My Profile

@M_Sohaskey

Marina Del Rey, CA Raving since 2014 Boston Marathon finisher, 50 States hopeful/finisher, World Marathon Majors Six Star hopeful/finisher, Seven Continents Club, Marathon Maniacs #9273 Blisters, Cramps & Heaves active 13 hours, 2 minutes ago

About Me

  • Running club(s):
  • Rave race:

    Comrades Marathon

  • Race that's calling my name:

    London Marathon

  • I run because:

    it always gets me where I want to go.

My races

Organize, track & review your races and personal bests here.

50 States Map
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Half Marathon

Marathon

Ultramarathon

(Marathon &/or Ultra) + Half

Marathon + Ultra

Other

Personal Bests (14)

Race Distance Location Date Result
12 hr Relay San Pablo, CA Jul 6, 2019 74
89.9K Pietermaritzburg, South Africa Jun 10, 2018 9:48:25
50 Miler La Grange, WI May 14, 2016 9:54:30
50K Cool, CA Mar 4, 2017 5:35:39
Marathon Ojai, CA May 24, 2015 3:22:07
25K Olga, WA Jan 26, 2013 3:12:06
Half Marathon Oakland, CA Mar 25, 2012 1:34:02
20K Dallas, TX May 25, 2009 1:33:51
12K Sausalito, CA Mar 18, 2007 55:15
11K Irvine, CA Nov 11, 2011 53:45
10K Thousand Oaks, CA Dec 4, 2016 1:22:22
5 Miler Anchorage, AK Jul 16, 2011 36:03
3.6 Miler Soda Springs, CA Aug 7, 2010 42:58
5K Carlsbad, CA Mar 29, 2015 20:00

Future Races (5)

Race Distance Location Date Paid
Marathon Wright-Patterson AFB, OH TBD
Marathon Abilene, KS TBD
50K Valley Springs, CA TBD
Marathon Oljato-Monument Valley, UT TBD
Marathon Payson, UT TBD

Past Races (108)

Race Distance Location Date Result My Raves My Performance
10K Cleveland, OH Dec 7, 2019
Marathon Tulsa, OK Nov 24, 2019 3:54:47
Marathon Huntington, WV Nov 3, 2019 3:44:47
Marathon Gilsum, NH Sep 29, 2019 3:49:55
50K Big Bear Lake, CA Aug 17, 2019 9:13:33
12 hr Relay San Pablo, CA Jul 6, 2019 74
Marathon Fargo, ND May 18, 2019 3:51:45
5K Universal City, CA May 12, 2019
56K Cape Town, South Africa Apr 20, 2019
Marathon Waimea, HI Mar 9, 2019 3:58:38
Marathon Tokyo, Japan Mar 3, 2019 3:37:14
Half Marathon Huntington Beach, CA Feb 3, 2019 1:44:28
Marathon Little Rock, AR Dec 15, 2018 3:52:36
50 Miler Boonsboro, MD Nov 17, 2018 10:24:33
Marathon Des Moines, IA Oct 21, 2018 4:06:18
Marathon Kansas City, MO Oct 20, 2018 3:51:28
Marathon Jackson Hole, WY Sep 1, 2018 3:58:05
89.9K Pietermaritzburg, South Africa Jun 10, 2018 9:48:25
Half Marathon San Pablo, CA May 19, 2018 1:43:48
Marathon Las Vegas, NV Apr 28, 2018 3:47:01
Marathon White Sands, NM Mar 25, 2018 4:35:04
Marathon Los Angeles, CA Mar 18, 2018 3:39:48
Marathon Houston, TX Jan 14, 2018 3:41:56
Marathon Nashville, IN Oct 28, 2017 5:03:22
50 Miler Steamboat Springs, CO Sep 9, 2017 13:07:35
Marathon Frenchtown, MT Jul 9, 2017 3:59:17
Marathon Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe Jun 18, 2017 3:58:12
89.9K Pietermaritzburg, South Africa Jun 4, 2017 9:52:55
Marathon Eugene, OR May 7, 2017 3:27:33
50K Cool, CA Mar 4, 2017 5:35:39
Marathon Huntington Beach, CA Feb 5, 2017 3:44:41
Marathon Baton Rouge, LA Jan 15, 2017 3:31:13
10K Thousand Oaks, CA Dec 4, 2016 1:22:22
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Nov 6, 2016 1:52:51
200 Mile Relay San Francisco, CA Nov 4, 2016
Half Marathon Vacaville, CA Oct 22, 2016 1:52:22
Marathon Omaha, NE Sep 18, 2016 3:47:22
Marathon South Williamson, KY Jun 11, 2016 3:53:23
50 Miler La Grange, WI May 14, 2016 9:54:30
Marathon Big Sur, CA Apr 24, 2016 3:44:21
Marathon Hopkinton, MA Apr 18, 2016 3:48:36
Half Marathon San Diego, CA Apr 2, 2016
Marathon Los Angeles, CA Feb 14, 2016 3:34:39
Marathon Oracle, AZ Dec 6, 2015 3:37:52
Half Marathon San Diego, CA Nov 21, 2015 1:35:26
Marathon Ojai, CA May 24, 2015 3:22:07
Half Marathon West Hollywood, CA Apr 19, 2015 1:36:49
5K Carlsbad, CA Mar 29, 2015 20:00
Marathon Lake Buena Vista, FL Jan 11, 2015 3:41:43
Marathon Folsom, CA Dec 7, 2014 3:24:15
Half Marathon Anaheim, CA Nov 16, 2014 1:47:15
Marathon Staten Island, NY Nov 2, 2014 3:32:04
Marathon Berlin, Germany Sep 28, 2014 3:24:14
Marathon Big Sur, CA Apr 27, 2014 3:56:19
Marathon Mobile, AL Jan 12, 2014 3:44:12
Marathon Jackson, MS Jan 11, 2014 3:43:36
Marathon San Francisco, CA Dec 7, 2013 4:17:38
Marathon Portland, OR Oct 6, 2013 3:30:27
Marathon Rachel, NV Aug 18, 2013 3:56:40
50K Modjeska Canyon, CA Jun 29, 2013 6:33:45
Marathon King George Island, Antarctica Mar 30, 2013 4:29:50
25K Olga, WA Jan 26, 2013 3:12:06
Half Marathon Los Angeles, CA Nov 17, 2012 1:48:00
Half Marathon Moab, UT Nov 3, 2012 2:11:22
Half Marathon San Ramon, CA Oct 20, 2012 2:29:11
Marathon Chicago, IL Oct 7, 2012 3:28:45
Half Marathon Antioch, CA Sep 8, 2012 2:10:54
Half Marathon Martinez, CA Aug 18, 2012 2:04:36
Half Marathon El Sobrante, CA May 19, 2012 1:59:19
50K Brentwood, CA Apr 21, 2012 7:39:51
Half Marathon Oakland, CA Mar 25, 2012 1:34:02
Marathon Los Angeles, CA Mar 18, 2012 3:37:53
Marathon Folsom, CA Dec 3, 2011 3:39:15
Half Marathon Camarillo, CA Nov 13, 2011 1:36:52
11K Irvine, CA Nov 11, 2011 53:45
Half Marathon San Ramon, CA Oct 22, 2011 2:33:46
Marathon Crazy Horse, SD Oct 2, 2011 3:55:22
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Aug 27, 2011 1:40:04
Half Marathon Dallas, TX Aug 14, 2011 1:53:43
Half Marathon Castro Valley, CA Jul 30, 2011 1:52:34
5 Miler Anchorage, AK Jul 16, 2011 36:03
Half Marathon San Pablo, CA Jun 4, 2011 1:39:37
Half Marathon San Jose, CA May 22, 2011 1:38:08
Half Marathon El Sobrante, CA Apr 30, 2011 2:06:30
Half Marathon Austin, TX Feb 20, 2011 1:39:20
Half Marathon Huntington Beach, CA Feb 6, 2011 1:34:14
Marathon Long Beach, CA Oct 17, 2010 3:51:54
Half Marathon Manitou Springs, CO Aug 21, 2010 4:08:52
3.6 Miler Soda Springs, CA Aug 7, 2010 42:58
Half Marathon Davis, CA Jul 24, 2010 1:41:59
Half Marathon Napa, CA Jul 18, 2010 1:38:51
Half Marathon Santa Ynez, CA May 8, 2010 1:37:42
191 Mile Relay Calistoga, CA May 1, 2010
Half Marathon Dallas, TX Mar 14, 2010 1:38:40
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Dec 5, 2009 1:58:12
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Nov 1, 2009 1:42:29
Half Marathon Geyserville, CA Oct 31, 2009 1:40:03
Half Marathon San Diego, CA Aug 16, 2009 1:36:55
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Jul 26, 2009 1:37:19
20K Dallas, TX May 25, 2009 1:33:51
25K Stinson Beach, CA Apr 11, 2009 3:30:54
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Dec 6, 2008 2:07:40
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Nov 2, 2008 1:45:42
Half Marathon Monterey, CA Nov 11, 2007 1:38:39
Half Marathon San Jose, CA Oct 14, 2007 1:37:53
12K Sausalito, CA Mar 18, 2007 55:15
Half Marathon San Francisco, CA Jul 27, 2003 1:41:11
Half Marathon Tahoe City, CA Oct 12, 2002 1:51:01

My Raves

Running Universal Minion 5K

Running Universal Minion 5K

The inaugural Minion 5K was Running Universal’s first entry in what hopefully will become a series of Universal-themed events geared toward both runners and (fast) walkers. Universal has a number … MORE

The inaugural Minion 5K was Running Universal’s first entry in what hopefully will become a series of Universal-themed events geared toward both runners and (fast) walkers. Universal has a number of popular properties it could feature in future races including Harry Potter, Jurassic Park and the Simpsons. And this is definitely an event that’s group- and family-friendly, since a loop of Amity Island with the “Jaws” theme playing, a run past the Bates Motel from “Psycho,” or a photo op with the Minions isn’t the same without someone(s) to share it all with. Plus of course there’s the post-race refueling session at Voodoo Doughnuts in Universal CityWalk, directly across from the finish line.

Luckily we took our time enjoying the backlot and were in no hurry to finish, since the out-and-back portion of the course included a significant hill (both up and down) in mile 2 as well as some other minor climbs. But by the time we crossed the finish line alongside the ginormous Eddie Van Halen 5150 guitar standing outside the Hard Rock Café, we were already looking forward to Running Universal’s next event, the Jurassic World 5K in November.

If you want to be in the first wave of starters, you’ll want to arrive well ahead of the 6:00am start time. We lined up in our corral at about 5:55am and, not surprisingly, ended up starting in the last wave at 6:37am — which sounds like a long wait, but the organizers made the smart inaugural decision to allow five minutes between waves, which nicely minimized crowding along the course and so was well worth the wait on a pleasantly cool, clear morning.

Though the logistics may be difficult given the limited size of the park and backlot, ideally Universal will find a way to offer 10K and half marathon distances as well — fellow runners have said they would happily travel to run a Harry Potter-, Jurassic Park- or Simpsons-themed half marathon. For now, though, as an Angeleno I’m excited to return for the Jurassic World 5K in November and to see what lies ahead for Running Universal, which should help fill the gap created when runDisney abruptly canceled all its SoCal events last year.

BOTTOM LINE: Unless you abhor Hollywood, I’d highly recommend the Minion 5K as one of the most entertaining 5Ks you’ll run. There were plenty of families running together, and though it’s not a cheap family outing, it is entirely unique and especially if you’ve been looking for a reason to visit Universal Studios yourself or bring the family along. And though the race guidelines did mention a strict cutoff time, we saw no evidence that anyone was rushed, and we even watched the on-course race crew provide a personal escort to the last participant across the finish line. It was gratifying to see an excellent inaugural event end on a positive note. Well done, Running Universal!

