-of-factly, “That’s about all.”  As a World Games athlete, Yerman overcame all of his disabilities to win a bronze medal in the Cycling 10-km Road Race.

One emotion not woven into the tapesty of these athletes’ lives is pity.  For those who have only a fleeting familiarity with Special Olympics, your initial response may understandably be one of pity.  But it should end there, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver herself would have been quick to agree.  Self-pity isn’t an option for these athletes, nor do they want ours.

So rather than focusing on what those with intellectual disabilities can’t do, take the time to discover all they can.  Preconceptions are just that, and you can learn a lot about a person by just watching and listening.

8-level podium for Special Olympics World Games medal ceremony

8-level podium used for the World Games medal ceremony

And on the topic of ESPN, though I’ve previously taken them to task on this blog for their laughable coverage of the sport of running, I have to applaud them for their first-rate coverage of the Special Olympics World Games.  The nightly manufactured drama of SportsCenter (Did Tom Brady order the Code Red on those footballs? Our experts weigh in!) paled in comparison to the unscripted human drama of the network’s World Games coverage.

The next weekend our volunteer duties turned to the half marathon event.  Katie caught a ride to the aid station at miles 9 & 11, while I found myself stationed near the finish line at mile 13.  There my only real responsibility lay in directing recreational cyclists and pedestrians off the beachside path that doubled as the course.  On the bright side, I was awarded with all-you-can-absorb sunshine and a front row seat for the action.

Here, a disclaimer: I appreciate that in Special Olympics competition the last finisher is every bit as significant as the first – and it was that raucous cheering-on of every single finisher, in part, that made the World Games such a phenomenal event.  But as a runner myself, watching Onesmus Mutinda of Kenya dominate the half marathon event on a very warm morning, and watching him approach the mile 13 marker with both index fingers raised to signal his victory – now that was awesome.

Onesmus Mutinda brings home the gold - Special Olympics World Games half marathon

He’s #1: Onesmus Mutinda strides down the home stretch of the half marathon to capture the gold

Between volunteer duties we paid a visit to Cromwell Stadium at USC, site of the track & field events.  Spectators and international delegations crowded under the awning that shaded the upper few rows of the metal bleachers.  Under the relentless SoCal sun, we cheered on the finalists in the 200-meter sprint and mini-javelin competitions, and exchanged high-fives with the father of American sprinter Brittany Conatser, whose cheering section exploded as she crossed the finish line to win gold.

From there we hustled across the street to the Galen Center to watch the U.S. take on Spain in women’s basketball. Despite the all-inclusive nature of the Games, we’re still sports fans, and admittedly we may have rooted just a bit louder for the American squad.  Unfortunately our patriotism wasn’t enough as the Spanish team eked out a victory behind their sparkplug of a point guard, who scored 22 of the team’s 24 points.

Special Olympics World Games - 200m finals

Down the stretch they come! during the 200-meter sprint finals at USC

Our week of World Games activities concluded with the Closing Ceremony at USC’s Memorial Coliseum.  Although lacking the pomp and circumstance of its Opening Day counterpart (e.g. no Michelle Obama or Stevie Wonder), the ceremony was a fittingly diverse end to a memorable week.  I’ll likely never have another chance to take a group photo for the Mongolian delegation, or high-five a gold medalist from the Isle of Man, or watch in amusement as Olympic athletes break out in a conga line to a live performance by Carly Rae Jepsen.  Hats off to USC for hosting the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and as a Stanford alum that’s pretty much the last time you’ll hear me praise the University of Spoiled Children on this blog.

Special Olympics World Games Closing Ceremony stage

The sun sets on Memorial Coliseum and the 2015 World Games

Our week spent getting to know the athletes of the Special Olympics World Games felt like a legitimate staycation, as though we’d taken a vacation without ever leaving home.  And the next time I hear a sportscaster genuflect before a professional athlete/multi-millionaire for their “grace under pressure”, I’ll think of Olivia Quigley, and Mary Davis, and Ben Heitmeyer, and Onesmus Mutinda, and all the other athletes whose humbling grace and poise I witnessed up close and personal over the course of nine postcard-perfect days in my hometown.

No less an authority than Nelson Mandela once said, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”  Not surprisingly, many nations have yet to embrace this philosophy, and as World Games volunteers we were instructed to refer to the athletes and their delegations as “representing the Special Olympics Program – NOT the country.”  Individuals with intellectual disabilities still have a long way to go in their global fight for equality – but with the U.S. leading the way, every small step taken in L.A. felt like one giant leap for mankind.

Special Olympics World Games photo opp - Mike Sohaskey & Katie Ho

Ironically, in the past five months I’ve witnessed both the best and (arguably) the worst of American sportsmanship right in my own backyard.  On the one hand I cringed to see our nation’s fastest-ever marathoner tear off his bib and slam it to the ground in frustration, after dropping out of the L.A. Marathon injury-free at the halfway point.  This, three years after dropping out of the Olympic marathon in London with the letters “USA” emblazoned across his chest.

On the other hand, as a volunteer and spectator at the World Games, I watched as every athlete fought tooth and nail to reach the finish line at all costs.  Some crossed the line with arms proudly raised in triumph, whereas others collapsed from exhaustion as if only the promise of the finish line had been holding them upright.  And one half marathoner from Puerto Rico never broke stride through 13.1 miles, despite a physical disability that caused his left hand to bend inward and his left foot to point outward.

Despite – in many ways, that was the word of the week here in Los Angeles.  Despite being overlooked by the genetic lottery, despite in many places being dismissed as “retards” and shunned as outcasts, despite having to strive every day to achieve what the rest of us routinely take for granted, and despite living in a world that by and large still views “different” with suspicion and fear – despite all of this, the athletes of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games collectively won a lot of medals, captured a lot of hearts and changed a lot of minds.  And they did it the only way they know how – by being themselves.

How’s that for grace under pressure? #ReachUpLA

Special Olympics may have 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, but the organization is far more than a charity; it’s a celebration of our common humanity.  Its athletes aren’t faceless charity cases – they’re Olivia, and Brittany, and Patrick, and Noah, and so many other individuals born with intellectual disabilities who want exactly what the rest of us want – a legitimate shot to chase a dream, pursue a passion and succeed in the life they’ve been gifted.

To learn more about Special Olympics and to support your local Special Olympics Program, visit http://www.specialolympics.org.

Special Olympics World Games Unified triathlon medal