PRODUCTION: If you didn’t know, you may have been surprised to learn the Minion 5K was Running Universal’s first race of any kind. From my perspective, race day production went off without a hitch or a single “DOH!” moment. Parking and packet pickup on race morning were quick and easy, and the starting waves were spaced out five minutes apart to reduce crowding on the course. It was like they’d done this before… and in some sense they had, since race day operations were the purview of Spectrum Sports, organizers of the Catalina Island Marathon, Avalon 50 and SoCal runDisney events, among others.

Not surprisingly, the Minion 5K was more expensive than your typical local 5K, but then again this isn’t your typical local 5K. A race like this is more about value than price, and with that in mind I’d call Running Universal’s first effort a solid value for fans of any of the Universal Studios properties — and especially if it’s been a while since your last visit to the park (for us it had been more than a decade). Registration cost $75 and included:
– race course through the park and backlot (the main incentive for me)
– free parking in the ET lot (normally $25) before 5:30am; VIP runners received complimentary valet service in the slightly closer Jurassic Parking (get it?) Lot
– free race day packet pickup, a huge bonus for those of us who don’t want to spend the entire weekend driving around LA
– significant discount on park admission ($20 off the usual $114 price tag, if I recall)
– early access to the park (8:30am for runners, 9:00am for the general public)
– photo ops and decent swag

SWAG: As a bling junkie, I appreciated the eye-catching Minion finisher’s medal much more than the cotton t-shirt sporting the Minion 5K logo, which I’m unlikely to wear since the cotton in my casual wardrobe these days is negligible. As expected, professional photos taken along the course were available for purchase, but while other on-course character photo ops were available free of charge, post-race photos with the Minions were for purchase only, which struck me as an arbitrary decision. On the other hand, the bouncy Minion who joined the PA announcer onstage at the finish line was more than happy to either pose for photos or photobomb runner selfies (see attached photo), so I’m guessing most of the finishers who wanted a free photo lived happily ever after.

Hope to see you at the Jurassic World 5K on Nov 16!

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
5
SCENERY
5
SWAG
4
My Media

2 members marked this review helpful. Agree?

 

REVEL Kulia

REVEL Kulia

BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve ever run a REVEL race, then you know exactly what awaits you on the Big Island… and if you haven’t, you may want to carry a … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve ever run a REVEL race, then you know exactly what awaits you on the Big Island… and if you haven’t, you may want to carry a fire extinguisher just in case your legs spontaneously combust. With nearly 5,700 feet of descent according to my Garmin, Kulia wears the downhill crown as the steepest of the eight REVEL courses — which is a bit like calling the Pacific the deepest of the oceans.

Physically, my own race could be broken down into two clear segments — 18 miles of “Count me in!” followed by eight miles of “Get me OUT.” Even a tailwind in the last six miles couldn’t save me from imploding. Granted, I’d run Tokyo six days earlier or I might have expected more of a 20/6 or 22/4 split. In any case, based on my previous REVEL experience at last year’s Mt Charleston Marathon in Nevada, I knew the last few miles would be painful… I just didn’t expect that my quads and calves would call it quits in unison.

On the bright side, it’s Hawaii so the scenery is beautiful. Gazing out across the Pacific Ocean and seeing Maui in the distance certainly helped to distract from my mounting fatigue. Best of all, once you cross the finish line you are now free to move about the island and to enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer — if you can still walk, that is. It’s no accident the medical tent is only steps away from the finish line.

PRODUCTION: This year’s inaugural Kulia race definitely delivered on REVEL’s promise of “fast and beautiful,” though the evidence suggests that with 5,700 feet of elevation loss, the company may well have reached the law of diminishing returns on speed.

Not surprisingly given its venue, Kulia is the most expensive of the REVEL events — I’d paid an early-bird registration price of $130 including a $10 discount code. Still significantly cheaper than say, Honolulu, and probably not a deal-breaker if you’re traveling from the mainland to run in Hawaii. Plus, your registration comes with all the niceties you’d expect from a REVEL event, including free gloves/heat sheet to stay warm on race morning, near-immediate results via email, free race photos, and even free goodr sunglasses. Race day also featured some distinctly Hawaiian touches including a pre-race conch blowing and native prayer, plus purple orchid leis at the finish line. And who doesn’t love a lei?

The expo was small and easily navigated, with several of the same vendors I’d seen at last year’s Mt Charleston expo including doTERRA (essential oils) and Rapid Reboot (recovery). We also met the garrulous race director of the Big Island International Marathon who was none too pleased (understandably so) that REVEL had shown up in his ‘hood and scheduled a marathon/half marathon one week before his own.

On-course support was excellent, including a bottle of Maurten that Katie dropped off and which was waiting for me at the mile 15 aid station. (Mahalo, volunteers!) Be aware, though, if you’re a runner who feeds off spectator support and raucous crowds: outside of aid station volunteers, I could count the number of spectators on two hands. On the plus side, few spectators meant few vehicles, and despite the fact we shared the road with traffic for much of the race, the organizers did a nice job of allowing us a wide berth such that safety concerns were minimal.

That said, the course definitely needed more trash bins, as discarded Dixie cups or GU packets in several spots lay one gust of wind away from becoming island detritus for a grazing goat to find.

The post-race party felt more functional than festive, held as it was in a gravel clearing on the side of the highway with a spread of Domino’s Pizza, water, chocolate milk and canned beer. As the lead singer of Suicidal Tendencies once lamented, all I wanted was a Pepsi, and sadly there was none to be had. Chocolate milk or beer definitely wasn’t going to cut it for a stressed-out stomach that wasn’t yet ready for protein, fat or alcohol.

On a semi-related note, with the REVEL team now in charge things are looking up for this year’s newly resurrected Portland Marathon, which after several years of poor management and underperformance (culminating in a 2018 cancellation and change of leadership) finally promises to live up to its potential.

SWAG: REVEL takes its swag seriously. In addition to everything mentioned above (gloves, goodr sunglasses, lei), their race tees are among the best in the business, while their finisher medals are always hefty and well crafted, even if they insist on featuring their company logo (and was this year’s spiral supposed to represent a… nautilus shell?) rather than, say, a true Hawaiian-themed design. But the ultimate swag, really, is the opportunity to explore and experience the beauty of the Big Island. In the words of legendary marathoner William Shakespeare, “I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.”

Want a better sense for the REVEL Kulia experience? Check out my race report at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2019/07/09/revel-kulia-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
4
My Report
SCENERY
5
SWAG
5
My Media

5 members marked this review helpful. Agree?

 

Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Tokyo is big, it’s bold, it’s bonkers. It’s eclectic, electric, hypnotic, frenetic. And it’s a heck of a place to run a marathon. As the most populated metropolitan … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Tokyo is big, it’s bold, it’s bonkers. It’s eclectic, electric, hypnotic, frenetic. And it’s a heck of a place to run a marathon. As the most populated metropolitan area in the world, Tokyo feels like New York City — on steroids. Coming from Los Angeles, I felt strangely at ease with Tokyo’s vast urban sprawl, which others may find unsettling (though if you’re only in town for the marathon, you may not experience it). And speaking of unsettling, the city is remarkably clean — never would I have expected to find myself in an urban setting of 13+ million residents where trash bins are both unavailable and unnecessary.

If you’re an American planning to run the Tokyo Marathon, odds are you’re doing so in your quest to run all six World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin, NYC) and earn the coveted Six Star Finisher Medal. Either that or you love banging your head against the wall, because Tokyo (along with London) is the most difficult marathon in the world to get into; last year alone, the race received 330,271 applications for fewer than 37,500 slots.

With that in mind, if you’re determined to run Tokyo then your best bet is either to run for one of the race’s approved charities or to travel, as we did, with a tour operator like Marathon Tours — though be aware that given the high demand, Marathon Tours conducts its own mini-lottery to distribute its available Tokyo and London entries. And though you will pay a premium through Marathon Tours (this is their business, after all), it’s unlikely to be a deal-breaker for runners with Six Star fever on the brain.

Plus, the company hosts a Friday city tour and pre-race pasta buffet, as well as a terrific post-race party replete with drinks and hors d’oeuvres, the latter held in the swanky 39th floor ballroom of the Park Hyatt, the hotel where the movie “Lost in Translation” was filmed. (Apparently the Park Hyatt was also destroyed by a UFO in the movie “Godzilla 2000,” but hey you can’t win ‘em all.) As part of the post-race festivities, two Seven Continents Club finishers (including our friend and fellow Antarctica adventurer Louann) as well as over 100 Six Star Finishers were recognized. It was a unique opportunity to meet fellow traveling runners, and the perfect ending to an amazing day.

As for the race itself, Tokyo is quite possibly the most high-energy marathon you’ll ever run (I can’t speak for London yet, though apparently it holds its own). It’s a sporting event on a global scale, hosted by folks who know how to throw a party. Even in the cold and rain, the streets of Tokyo were lined with spectators and supporters holding signs and cheering loudly. If you’re the type of runner who’s motivated by community support, Tokyo will inspire you from start to finish. And being able to see fellow runners coming from the opposite direction on the out-and-backs was a nice distraction, as I scanned the soggy crowd for familiar faces. One word of warning: the combination of soaring skyscrapers and frequent turns may cause your GPS to betray you at times (mine claimed a final distance of 27.3 miles, along with a 6:26 mile 19 and 6:39 mile 20 that I’m confident I didn’t run).

Like the other World Marathon Majors, Tokyo is decidedly unique in the way it carries and presents itself. It’s the very definition of a well-oiled machine, professional and buttoned-up without sacrificing its luster and charm. After the race we were greeted back at the Tokyo International Forum by smiling volunteers holding signs that read “Congratulations! Tokyo loves you.” And the feeling was mutual.

PRODUCTION: Tokyo Marathon 2019 production can best be described in terms of pre- and post-finish. From the start line alongside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to the finish line on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, race day production didn’t miss a step or skip a beat. Similar to Chicago but unlike Boston and New York City, the start corrals were easily accessible and within walking distance of the host hotels. And volunteers posted every 50 yards or so along the course held trash bags to ensure that every scrap of trash found its happy home.

To be able to organize and mobilize 38,000 runners (including 500 10K runners) from around the world through the streets of a densely packed city like Tokyo without incident is an extraordinary accomplishment, one for which the organizers deserve huge props.

The only downside to race day (aside from the challenge of finding Katie amid throngs of raincoat-clad Asian people) was the long walk from the finish line to the Tokyo International Forum building, where friends and family waited for finishers. Fortunately I was wearing gloves and wrapped in a heat sheet; nonetheless the 30-minute walk in the cold drizzle was a bizarre end to such an impeccably organized event. But in the words of every pro athlete who’s ever been interviewed, it is what it is — and honestly I was too busy basking in my post-race high to focus on much of anything else, which made the lengthy stroll feel more like a slow victory lap.

As far as nutrition goes, with the weather virtually eliminating my thirst I didn’t take advantage of the plentiful aid stations, so I couldn’t tell you what Pocari Sweat (the on-course electrolyte drink of choice) tastes like — no reason to try something new on race day if I didn’t need it. And understandably given the sheer size of the race, post-race food was limited to a bag of munchies, the best of which was an odd custard-like peanut-butter sandwich which most runners seemed to agree hit the spot. That, and I always bring my own supply of Tailwind Rebuild for after the race.

The pre-race expo was unlike any I’ve experienced in the US or abroad. Strolling the expo was like stepping into a game show/video game, with high-pitched voices, alarms, bells and whistles assailing the ears from all directions. If you’re generally not a fan of busy expos or high volume, you may not appreciate the Tokyo expo; admittedly, though, I found it oddly fascinating and difficult to leave. Luckily, few of the booths were of real relevance to me (in part because, well, language barriers), though we did visit our friends from INKnBURN whose headquarters is located near us in SoCal. Due to ongoing construction as the city prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics, this year’s expo was held in a new outdoor venue, a tent city set up at the Odaiba-Aomi Event Area, across the Rainbow Bridge and about an hour subway ride from the marathon start line in Shinjuku City. Whether the expo will return to this same venue in 2020 is unclear.

One note of warning: I’m not much of an expo shopper myself, but I heard several folks say the official marathon jacket sold out quickly, so if that’s your angle you’ll want to hit the expo on Thursday to beat the crowds.

Not surprisingly, Tokyo’s race photos were expensive — in fact, the most expensive of any of my 40 marathons to date. Even so, $39 per picture or $195 USD (21,600 yen) for the entire set felt like highway robbery. So if you have your heart set on buying professional photos of your Tokyo Marathon experience, be sure to factor that cost into your budget.

SWAG: Much like the other World Marathon Majors, Tokyo swag for me was all about the finisher medal, which is colorful and distinctive. On the other hand, I’ve yet to remove the short-sleeve white race tee from its plastic wrapper, since having seen it on others I know I’m unlikely to wear it. Cooler than the tee, though, is the full-size towel emblazoned with the race design and logo that we received at the finish line and which will come in handy.

In the end, completing the Tokyo Marathon is not only an awesome experience and a humbling achievement; it’s also one step closer to the ultimate prize of the Abbott Six Star Finisher medal. Five down, London to go!

For more about Tokyo 2019 (and there are a lot more words where these came from); check out my race report at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2019/06/23/tokyo-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
4
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
My Media

4 members marked this review helpful. Agree?

 

Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon

Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Tell me you’re on the hunt for a high-value, low-frills scenic marathon in an underrated city you may not otherwise visit, and I’ll point you straight to the … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Tell me you’re on the hunt for a high-value, low-frills scenic marathon in an underrated city you may not otherwise visit, and I’ll point you straight to the Jacob Wells 3 Bridges Marathon. Jacob was not only the race founder but an avid runner himself, having completed 154 marathons before his premature death in 2014. And though he’s no longer with us in the corporeal sense, 3B26 continues to honor Jacob’s memory as a race put on for runners, by runners.

The marathon is the only distance offered so the course never feels crowded, and there’s never a point at which tired marathoners suddenly have to merge with half marathoners or 10K runners. And what the race may lack in style — no colorful start-line balloons, live musical entertainment or showy bling — it more than makes up for in substance with a smart & scenic course, enthusiastic volunteers, a high-energy finish-line announcer and an awesome heated tent at the start and finish. Oh, and a friendly neighborhood Santa Claus greets each finisher with a white-gloved high-five. What’s not to love?

The three bridges — each of which runners cross twice — are the highlights of the race, along with the turnaround at the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, which appropriately sits on the opposite side of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge. (In case you didn’t know already, upon landing at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport you’ll quickly realize that President Clinton hails from Arkansas.). Both the Library/Museum and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitors Center — the latter of which tells the 1957 story of the Little Rock Nine and their battle for desegregation — are worth a visit for anyone with an appreciation of American history. All in all, there’s plenty to do in Little Rock to promise any visitor a full and fulfilling weekend, and 3B26 offers a more low-key option compared to the big-bling block party of the Little Rock Marathon in March.

For prospective runners, a $15 discount was available on the 3B26 Facebook page for Black Friday, lowering the already reasonable $90 registration fee to $75. Sold!

PRODUCTION: As mentioned above, 3B26 is clearly a marathon for runners, by runners. The race production itself was nearly flawless, with no superfluous bells and whistles but with plenty of positive vibes and small, professional touches such as race-day packet pickup plus a cozy heated tent (stocked with post-race pizza and drinks) that was large enough to accommodate nearly everyone before and after the race. Genius, that tent. Keep in mind this is a marathon only (no shorter distances), which allows the organizers to focus their efforts exclusively on the 26.2 crowd, from the Green Bay Packers fan I met in mile 13 who was tackling his first marathon to the woman on the morning trolley who was running her 50th. Perhaps ironically for a race that starts with a prayer, 3B26 understands that the devil is in the details.

SWAG: This was another aspect of the race that underpromised and overdelivered. The long-sleeve gray Sport-Tek shirt is more comfortable than most and sports the colorful green-and-purple 3B26 logo. Meanwhile the finisher medal, which likewise sports the 3B26 logo and which at first glance struck me as basic and lacking in creativity, in fact has an understated yet attractive stained-glass quality that I always appreciate. It’s smartly designed without being showy. Nicely done, 3B26!

For a more detailed description of race day and things to do in Little Rock, check out my race report at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2019/05/09/jacob-wells-3-bridges-marathon-race-report

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
My Media

2 members marked this review helpful. Agree?

 

JFK 50 Mile

JFK 50 Mile

BOTTOM LINE: First held in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, the JFK 50 Mile is the country’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. It’s an iconic race that draws some of … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: First held in 1963 during the Kennedy administration, the JFK 50 Mile is the country’s oldest and largest ultra marathon. It’s an iconic race that draws some of the country’s most elite runners, as well as folks like me. The event remains a military race at heart with its most prestigious award, the Kennedy Cup, being awarded to its top military team. Buoyed by 56 years of history, this is a must-run race for serious ultrarunners, one that inspires fierce loyalty among its finishers — case in point Kimball Byron, who sadly fell short this year in his attempt to become the event’s first 50-time finisher. With limited elevation change after the first 16 miles, this is also a great option for anyone looking to tackle their first 50-miler.

The JFK 50 course is part road (paved), part trail (unpaved). About 80% of the course runs on the unpaved Appalachian Trail and C&O Canal Towpath, with the paved 20% coming at the beginning and end. The course is divided into three main sections, starting with the Appalachian Trail (~11 of the first 16 miles) and moving on to the unpaved/crushed gravel C&O Canal Towpath (26 miles) before finishing on paved, rolling country roads (8 miles). The good news is you’ll get through the toughest section of the course (i.e. the Appalachian Trail) at the beginning; the bad news is that the hills and highly technical terrain will sap a lot of the energy and bounce from your legs. This was especially true in 2018, when record annual rainfall and eight inches of snow less than 36 hours earlier created trail conditions that were, according to one 31-time finisher, “the worst ever.” So my recommendation would be to prepare for the worst and then be pleasantly surprised if/when you luck into dry (or at least not marshy) trail conditions.

Despite having four 50+ milers under my belt, this was the first race where I can recall feeling bored for long stretches, particularly on the flat 26-mile C&O Canal Towpath along the Potomac River where the scenery never changed. As one RaceRaves reviewer put it, it was like the running version of Groundhog’s Day. With no hills, no change of scenery and no headphones allowed on the course, I spent much of the middle 26 miles in my own head trying to focus on something other than my heavy quads and mounting fatigue, while slowly ticking off the miles one… at… a… time. If not for having to negotiate frequent mud puddles, I could have run this entire stretch on autopilot.

So although I’d be curious to take another crack at this course under drier conditions, given that we live 2,500 miles away and I still have 26 states remaining, I won’t be returning for a rematch anytime soon. Someday, maybe…

PRODUCTION: Race day was a smooth production for the most part. Aid stations were well stocked (which for me means peanut butter & jelly along with bananas), though I could feel my insulin levels spike just surveying the amount of cookies and sugary foods available. And the outstanding volunteers were ready to assist with pretty much anything you’d want or need, from food to Vaseline to good old-fashioned encouragement. As is the case with most events and especially the best ones, the JFK 50 doesn’t happen without the tireless support of its volunteers who sacrifice their day so the rest of us can chase our goals and play in the mud.

Conveniently held at the host hotel (the Homewood Suites by Hilton Hagerstown), the race expo was your typical low-key ultramarathon packet pickup with tables from Altra Running (the presenting sponsor), a local running store and the JFK 50 folks themselves selling race merch past and present. The organizers even created a cool booklet featuring statistics from past JFK 50 finishers and course record holders plus a detailed rundown of historical sites along the course, very few of which you’ll be able to appreciate on race day.

The post-race spread in the Springfield Middle School cafeteria was low-key but fairly generous including pizza, chili (Sloppy Joe or chili cheese dog, anyone?) and assorted aid station snacks such as pretzels, M&Ms and red velvet cake. Massages were also available for those who were willing to freshen up first. Most importantly for me, the indoor cafeteria offered a warm place to sit and recover while reveling in the accomplishment of another 50-mile run.

I’d recommend to the organizers that the pre-race briefing begin (or end) five minutes earlier, to allow for last-minute porta-potty stops before the race start. By the time I exited the crowded gym after the briefing, took care of business and then walked briskly to the start line, the starter’s pistol had already fired and I was among the last runners to start. Not a terrible thing except the JFK 50 has no chip timing at the start, so the clock started while I was still ¼ mile behind the line in my wind pants and jacket. Oops.

SWAG: From what I can tell, the JFK 50 finisher medal never changes aside from the year because similar to Comrades, why fix what ain’t broke? The iconic award is a silver- (or gold)-colored medal depicting JFK in profile, reminiscent of (but larger than) the half dollar coin that bears his likeness. The medal hangs from a patriotic red, white and blue ribbon. Like many trail races, the shirt is a simple cotton short-sleeve tee featuring the race’s patriotic logo on front with sponsors listed on back. And though I have no shortage of race tees, I’ll happily wear this one if for no other reason than its promise as a conversation starter.

For more details including the history of the JFK 50, check out my blog recap at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2019/03/18/jfk-50-mile-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
4
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
My Media

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Des Moines Marathon

Des Moines Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: As midsize marathons go, Des Moines is one of des best in the des Midwest, if not des entire country. The meandering, Hyde-and-Jekyll course is best considered in … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: As midsize marathons go, Des Moines is one of des best in the des Midwest, if not des entire country. The meandering, Hyde-and-Jekyll course is best considered in terms of pre-Drake (rolling first half) and post-Drake (much flatter second half), with the highlight being a lap around the blue Drake University oval in mile 12. Despite a similar field size, the course felt more suburban and more intimate than had Kansas City’s one day earlier, with much of the route passing through quiet neighborhoods and local parks, including a two-mile loop of serene Gray’s Lake late in the race. That said, the spirited support from the Des Moines community was impressive, including one woman who stood at miles 9.5 and 14.5 shaking her sleigh bells as if the upcoming holiday season depended on it.

As a spectator Katie drove many of the streets and neighborhoods bordering the course, and in so doing witnessed the more blue-collar commercial and industrial sectors of the city, none of which were immediately apparent to us marathoners. My own impression of Des Moines from race weekend was of a scenic, comfortably sized town with few defining features but with an abundance of green spaces, a vibrant university campus and an artsy, entrepreneurial streak. And finishing 26.2 miles in the shadow of stately Polk County Courthouse was a nice touch.

(Note: I ran DMM as the second half of a back-to-back weekend with the Kansas City Marathon as part of the excellent I-35 Challenge.)

PRODUCTION: Des Moines was staged with clear attention to detail, from the scenic course that showcased the best of the city to the plentiful aid stations (and porta-potties) to the helpful volunteers who patrol the course on bikes, acting as mobile aid stations. And though the finish line festival (or in this case, the Samuel Adams Block Party) was a good bit colder and windier than the previous day in Kansas City, I stuck around to thank Race Director Chris Burch in person, and to take advantage of the free post-race nachos and Sam Adams DSM Brew, never a bad combination. Unfortunately I missed the complimentary massage tent, but that too was available to sore-legged finishers.

A handy pocket-sized Spectator Guide was available at packet pickup. The guide featured a map of the course showing the locations of cheer zones and parking lots, as well as helpful hints including the Sunday schedule, how to get connected with your runner and when/where to watch on race day. Super-spectator Katie found the guide to be particularly helpful in association with Google Maps.

One suggestion I might make would be for pacers (who always amaze me with their ability to lead, inform and entertain, all while maintaining a consistent pace for 26.2 miles) to carry signs that more clearly identify their pace times — the pace signs this year were difficult to read from a distance, which frustrated me on several occasions as I tried to gauge my progress based on a pace group running ahead of me.

SWAG: Des Moines overdelivered in the swag department. While the shiny round finisher medal emblazoned with the race logo is an eye-catching addition to my collection, it’s overshadowed by the high-quality full-zip jacket with the IMT DMM logo printed on the left lapel. Not only is the jacket a thoughtful and significant upgrade from the usual race tee, but it’s the type of outerwear I’ll find a reason to wear even in SoCal, as it’s both comfy and stylish.

In addition to race-specific swag, marathoners and half marathoners who also completed Kansas City the day before earned 1) a colorful stained-glass I-35 Challenge medal with the names of both races on the medal and ribbon, and 2) a long-sleeve gray tech tee with “Challenge Completed” printed on the front. Hats off to the organizers in Des Moines and Kansas City for going the extra mile to make the I-35 Challenge one of the most memorable weekends in running!

For more details I’d urge you to run, don’t walk to my DMM race report at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2019/02/07/des-moines-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
5
My Media

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Kansas City Marathon

Kansas City Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Having entered the weekend as a Kansas City newbie not knowing what to expect, I can now enthusiastically gush about the City of Fountains. Both the marathon and … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Having entered the weekend as a Kansas City newbie not knowing what to expect, I can now enthusiastically gush about the City of Fountains. Both the marathon and the city itself exceeded my expectations for a state that outsiders cheekily pronounce MISS’-ou-ri. Kansas City (as least the Missouri side; we spent very little time on the Kansas side) strikes me as a vibrant, scenic town that’s comfortable in its own skin, with a hint of cosmopolitan panache and plenty to see and do.

With significant upgrades to the marathon course in recent years, the rolling route now leads its runners past some of the city’s most notable neighborhoods, parks and landmarks including the J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain (with its water dyed blue, presumably for race weekend) and the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Even the lengthy out-and-back along Ward Pkwy in miles 14-21 passed quickly with its upscale neighborhoods and flashy fall colors, which always appeal to someone coming from SoCal where seasons are more of a fanciful concept than a climatic reality.

Sometimes, in the course of running all 50 states, you find a race that just feels right, in an unassuming city that’s eager to showcase itself to anyone receptive to its charms. Kansas City was just such a race, and it’s probably no coincidence that it was also one of my most consistent marathon performances, from its uphill start to its downhill finish. For anyone looking for a Midwestern marathon/half marathon or any 50 Stater looking to add Missouri to their map, I’d highly recommend you #RunKCM. Oh, and do train for hills.

(Note: I ran KCM as the first half of a back-to-back with the Des Moines Marathon as part of the excellent I-35 Challenge: http://www.sportkc.org/marathon/register/i-35-challenge/)

PRODUCTION: For the most part, race weekend in the City of Fountains flowed smoothly from start to finish. The energetic pre-race expo, held in historic Union Station, was one of the more enjoyable mid-size expos I’ve attended, with plenty of diverse vendors big and small as well as a number of cool races I’d love to run if I lived in the Midwest. Popular Olympian and running coach Jeff Galloway was available to offer guidance, sign books or simply chat. Kansas City was also the site of the quarterly 50 States Marathon Club reunion, which further added to the energy of the weekend for club members.

Despite a densely packed start corral that was tough to access, the marathon course did a nice job of showing off the city and its highlights, with plenty of aid stations and terrific volunteers. And though some may disagree, I appreciated the fast downhill finish since I still had control of my legs. Spectator support was sparse, which I count as a positive since big, loud, raucous crowds typically aren’t my cup of tea. That said, a diverse collection of bands filled the air along the route with musical motivation. Hats off, too, to KCM and SportPhotos.com for providing free race photos — always a bonus, and especially if you don’t have your own star spectator like Katie to expertly (wo)man the camera for you.

Taking advantage of perfect late October weather, the finish line festival in Washington Square Park was jumping. Operation BBQ Relief dished out Kansas City BBQ while Central States Beverage served up local beers. As a vegetarian planning to run another marathon in another state the next day, I bypassed both the BBQ and beer, though not the complimentary massage tent where I got a (literal) leg up on my post-race recovery. A number of photo ops awaited happy finishers, including a gong waiting to be rung by anyone who’d qualified for Boston, set a personal record or simply run Kansas City for the first time (one out of three ain’t bad!). Even KC Royals mascot Slugger was on hand trading high-fives and posing for pictures. Given that we had our sights set on Iowa for the next day’s Des Moines Marathon as part of the I-35 Challenge, we couldn’t stay long, but I soaked up the post-race ambience for as long as possible before hustling back across the street for our noon checkout at the host hotel.

Speaking of the host hotel, this was our only legit source of race weekend disappointment. Although a convenient and comfortable facility, the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center seemed to have no clue that the city’s largest running event was happening just outside its doors and that many of its patrons would therefore be runners. For example, information on road closures in the vicinity of the hotel would have been helpful for friends and family members who would be driving the course to support their runners. Much more annoying, our request for a late checkout was denied, and by the time we reached our room minutes after noon, our room key had been deactivated. Sadly we weren’t alone, as I chatted with several other disgruntled runners in our hallway while Katie went downstairs to reactivate our key. We ended up disregarding the checkout time, grabbing a quick shower and hitting the road sometime after 12:30pm. So if you expect you’ll need more than 4½ hours to finish your marathon, you may want to think twice before booking the Westin.

SWAG: KCM earns two thumbs up (and five shoes here on RaceRaves) for this year’s standout swag, which included an attractive and comfy lightweight blue hoodie, the first of its kind I’ve received in 35 marathons and one I’ve already worn on several occasions. And the hefty square finisher medal is uniquely Kansas City in the best way, as it depicts four of the city’s fountains while distinguishing the race distance visually based on ribbon color. Well done, KC!

For more on the marathon that RaceRaves voters crowned the best in Missouri, check out my blog report (c’mon, you know you want to!) at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2019/01/30/kansas-city-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
5
My Media

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Jackson Hole Marathon & Half Marathon

Jackson Hole Marathon & Half Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: From now on, whenever non-runners (and even some runners) ask why I’m running in all 50 States, I have an easy two-word answer: Jackson Hole. The opportunity to … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: From now on, whenever non-runners (and even some runners) ask why I’m running in all 50 States, I have an easy two-word answer: Jackson Hole. The opportunity to discover incredible hidden gems like JHM is what motivates me to travel the country and the planet in search of the world’s best races. Few marathons can top Jackson Hole’s mix of eye-popping scenery, comfortable low-key production and easy access to two of the nation’s most beautiful destinations in Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. It’s no surprise then that Jackson Hole was just voted the best marathon in Wyoming by runners across the country on RaceRaves.

For most of us Jackson Hole isn’t easy to get to, but then again that’s part of its allure. Flights into Jackson are typically expensive and indirect, with the airport located right at the base of the Teton Range. For this reason (but also because we have a Southwest Airlines companion pass) we flew into the closest Southwest hub, Salt Lake City, and made the 280-mile drive to Jackson through rustic Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. The drive felt like a Cliffs Notes version of the Great American Road Trip. And we stayed just outside of town (~2 miles from the marathon start in Jackson Town Square) at the Flat Creek Inn, a nice affordable alternative to the host hotel in the heart of Jackson.

The race is held on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, when Grand Teton and Yellowstone experience the last gasps of the summer tourism season. So while there will still be plenty of cars in the parks, traffic won’t be what it is during the summer months. At the same time, weather for race weekend this year was gorgeous, with temperatures ranging from the high 30s to mid 70s with plenty of sun. And few sights are more stunning or life-affirming than Grand Teton and the little Tetons on a sunny day.

Note to sea-level sissies like me: Jackson Hole sits at ~6,300 ft, and though the altitude may not perturb your breathing, you’ll likely notice your legs feeling heavier than normal on race day. Luckily the course is relatively flat with gentle climbs and descents, so you’ll have that going for you in your battle against the thin air.

PRODUCTION: Don’t confuse adjectives like “low-key” and “relaxed” with “loosely organized” — race directors Jay Batchen and Lisa Smith-Batchen know exactly what they’re doing. This is a race for runners by runners, and one that does exactly what it needs to do production-wise before yielding the stage to the star of the show, Jackson’s pristine beauty. The marathon course was impeccably measured and marked, with plenty of aid stations (or so it seemed, though I didn’t stop at any). As a cup-free event, runners were instructed to carry their own “hydration system” (cup, bottle or vest) which could be filled and refilled at aid stations; I carried in one pocket a handy collapsible HydraPak SpeedCup which I ended up not using.

If race photos are your jam then Jackson Hole may not be for you, since Katie was the only photographer I saw on the course.

Reminiscent of Disney events, the post-race food was a FitFul box containing pita chips, hummus and applesauce. Best of all was the goodie bag, which included a voucher for a free beer (with the purchase of an entrée) at the popular Snake River Brewing, which happens to be Wyoming’s oldest brewery as well as a great place to celebrate another marathon success with friends. Cheers!

SWAG: My favorite finisher medals tend to feature some memorable aspect of the community, whether it be a city skyline or popular local attraction. Case in point the smartly crafted JHM medal, which depicts the iconic Jackson Elk Antler Arch with a “JHM” dangling from the peak of the arch. And not that anyone runs (or judges) a marathon next door to Grand Teton National Park based on its shirt, but JHM’s is a nicely understated blue Greenlayer tee that I’ve happily included in my regular rotation.

For a more detailed rundown (+ pictures) of our Jackson Hole weekend, my blog awaits at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2018/12/11/jackson-hole-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
5
SWAG
4
My Media

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Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon

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 … MORE

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.

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!

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 microscope. 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.

There’s a whole lot more to say about this year’s down run, and I say most of it on my blog at https://wp.me/p2rSqE-1GS

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
4
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
My Media

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Nitro Trail Half Marathon/10K/5K

Nitro Trail Half Marathon/10K/5K

BOTTOM LINE: Whether it’s held on the moon in zero gravity or at Point Pinole Regional Park, ain’t no race like a Brazen race. This year marked the 10th anniversary … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Whether it’s held on the moon in zero gravity or at Point Pinole Regional Park, ain’t no race like a Brazen race. This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Nitro Trail Races, the first event Brazen Racing produced way back in 2009. Since then the company has built a fanatically loyal fan base and expanded to 27 (plus or minus) annual events on paved and (primarily) unpaved trails across the Bay Area.

The Nitro Half Marathon course comprises a shorter starting loop followed by two longer identical loops around Point Pinole Regional Park, site of the original Alfred Nobel Dynamite plant which speaks to the race’s theme. The beginner-friendly course is one of Brazen’s flatter off-road courses with only modest hills, so you can push yourself without having to pause frequently to catch your breath as on some of their more challenging courses (e.g. Wildcat, Drag-N-Fly and oh yes, Rocky Ridge). The diverse terrain varies from grass to gravel to asphalt to dirt with sweet views across San Pablo Bay, even if some of those views are marred by the not-so-sweet white smoke pouring out of the Chevron refinery across the bay.

I’ve been a huge Brazen fan since I first discovered them in 2011 (Nitro 2018 was my 12th Brazen race, plus two volunteer gigs). And if we still lived up in the Bay Area rather than down in SoCal, I’d seriously consider dedicating a year of my life to chasing “Streaker” status, awarded annually to those crazy runners (225 in all through 2017!) who participate in every Brazen race in a calendar year. Brazen’s diverse catalog of events is consistently that good, and the loyal community of runners and streakers they’ve cultivated in their nine years is a big reason why. Brazen really is a family, as evidenced by the fact that so many of their runners and volunteers know each other by name. It’s like “Cheers” for runners. All of which makes race day a lot more fun.

Enjoy running trails but don’t want to commit to chasing Streaker status? I’d highly recommend Brazen’s Ultra Half Series, in which you can earn a wicked cool coaster for running at least five of their toughest trail races plus their season-ending butt-kicker, the Rocky Ridge Half Marathon. Check out the deets at https://brazenracing.com/races/ultra-half-series/

PRODUCTION: Flawless, as always. Sam, Jasmin and their team have this down to a science, though it feels more like art. And I can appreciate that the smoother an event runs, the more work went into making it happen. Everything about the race is low-key but professional, from race-day packet pickup to the well-marked course to an awesome post-race spread (don’t forget your IT’S-IT). I could drone on for several paragraphs, but once you run with them you’ll understand what I’m talking about. And you’ll be hooked. Other race companies, if they’re smart, will sit up and take note of what Brazen is doing,

SWAG: All Brazen registration fees* (*for the half marathon distance and longer; I can’t vouch for the 10K and 5K) include a t-shirt, with one cool caveat — if you don’t want a shirt, you can deduct $5 at the time of registration. And though I own a small army of Brazen tees, I’m more enamored with the finisher medals which are a creative and ever-changing expression of Sam’s vision for the race. In recent years, he’s even started creating unique medals for his age-group award winners at each individual race. That’s 25+ different age-group medals to go with 25+ different finisher medals, every year — and each one thoughtfully designed to match the race theme. Incredible. It’s safe to say that no race company pays greater attention to detail or shows more respect for its runners than Brazen.

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
SCENERY
4
SWAG
5
My Media

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REVEL Mt Charleston

REVEL Mt Charleston

BOTTOM LINE: The REVEL race series exists for one (main) reason: to help runners exploit gravity and qualify for Boston. And if you’re a skilled downhill runner who appreciates panoramic … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: The REVEL race series exists for one (main) reason: to help runners exploit gravity and qualify for Boston. And if you’re a skilled downhill runner who appreciates panoramic desert views, then Mt Charleston — REVEL’s most popular race — is right in your wheelhouse. Despite its 5,100 ft elevation loss over 26.2 miles, the downhill course feels comfortably runnable and never too severe. But be warned: while the course does deliver on its promise of fast and scenic, the last 4+ miles level out significantly, with a couple of uphill jags that feel even more challenging thanks to all the downhill that came before them. And if you think you’re sore the day after a flat marathon, you ain’t felt nothin’ yet — my quads were like concrete pillars the day after Mt Charleston. Not only were they acutely sore for several days afterward, they were still heavy and sluggish over a week later. Luckily the race is held on a Saturday, which allows most folks an extra day of recovery before having to waddle back to work.

I ran Mt Charleston not to qualify for Boston but as training for the Comrades Marathon “down” run, so I wasn’t out to smash any PRs. And happily so, because along with the leveling out of the course in mile 22, the day warmed up in a hurry once we turned off the mountain onto the Hwy 95 frontage road (this IS Vegas, after all). As both the sun and temperature rose in the later miles, I saw and heard folks around me try in vain to maintain pace, their BQ hopes slipping away with every step. And Katie, who was waiting at the end, agreed that she’s never seen so many finishers crying and suffering at a finish line. Case in point, I spent ~30 minutes after the race massaging a fellow finisher’s cramping calves as she literally screamed in agony with each muscle contraction, all while Katie fetched water and Powerade to help her stay hydrated. (My patient claimed she couldn’t stand to get to the med tent.)

In summary, severe downhill course + hardcore Boston hopefuls + desert heat = a take-no-prisoners race experience unlike any other. And the formula clearly works, because the race sells out quickly and an impressive 30% of finishers qualified for Boston this year. If you’re not running Mt Charleston to chase a PR or BQ, you’re definitely in the minority. And I look forward to running with REVEL again because, well, this is my kind of craziness.

Pro tip: Mt Charleston does sell out months in advance, so if you miss out but still want to run, I recommend you add your name to their wait list. I’ve been pulled off the wait list the past two years, though I couldn’t run last year since I’d already committed to Eugene. And though it’s tough to know how much advance warning you’ll be given, odds are high that someone will drop and open up a slot for you to chase your BQ dreams.

PRODUCTION: Smooth sailing for the most part, with one exception: the bus driver who shuttled us to the start line at the top of the mountain took a wrong turn — twice. By the time we reached the start area we had six minutes to disrobe, warm up, check our drop bag, make a porta-potty stop and do anything else we needed to do. Luckily the start was delayed by a few minutes, but still I found myself in the porta-potty when the gun went off and ended up running from the back. No big deal, and especially since this isn’t a large race so I didn’t have to worry about weaving around other runners — but that’s the kind of pre-race stress I can do without.

Aside from our navigationally challenged bus driver, race production was on point. The expo, held at the Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus, was small and easily navigated, though the predominantly local vendors and expo offers seemed out of sync with the demographic of largely out-of-town runners who come to Mt Charleston with one goal in mind: to qualify for Boston. Aid stations were well distributed and well equipped by awesome volunteers, while snarky signs along the course (e.g. “Can you believe YOU paid US to do this?” and “It’s a hill — GET OVER IT”) made clear that anyone seeking sympathy was in the wrong place.

The highlight of the day may well have been the icy towels that awaited us at the finish — WOW, talk about nirvana. As usual my stomach was in no mood to eat after the race, though both food (pie and Papa John’s Pizza) and Lagunitas Beer were readily available to all finishers. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the line at the massage tent was too long and moving too slowly, so I skipped it. Not that a few minutes of painful muscle manipulation would have changed the course of the next two days for my aching quads.

Admittedly I’d like to see the organizers better integrate this race with the community — there were very few spectators along the route, and it didn’t feel as though the locals had any idea a marathon was happening. Hopefully improving community integration is on REVEL’s roadmap, since community support (e.g. Flying Pig, Missoula, Richmond) helps a good race become a great one while creating a more welcoming, less “run and done” vibe.

SWAG: In addition to its downhill courses, REVEL is popular for its thoughtful swag which for the most part didn’t disappoint: gloves and space blanket for race morning in case it got cold at the start line (not a problem for our bus, which arrived six minutes before the start), nicely wearable short-sleeve gray technical tee with black side panels (one of the nicest in my collection), and oversized finisher medal which, despite its impressive size and cool orange stained-glass effect, strikes me as ho-hum because it’s emblazoned with the REVEL logo which is neither artistically satisfying nor symbolically meaningful. I’m just not a fan of a company advertising itself on its medals; I’d prefer a city skyline or similar. But to end on a positive note — free race photos plus a personalized highlight video! Another way in which REVEL goes the extra mile to take care of its runners.

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
4
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
My Media

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Bataan Memorial Death March

Bataan Memorial Death March

BOTTOM LINE: Are you a traveling runner in search of a uniquely inspiring (and patriotic) race experience? Or a 50 States runner looking for more than the usual race weekend … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Are you a traveling runner in search of a uniquely inspiring (and patriotic) race experience? Or a 50 States runner looking for more than the usual race weekend of “fly in, collect t-shirt and medal, fly out”? Or maybe a recreational hiker looking to experience history through the eyes of those who lived it? All three opportunities await you on the White Sands Missile Range in the high desert of Southern New Mexico.

Bataan is a race with a purpose, and the marathon itself feels almost anticlimactic in the grand scheme of the weekend. In the words of one of the officers who spoke at the Opening Ceremony, race weekend is an opportunity “to honor the heroes of Bataan in a living history lesson.” If you aren’t familiar with the history of the event, I’d suggest you check out the race website (or my blog post) for details.

This year, the 76th anniversary of the Bataan Death March in the Philippines during World War II, seven survivors remained on the Symbolic Roll Call. With each of them approaching or exceeding 100 years of age, soon there will be none. Bataan will always be a special event for what it represents and what it honors, but being able to hear one survivor tell his story and to shake another’s hand at the finish line was incredibly special. And I’d urge any runner reading this to register for next year’s race while there are still Bataan survivors among us. Survivors like centenarian Ben Skardon of South Carolina, who shared an extraordinary narrative of the horrors and humanity he experienced as a POW, forced by his Japanese captors to march 69 miles over five days in tropical heat of 110°F. Along the way, with the help of his fellow POWs he conquered hunger and disease without ever giving up hope. And yet years later, he was able to visit Japan as a free man who harbored no ill will toward his former captors or the Japanese people. That feels like heroism to me.

In a country and a time when few of us will ever be asked to make any real sacrifices in our lives, Bataan is an opportunity to pay our respects to those who did and to whom we owe the freedom and the comfortable lifestyle we readily take for granted.

And speaking of comfort, one suggestion for race day: you don’t necessarily need trail shoes (the course is ~25% asphalt, ~75% dirt/sand), but do consider wearing gaiters to prevent any sand or small rocks from finding their way into your shoes and forcing you to either run in discomfort or stop to shake out your shoes along the course.

The upshot? Road shoes, trail shoes, marching boots or bare feet, it doesn’t matter — run/march Bataan and do it soon, before our nation’s last living connections to World War II are gone forever.

PRODUCTION: Throw out the first two miles, and the weekend ran with almost military precision. The most conspicuous race-day error was an apparent lack of signage in mile 2, resulting in a wrong turn that led hundreds of runners astray and added ~1.6 miles to my own total. Had this been most other races the fallout might have been loud and belligerent, but Bataan isn’t most other races — no one is there to set a personal best or qualify for Boston, and so instead I congratulated myself on my 4:34 finish in the inaugurual Bataan Memorial Death March Ultramarathon.

A couple of other race-day suggestions: 1) increase the number of porta-potties at the start, and especially if the event continues to increase its participant cap as it did this year with a record 8,460 marchers — unable or unwilling to fight the call of nature, many military personnel and civilians (like me) experienced the Opening Ceremony from our place in the long porta-potty lines; 2) create an actual start arch, or at least add clear signage to the existing “arch” (i.e. first timing station) to give runners and marchers a better sense for the start line.

Based on my Garmin the 26.2 miles of the official course were well measured, and after missing the first three mile markers due to the crowds, I saw every marker from mile 4 on. On the dirt portions once the runners spread out, there were a couple of side roads and potential detours off the main trail that could have been more clearly marked as “Wrong Way,” but even my own questionable sense of direction didn’t lead me down any of them.

Every one of the 2,000 volunteers, comprising both civilian and military personnel, was amazing. With 100% focus on the marchers and their needs, there was no drama and no distractions. I never had to waste valuable energy guessing who had water and who had Gatorade — that was made clear as I approached each aid station. A heartfelt THANK YOU to all the volunteers whose selfless hard work made Bataan weekend in White Sands a huge success.

As usual my appetite abandoned me after the race, despite an impressive selection of post-race food. The organizers did a nice job of refueling their marchers, offering all participants an entrée (including hot dogs and veggie burgers) plus three side dishes and a drink, with soft drinks and canned beer available. It all added up to one of the better post-race spreads I’ve seen at a marathon.

One last recommendation for the organizers would be to post the 6½-minute high-speed course video — shown on a loop at the expo — on the race website, to give all prospective runners a better sense for the terrain. (See video link on this race page.) I knew to expect hot dry weather on race day, so course layout and terrain were the biggest wild cards. And preparation is the cornerstone of a good soldier!

SWAG: Nobody runs Bataan for the swag, and in fact it almost feels like an afterthought with all runners/marchers receiving their swag in a reusable goodie bag before the race. And though I missed the pomp and circumstance of receiving a medal after crossing the finish, thumbs up to the organizers for the appropriate choice of dog tags rather than finisher medals. (The only problem with dog tags is they’re relatively small and, when hung on a wall alongside larger finisher medals, easily overshadowed.) Another cool touch would have been for the event to offer engraving services (e.g. name and finish time) à la actual dog tags at the post-race festival. At any rate, the dog tags are definitely one of my more unique and memorable pieces of swag.

Sadly I can’t say the same for the shirt, a neon green Gildan cotton tee with “bataan” printed in thin, unimpressive blue letters on the front and which I can’t see myself wearing among my collection of race tees.

Along with their bib number all marchers received a full-color “Certificate of Participation,” which the WSMR Arts & Crafts Center would custom frame — along with your dog tags and challenge coin — for $65 at the expo/In-Processing while you waited. This service wasn’t available at the post-race festival, so if you’re interested in a cool keepsake you should jump on this opportunity before the race.

For more details of an amazing White Sands weekend, check out my blog post at: http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2018/04/17/bataan-memorial-death-march-race-report

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
4
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
3
My Media

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Los Angeles Marathon (LA Marathon)

Los Angeles Marathon (LA Marathon)

I’ve lived in Southern California for 5 years, and 2018 was my third time running the LA Marathon. I’d recommend my 2016 review and blog post for more details, but … MORE

I’ve lived in Southern California for 5 years, and 2018 was my third time running the LA Marathon. I’d recommend my 2016 review and blog post for more details, but the TL;DR version is: I’ve run Boston, Chicago, Houston and New York City, and from both a scenery and production perspective, Los Angeles is as good an urban marathon as I’ve run in the US.

If you’re a marathoner (or would-be marathoner) who lives outside SoCal, I’d love to convince you to give my hometown race a chance. The Stadium-to-the-Sea course is among the most scenic urban routes in the country, starting at Dodger Stadium with the playing of Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” and culminating in Santa Monica just steps from the Pacific Ocean. Along the way you’ll see the City of Angels in a way that few of its residents ever do, with your foot tour including the Golden Dragon Gateway of Chinatown, City Hall, Little Tokyo, Hollywood Blvd and the Stars Walk of Fame, Sunset Blvd with its hillside view of the Hollywood sign and iconic nightclubs like the Whisky-A-Go-Go, plus Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive, to name a few of the route’s many sightseeing opportunities. It’s an inspiring course that will happily distract you from the fact that 26.2 miles is a long way to run. If you’re in it for the scenery, LA won’t disappoint.

Not only is the Stadium-to-the-Sea course one of the best in the nation, but the Conqur Endurance Group’s hefty, classic-looking medals are consistently among my favorite. If you’re in it for the bling, LA won’t disappoint.

On a normal day, Ocean Ave in Santa Monica is tourist central with a small footprint and a lot of foot traffic, so you can imagine what it’s like on race day. With that in mind, the post-race festival is held in a parking lot just off Ocean Ave and isn’t much to write home about. But there were a few food trucks along with the Angel City Brewery beer garden offering one free beer to runners. Plus, the Skechers Performance tent was a cool opportunity to get some great gear/apparel — much of it created specifically for the LAM — at 50% off retail (and I happily took advantage). All the while you’re a short walk from the beach, the Santa Monica Pier and the Pacific Ocean.

LA weather on race day tends to be on the warmer side, but this year was perfect: clear skies and starting temps in the high 40s, rising only into the mid-50s with a comforting sun by the time I reached the finish in Santa Monica. In other words, a perfect day to run a marathon.

One other notable that sets LA apart from other marathons: the course profile. With a few rolling (but manageable) hills in the first half and a 2.7-mile downhill to the finish, this is the ideal course to negative split. In fact, in 31 marathons I’ve run only two negative splits, and both happened in LA (2016, 2018). There are few more feel-good accomplishments as a runner than finishing a marathon faster than you started it. And doing so enabled me to hit my “A” goal of 3:39:59 and improve my corral seeding at the upcoming Comrades Marathon in June.

So do yourself a favor: set aside any preconceived notions of LA and give its marathon a shot — you’ll be glad you did. Hope to see you at the Stadium or the sea in 2019!

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
SCENERY
4
SWAG
5
My Media

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Chevron Houston Marathon & Aramco Houston Half Marathon

Chevron Houston Marathon & Aramco Houston Half Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Recommending the Houston Marathon is as easy as sliding off a greasy log backward. Houston is a crown jewel of the US marathon circuit, being one of the … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Recommending the Houston Marathon is as easy as sliding off a greasy log backward. Houston is a crown jewel of the US marathon circuit, being one of the more smartly planned, flawlessly organized and professionally executed marathons you’ll ever have the pleasure of running. With 7,000 marathon finishers and over 11,000 half marathon finishers this year, it’s the tenth-largest marathon in the country. And yet everything flows so smoothly throughout the weekend, from the pre-race expo to the post-race exit from the George R. Brown Convention Center, that you almost won’t mind being herded like cattle into the crowded start corrals on race morning — and especially if race day temperatures hover around freezing like they did this year.

The race itself was a high-energy tour of the nation’s fourth-largest city, with an untold number of HOOPLA (cheer) stations set up along the course, along with a diverse array of musical performers to keep you constantly entertained and keep your mind distracted from the fact you’re running 26.2 miles on one of the hardest surfaces on the planet. The course is largely flat and speedy, though several wickedly positioned uphill jags in the final four miles will look to sap whatever life remains in your concrete-stricken legs. And once you cross the finish and collect your well-deserved medal, actual breakfast food awaits inside the George R. Brown (see “Production” below). Apologies to all you diehard fans of green bananas and stale bagels.

I ran this race differently than I had any of my other 29 marathons, starting from the very back (nearly 54 minutes after the gun) and passing runners to raise money (over $8,000!) for the Houston Food Bank’s Harvey relief efforts. So my focus throughout the race was less on enjoying myself (though I definitely did) and more on amassing “roadkill” (to use the Ragnar term for runners passed). That said, this struck me as an ideal marathon (or half) for first-timers, with so many raucous spectators and supporters — 250,000, according to the race website — to keep propelling you forward when the Gatorade and energy gels no longer can.

As a mobile supporter who likes to spectate at several points along the course, Katie had a tougher time in Houston than at most other races. Luckily the race provides a handy business card-sized Spectator Guide that folds out like an accordion, so figuring out where you want to see your runner on the course is easy enough. Getting there, on the other hand, can be a logistical nightmare. Katie spent much of the morning directing Lyft or Uber drivers who either didn’t realize the marathon was happening or didn’t know how to circumnavigate road closures to reach her destination. As it turns out, having her own vehicle would have made the morning more manageable and less stressful — something to keep in mind if you’re planning to be a mobile spectator yourself.

Disclaimer: I grew up in Texas and graduated from Rice University, so I already had a strong personal connection to the city. Even objectively, though, Houston is a must-run event for the hardcore marathoner or half marathoner based on the three E’s: efficiency, energy and all-around excellence. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the city’s unity and pride were on full (and vociferous) display throughout the weekend, and I’m psyched to have played a small role in helping a world-class city get its groove back.

PRODUCTION: In the best situation, producing a 20,000+ person event in a major urban center is a significant challenge. Throw in one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history, and you add a level of complexity and uncertainty to the mix that would cripple most race organizations. And yet the Houston Marathon team managed the unforeseen arrival of Hurricane Harvey like the experts they are. And any arguments I might have with the production are more suggestions than gripes.

The 2018 Race Program provided a wealth of interesting and relevant information about race weekend, the runners and the city itself. And honestly I read more of the program in Houston than I did in either Boston or New York City. Flooding apparently moved this year’s expo to a smaller hall than previous years within the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB); however, packet pickup was quick and easy, and the expo itself was very manageable and easily navigated within an hour, even with several stops at sponsor booths (gotta check out all the races!).

I stopped at exactly zero aid stations on the course, but I did notice water and Gatorade were provided in different-colored cups (water in plain Dixie cups, Gatorade in branded cups). As trivial as this may sound, visually differentiating the two helps to alleviate in-race confusion, particularly for the tired runner, and it’s one of my litmus tests for whether a race organizer knows their stuff. Because many don’t.

Immediately after the race, finishers were funneled into the GRB. There we collected more swag (see below), enjoyed a McMuffin-style breakfast and ice cream sandwich plus hot and cold drinks while chatting with fellow finishers, and finally reunited with friends and family to wander the “We Are Houston” RunFest set up on the Discovery Green outside the convention center. In my experience this smartly conceived, one-way directionality of post-race traffic flow (exit –> swag pickup –> breakfast –> gear check –> family reunion) on such a massive scale is unique to Houston. And while it arguably makes life more difficult for family members who have to wait at one end of the hall for their runner to reach them, it’s easy to see how creating this “finishers only” space would benefit the runners by reducing both traffic and confusion, particularly in the dining area. Though I can’t imagine this setup is optimal for sponsors who are (literally) left out in the cold in their tents on Discovery Green — aside from HEB which provided breakfast, Skechers was the only sponsor I noticed with presence inside the GRB.

And speaking of Skechers, all official Houston Marathon apparel and merchandise is 50% off at the Skechers booth on race day. So if you’re willing to wait and gamble that your size will still be in stock come Sunday, you can score some pretty sweet deals on everything from water bottles to shoes. I actually train in Skechers and ran the marathon in the Skechers GoRun Ride 6, so I can vouch for the fact the company makes a very comfy running shoe.

The GRB opens on 5:00am on race day to accommodate early-arriving runners, a nice convenience and especially in bone-chilling cold like we had this year. Coming from out of town, we stayed in the downtown area (at the Aloft Houston Downtown) within walking distance of the start line, and so were able to wake up later than most and arrive after the starter’s pistol had already fired. I’m pretty sure that not having an insanely early wakeup call helped me relax and enjoy one of my best pre-race night’s sleep in recent memory.

My only real suggestion for the organizers would be to move the celebratory photo-op signage (“Feel the pride,” “Feel the accomplishment” etc) from the finish chute just inside the GRB — where many dazed and exhausted runners passed them by without so much as a glance — to the family reunion area where they’re much more likely to be appreciated. Oh, and I’d recommend rethinking the on-course announcement at miles 20 and 23 that “Registration for the 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Half Marathon opens this afternoon at 3:00pm!” The timing was so absurd that even in my depleted state, I couldn’t help but laugh in the moment. Or maybe that was the point?

SWAG: The finisher’s medal is entirely unique and distinctly unTexan, being the creation of local aerosol/graffiti artist Mario E. Figueroa, Jr. aka Gonzo247. And though I wouldn’t have been upset with something in the shape of Texas, as a lover of street art this is a standout addition to my collection. Beyond the medal, runners received not one but two shirts — a Gildan short-sleeve cotton tee at registration with “Run Houston Strong” printed on front and a Skechers short-sleeve performance finisher’s tee after the race, which like the medal features Gonzo’s artwork above the word “FINISHER.” But wait, there’s more! Unfortunately, that “more” came in the form of a glass finisher’s mug that I will never use and which will sit on my shelf at home gathering dust for all eternity.

For more details on my “come from behind” fundraising strategy, check out my blog report at https://wp.me/p2rSqE-1D1

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
My Media

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Tecumseh Trail Marathon

Tecumseh Trail Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Close your eyes — what comes to mind when I say “trail running”? Odds are it looks an awful lot like Tecumseh. TTM is the quintessential “over the … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Close your eyes — what comes to mind when I say “trail running”? Odds are it looks an awful lot like Tecumseh. TTM is the quintessential “over the river and through the woods” type of experience, unlike most of the California trail races I’ve run which, while awesome in their own right, typically feature hard-packed dirt terrain in more exposed surroundings. And it’s a point-to-point course from one forest (Morgan-Monroe State Forest) to another (Yellowwood State Forest), always a bonus for those of us who try to avoid running loops and out-and-backs.

For weather reasons the organizers at Do INdiana Off-road (DINO) moved the race date from December to late October several years ago, giving Yellowwood State Forest the chance to fully flaunt its fiery fall colors. And aside from the brief gravel transitions, the entire trail for this year’s race was covered with a multilayered, multihued carpet of leaves cast aside by the surrounding forest.

Tecumseh feels like the middle of nowhere, to be sure — but what the course lacks in majestic mountain or expansive ocean views, it more than makes up for with rural Americana charm. Especially for us West Coast types who aren’t used to seeing leaves in any color other than green. My buddy Jeff, a Tecumseh veteran and the reason I decided to make TTM my first Indiana race, describes the course as “so deep in the woods… you expect to see the kid from ‘Deliverance’ playing ‘Dueling Banjos’ to keep you entertained.” Whether amusing or discomforting or maybe both, the truth is he’s not far off.

So whether you’re a road runner in search of something completely different, a trail runner seeking the best the Midwest off-road race scene has to offer, or a 50 Stater looking for a challenging change of pace in the Hoosier State, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than this hidden gem tucked deep in the backwoods of Yellowwood State Forest. Banjo strictly optional, though you never know — you may just find a kindred spirit in Yellowwood.

PRODUCTION: Brilliantly executed, with just enough production to ensure the day ran smoothly and efficiently while not interfering with the low-key ethos. The comfortable, warm 30-minute bus ride from the finish area (where we parked our car) to the start in Morgan-Monroe State Forest was a nice waker-upper to start the day. And the leaf-carpeted course interspersed with gravel connectors — a wrong turn waiting to happen — was expertly marked by pink ribbons and hand-drawn white rectangles, with volunteers positioned at aid stations and other strategic spots to point us in the right direction where necessary.

Fans of stale bagels and green bananas may be disappointed by the excellent post-race spread, which featured an assortment of food and beverages including several soups and sandwiches (with vegan vegetable and peanut butter & jelly as vegetarian options) plus chips and drinks such as lemonade, coffee and hot chocolate. Two types of beer, an IPA and an Octoberfest, were also available from newly tapped kegs. The post-race party wasn’t held indoors around a roaring fire as it has been in past years, but despite the chill I was perfectly happy to sit out alongside Yellowwood Lake and chat with my fellow finishers while we all refueled.

SWAG: Tecumseh featured a couple of firsts for me on the swag side, as the first time 1) I’ve received a race sweatshirt and 2) the finisher’s medal (an extra $8 at registration) has been mailed to me after the race — the latter to allow time for the organizers to engrave the medal with my name and finish time. The sweatshirt is reasonably nice and feels warm enough to stand up to the Indiana winter, but the truth is I’ll never wear it in Southern California — I’ve lived in LA for five years now, and the next time I wear a sweatshirt here will be the first. And while the engraving is a nice touch, I prefer to receive the medal immediately after crossing the finish line, with optional engraving available post-race. Unfortunately, whereas my TTM experience will always stand out in my mind, the uninspired finisher’s medal won’t stand out on my wall. In fact, my first thought on sliding it out of its brown manila envelope was of winning my 3rd grade spelling bee, because the generic-looking award has my name and finish time engraved on the front, above and below the less conspicuous TTM logo. Yes, I know trail races aren’t usually known for their bling… but if you’re going to do it, do it well. On the bright side, at least it’s a medal I can hang and not a coffee mug!

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
5
SWAG
3
My Media

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Run Rabbit Run

Run Rabbit Run

BOTTOM LINE: Looking for an epic adventure in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, one that’s (literally) above and beyond the usual ultramarathon? You’ve found it in Run Rabbit Run. … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Looking for an epic adventure in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, one that’s (literally) above and beyond the usual ultramarathon? You’ve found it in Run Rabbit Run. Steamboat Springs is a charming, low-key destination town and especially in early September, which is the calm before the storm of ski season. Case in point the weather, which was perfect on race day and which made our 13 hours of essentially fast hiking (with a 15-hour time limit) a lot more pleasant than it otherwise might have been.

Trying to get up and down the mountain before my body wised up to the altitude, I flew into Colorado and arrived in Steamboat Springs the day before the race. Surprisingly I had no difficulty with my breathing at any point during the race — not even on the initial 3,600 foot climb to the summit of Mount Werner. No, the real manifestation of the high altitude was that I moved at a much slower clip than I do at sea level, even taking into account the steady diet of rocks and roots. And having my eyes take turns fogging over certainly didn’t help my progress.

(On that note, a word of warning if you’re considering this race: beware the unlikely possibility of altitude-induced vision problems such as corneal edema, which nearly blinded the eventual winner of the women’s 100-mile race).

Run Rabbit Run is a challenging course, yes. And at times I became frustrated with the seemingly endless climbing and my glacial rate of progress. But Mother Nature offers her rabbits plenty of rewards for all their hard work — this may well be the most picturesque course you’ll ever run. And if a sea-level sissy like me can get ‘er done, so can you.

PRODUCTION: Well done, for the most part. Packet pickup doubled as a pre-race pep talk and an opportunity for the race director to share guidelines, warnings and cautionary tales for race day. We arrived late as he was relating a joke about runners wearing bear bells on the course, the punchline being that bear scat can be distinguished from other animal scat by the fact it has bear bells in it. Comedic interludes aside, the RD also raffled off a bunch of sponsor swag to hold the audience’s interest, which was cool — and my friend Ken and I each scored a lightweight Ultimate Direction running vest, a nice take-home prize.

Race day logistics were smooth overall with a couple of annoying hitches. This year, apparently for the first time, the organizers decided to make runners retrieve a playing card from a volunteer stationed at the top of Rabbit Ears, to confirm they’d made it all the way to the top (mile 25). I wouldn’t have realized this, though, if I hadn’t happened to notice the playing cards sitting on a chair at the Dumont Lake aid station and asked Katie. Nor were there any signs or indicators up on Rabbit Ears as to where the turnaround point was, much less a warning about the cards. So I’m not sure how everyone else learned of the cards, and I wonder if anyone failed to retrieve one. Maybe I missed those instructions at the pre-race meeting, but on race day they should be clearly communicated to any exhausted runner who may be 10,000+ feet above his comfort zone and not thinking straight. And it was oddly unnecessary, at the top of Rabbit Ears, to make each runner scamper up the last 20 feet of loose dirt to where the volunteer sat precariously handing out cards — she could just as easily have waited below to enable a more agile turnaround.

A huge shout-out to the amazing volunteers who all day long were friendly, attentive and competent. And rumor has it there was a nice post-race spread; unfortunately the sun was setting and a chill was descending by the time we finished, so we were eager to get back to our friends’ place, get cleaned up and grab dinner.

SWAG: Aside from my vision failing me at times, the swag was my only real disappointment of the day. Yes, I understand this is a trail race and trail runners are supposed to eschew medals and material possessions. But for a race of this length and difficulty — and one that boasts the “highest purse of any trail ultra marathon in the world” — I’d expect a finisher’s buckle (apparently the 100-milers received one) or at least a medal, something I can proudly display on my wall alongside my other blingy shiny souvenirs. Instead, our reward for 13+ hours of running, hiking and stumbling was a ceramic beer mug to accompany the short-sleeve cotton race tee we’d received at registration (no more shirts, please…). What non-college age adult needs another f#*@ing mug? I felt like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” sitting in his bathroom frantically decoding with his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder pin, only to discover he’s been duped by corporate America. “A crummy commercial? Son of a bitch!”

For a (much) more detailed narrative of the race, see my blog post at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2017/12/20/run-rabbit-run-50-miler-race-report

DIFFICULTY
5
PRODUCTION
4
My Report
SCENERY
5
SWAG
2
My Media

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Missoula Marathon

Missoula Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: It’s no hyperbole to say Missoula is the perfect small-town marathon. But you don’t need me to tell you that – it’s one of the most highly rated … MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
My Media

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Victoria Falls Marathon

Victoria Falls Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Victoria Falls may not be the largest, or the sexiest, or the most hyped marathon in Africa. But unlike many American marathons, it continues to grow each year … MORE

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

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

And yes, a disgruntled African elephant (the largest land mammal on the planet) wandered onto the course next to me in mile 15, an encounter that seemed to surprise us both. I’m proud to say I managed to give him clearance and still snap a photo, all without spooking him or soiling myself.

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

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

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

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

For more details including traveler’s tips for Zimbabwe, check out my race report at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2017/09/13/victoria-falls-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
4
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
My Media

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Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Comrades is like no other running event in the world. It’s an audacious nickname to be sure, but the event lives up to its billing as “The Ultimate Human … MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my eight tips for conquering the Comrades Marathon up run:

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

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

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

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

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

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

7) Expect the unexpected—e.g. many runners battled nasty cramps—and be ready to adapt.

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

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

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

For the complete narrative of an amazing race day, check out my two-part blog recap at: https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2017/08/07/comrades-marathon-race-report-part-1/

DIFFICULTY
5
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
5
My Media

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Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run

Way Too Cool 50K Endurance Run

BOTTOM LINE: Way Too Cool earns its name, from the awesome scenery to the race day temperatures to the chilly water that awaits at every stream crossing. As the largest … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Way Too Cool earns its name, from the awesome scenery to the race day temperatures to the chilly water that awaits at every stream crossing. As the largest trail race in the country, it’s a bucket list event for serious dirtbags. And you may never find a more scenic and diverse course than the network of trails you’ll follow on your 30+ mile journey along the Middle Fork of the American River Canyon and through the Auburn State Recreation Area. The North Face Endurance Challenge, my benchmark for trail races in California, is a much different course than WTC—its jaw-dropping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Golden Gate Bridge notwithstanding, the trails and scenery at TNFEC are less varied than at WTC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to know more about the WTC 50K? Check out my race report at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2017/04/19/way-too-cool-50k-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
5
SWAG
3
My Media

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Surf City Marathon & Half Marathon

Surf City Marathon & Half Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Surf City is classic SoCal – 19+ miles of the course (10 on the Pacific Coast Highway, another 9.5 on the beach path) are run along the coast … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Surf City is classic SoCal – 19+ miles of the course (10 on the Pacific Coast Highway, another 9.5 on the beach path) are run along the coast and within a few yards of the beach and ocean, with the remaining 7 miles run as a loop around Huntington Beach Central Park and its surrounding neighborhood. Unlike Big Sur, where you run high up on PCH overlooking the Pacific for 21 miles, at Surf City you’re at sea level pretty much the whole time (elevation gain/loss for the course is 269 ft/259 ft, with a minimum elevation of –3 ft). And while I’ve heard some runners admit to “beach fatigue” caused by the two out-and-backs that parallel the coastline, I’ll never argue with the opportunity to run within sight of the Pacific Ocean on a Hwy 1 that’s closed to traffic. It’s awesome. That said, I can understand how the half marathon might be considered the perfect distance for this race, since 10 miles of the course runs along PCH and back, without the extra out-and-back miles along the beach path that the marathoners run.

True to its theme, the course featured live bands playing surf music, which was a cool feel-good touch. And though spectator support was predictably mellow (it’s SoCal, after all), around the park in particular exuberant kid volunteers greeted runners with boisterous cries and creative cheers such as “Hey runner, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey RUNNER! {clap clap, clap clap} hey RUNNER!”. I always appreciate spectators going the (pun ahead!) extra mile to give runners a psychological boost, since they could just as easily be doing anything else—like sleeping in.

In the past couple of years, the weather for Surf City (which is always run on Super Bowl Sunday) has been sunny and overly warm, but this year’s race was absolutely perfect – cloudy and 50-something for the duration. Always a huge plus when the biggest variable of ‘em all works in your favor.

PRODUCTION: Nearly flawless. Aside from the fact that Huntington Beach is tough to get to logistically (owing to its distance from any major freeway), an oversized tent right on the beach was the ideal venue for the pre-race expo. The wave start on race morning flowed smoothly, leading to plenty of elbow room within 100 yards of the start. Aid stations (which I largely bypassed) were very well organized and fully stocked with even more goodies than advertised. The CLIF Shot Energy Zone along PCH was particularly well marked with bright signage that could be seen well in advance. Not only that, but spectators along the route were handing out their own oranges and Clif Bloks. I didn’t pay much attention to the post-race munchies since I rarely eat after a race, but the chocolate milk, free Sam Adams Beer Garden and proximity to the Pacific Ocean convinced me to stick around for a while. No need to twist my arm…

The lone exception to the flawless production was that somehow, mile 16 was 0.3 miles too long so that my Garmin – which up to that point had been amazingly in sync with the mile markers – read 16.3 miles when I hit the mile 16 marker. And since my final tally ended up at 26.5 miles, the next 10.2 miles were clearly spot-on as well. So unlike the typical marathon where my Garmin gradually falls behind the mile markers and finishes at around 26.4 miles, in this case the entire 0.3-mile discrepancy happened in one mile. No big deal to those of us who were running this as a chill training run, but I feel for anyone trying to qualify for Boston on Surf City’s flat, otherwise BQ-friendly course.

SWAG: I love the classic Surf City logo and any swag that displays it. This year’s overly clever and artistic sneaker design notwithstanding, the long sleeve tech shirt is always a keeper, and as a bonus Surf City is one of the few races around that offers gender-specific shirts (I read a stat somewhere that only 4% of races offer gender-specific shirts). The medal is also eye-catching, a shiny gold souvenir the size of a coaster that smartly showcases the traditional wooden surfboard. Definitely worth running an extra 0.3 miles for. 😉

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
4
SCENERY
5
SWAG
4
My Media

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Louisiana Marathon

Louisiana Marathon

Whether you’re a 50 stater or just seeking a great race, I can tell you with conviction Baton Rouge is just the place. With Deep South hospitality and lagniappe to … MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

#GeauxRunLA

For a more detailed narrative—most of it in prose—see my race report at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2017/02/17/louisiana-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
3
My Media

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Toughest 10K in the USA

Toughest 10K in the USA

The first thing you’re likely to notice about this race is the name—you’ll want to pay attention to that. This is a one-of-a-kind trial-by-fire, and if you’re an endurance snob … MORE

The first thing you’re likely to notice about this race is the name—you’ll want to pay attention to that. This is a one-of-a-kind trial-by-fire, and if you’re an endurance snob who looks down on shorter distances, trust me you’ll look up to this one. Pulling into the parking lot adjacent to the race venue, my brother @CSohaskey and I immediately noted the number of vehicles sporting “26.2” stickers; clearly this was not your typical family-friendly 10K. This was a race that attracted masochists and those in search of a singular challenge. And they’d found it in quiet, suburban Newbury Park.

What makes this the Toughest 10K in the USA is of course the hills, made more challenging by the uneven, single-track dirt trails used to access them. By the time I reached mile 4, I found myself longing for a nice flat 26 miles. My brother’s Garmin recorded a total elevation gain/loss change of 2,123 ft while mine logged 1,954 ft up/1,945 ft down. Ironically, in 76 races this was the first timed 10K I’ve ever run, so it’s now officially my 10K personal best and less than 12 minutes short of my half marathon PR.

The race begins (and ends) with ~½ mile on asphalt, circling the Newbury Park Academy that doubles as the staging area before transitioning to dirt and making its first real ascent. This initial uphill is steep enough to require your second (and third) wind, and will cue the nervous voices in your head to start questioning what you’ve gotten yourself into. This is just a warm-up though, so don’t listen to them since the rest of the course will only get steeper. And keep in mind the uphills are the easy part—after all, what goes up must come down. That said, at each peak you’ll be rewarded not only with an aid station but also with amazing panoramic views in all directions. To the victors go the spoils.

Much of the course is narrow single-track, so at the same time you’re babysitting your own suspect footing, you’ll be watching out for other runners approaching in the opposite direction at varying speeds and varying levels of body control. On one steep grade I put a momentary scare into the woman ahead of me, who could hear me shuffling quickly downhill toward her and was bracing for the collision that (fortunately) never came. On another descent—a narrow single-track with slanted sides and a narrow groove down the middle that made for tenuous footing—I could hear the fellow just ahead of me respond to the steep grade in real time: “Shit, shit, shit…” before finally regaining control of his momentum. At one point, hoping to slow my own momentum I reached out to grab a thin branch which broke off in my hand as I slid by. Sorry, Mother Nature.

Despite all this, I lost my footing and ended up on my backside only twice. And I never fell forward (this is the key to success—your butt was designed to land on, your face was not). And though the Toughest 10K is a definite challenge and a race your quads won’t soon forget (my left quad and IT band were still tight 5 days after the race—5 days after a 10K!), it’s not a dangerous course. As long as you maintain focus, take your time and avoid being reckless, you’ll get up and down just fine. Unlike the Mount Marathon course in Alaska where runners routinely cross the finish line bruised and bloodied—and where one fellow disappeared mid-race, never to be heard from again—this was not a group of reckless runners. Everyone was careful and courteous, and even the two 70-year-olds in the group eventually found their way down from the hills, completing half a loop on the Newbury Park Academy dirt track before finishing on the field.

The Toughest 10K isn’t cheap—we paid $65 a month before the race—but then again for an experience this unique, the price is actually very reasonable. Certainly more so than a $190 Disney half marathon. And given that my calves, quads and IT bands have a year to forgive & forget, I can definitely see myself running again next year.

Pro tip: For greater success on uphills, power-hike with your palms resting on the tops of your quads, to help drive each leg downward like a piston. I followed this strategy at Ice Age, and it helped tremendously by lowering my center of gravity, improving my balance and providing more power on steep ascents. And on particularly steep descents, sideways is the only way to go.

PRODUCTION: Low-key and easy peasy, as befitting a race of ~100 finishers. We rolled up 30 minutes before the 7:30am start, parked next door in The Home Depot lot and quickly picked up our bib, timing chip and t-shirt. This left plenty of time to visit the indoor restrooms at the Newbury Park Academy. There’s something very special about low-key trail races, particularly when you can talk your intrepid brother into running with you. The course was well marked, so there was no concern about taking a wrong turn and, you know, accidentally bypassing one of the killer climbs. 🙂 And Alex, who was manning the finish line mic, enthusiastically announced each and every approaching finisher while encouraging others in the crowd to cheer them across. Thanks, Alex!

After taking a start line selfie with all his runners, race director Caleb encouraged us to take our time, hike the steeper hills sideways to slow our momentum, and basically treat the race as a beautiful 6-mile hike. And he and his team had an impressive post-race party awaiting us at the finish on the Newbury Academy sports field, with plenty of snacks (see photo), a few interesting sponsor tents, a raffle for cool prizes and a series of competitions that I watched while seated atop a foam roller—including a 40-yard dash (yes, you read that right), a push-up contest and a plank competition in which the 67-year-old winner held perfect planking posture for over EIGHT minutes. So much for 6-second abs.

SWAG (see photo): It’s been a while since I got a cotton race t-shirt, but this one’s a definite keeper with the wicked course profile printed on front, and in fact I’ve already worn it proudly a couple of times. The medal too is unusually eye-catching for a trail race, depicting (what else?) the hills of Newbury Park, so your quads will always be reminded of what they accomplished, even after the joyful muscle memory fades.

DIFFICULTY
5
PRODUCTION
5
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
My Media

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Golden Gate Half Marathon & 5K

Golden Gate Half Marathon & 5K

BOTTOM LINE: The race name says it all—the iconic International Orange landmark that attracts tourists from all over the world is the main attraction of this race. And it’s worth … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: The race name says it all—the iconic International Orange landmark that attracts tourists from all over the world is the main attraction of this race. And it’s worth the price of admission. Not counting relays, this is one of only four races I know of—the other three being the SF Marathon, Rock ‘n’ Roll SF Half and Across the Bay 12K—that crosses the Golden Gate Bridge on foot. And whether it’s a clear day, or a foggy day, or a windy day, or a rainy day, I’ll never turn down a chance to run the bridge, especially with the added bonus of not having to dodge pedestrians on the walkways. I’ve run this race 3x now (twice in its original iteration as the U.S. Half) and could happily run it 20x more without ever tiring of the course—from the start in Aquatic Park through Fort Mason and the Presidio, to the bridge itself, to the quick down-and-back-up turnaround on the north side of the bridge, to Fort Point for a cool underside view, to the final mile along the marina before finishing in Fort Mason. San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the world, and if you don’t like running here then you probably aren’t cut out for urban running.

Three things for first-timers to keep in mind: 1) In foggy or rainy weather, footing can be slick on the bridge’s steel access panels; 2) If you’re looking to set a personal best and this isn’t your first half marathon, you’ve come to the wrong place—this is San Francisco in all its hilly glory, and you’re more likely to enjoy the ride if you ease off the accelerator and focus on the journey rather than the destination; 3) This is always a crowded race, and for back-of-the-packers the first few miles can be tough to find elbow room. So if you’re a faster runner and want to ensure you can run at your own pace, do yourself a favor and don’t get stuck waiting for the porta-potties when the starter’s pistol fires, as I’ve done twice now. Line up close to the front of the start corral so you don’t waste valuable energy weaving around slower runners.

PRODUCTION: Smooth as silk, for the most part. Sure there weren’t enough porta-potties, but then again there rarely are at road races, and if I’m planning to run a serious race I take no chances and hit the lines early. As far as the expo, it was small and easily navigated—we showed up on Saturday afternoon (race was on Sunday) and picked up our packets lickety-split with no waiting. The course was well-marked, not that making a wrong turn is a concern when you’re following several thousand people the entire way. And there were a couple of out-and-backs including opposite sides of the bridge, where you could keep an eye out for friends coming the other way.

Despite the chilly weather, the SF Marina is an awesome place to finish a race. The highlight of the post-race party was catching up with fellow Raving Lunatics @kenspruell, @JennyMax and @emcclendon and enjoying a complimentary beer at the Sierra Nevada tent—never a bad idea after a 13.1-mile effort. And for those who brought their wallets, several opportunistic food trucks were serving coffee, donuts and other offerings. One production-related glitch: finish line volunteers handed out nice GGH-branded water bottles (which I now use regularly) but didn’t bother to make finishers aware of the huge jugs of water available near the back of the chaotic finish chute, so that several of us were left carrying empty water bottles while absentmindedly hunting for water.

SWAG: I’m torn on this one; thus the 3-shoe rating. On the one hand the medal scores high marks for doing exactly what it should do—it features the Golden Gate Bridge (see photo, and note that 5K finishers weren’t so lucky), and for that reason it’s an eye-catching conversation starter. On the other hand the shirt is disappointing—a black tech shirt with ¾-length sleeves and an attractive-enough design, but with a sloppy neckline that made it look like a woman’s blouse on me and which earned it an immediate trip to the recycle pile. It also proclaimed “FINISHER” in huge white letters on the back, which seemed a bit presumptuous given how many runners wore the shirt *during* the race. Overall I’m much more of a medal guy than a shirt guy, so I’d say I came out ahead. 🙂

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
4
SCENERY
5
SWAG
3
My Media

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Ragnar Road Napa Valley

Ragnar Road Napa Valley

BOTTOM LINE: Let’s start with the positives. As a Ragnar rookie, it’s now clear to me the Ragnar experience hinges on one thing: camaraderie. Ragnar is a mobile adult slumber … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Let’s start with the positives. As a Ragnar rookie, it’s now clear to me the Ragnar experience hinges on one thing: camaraderie. Ragnar is a mobile adult slumber party, and if you’re a social runner who leaps at the chance to spend lots of quality time with 11 friends (hopefully friends!), you’re likely to come away with positive memories that—like the official beverage of Napa Valley—get better with age. On top of that, this particular relay features plenty of amazing scenery, from the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge to the early morning fog swaddling the Napa vineyards. Throw in picture-perfect weather like we had this year, and it’s a great way to see a gorgeous stretch of the Bay Area on foot. As a bonus, our Ragnarmobile was the envy of everyone thanks to @cperrydds, who outfitted his truck with a rollaway food/equipment storage bin, a converted sleep station for two and a mobile ice bath attached to the front of the truck (see photo).

All that said, the organizers of this event were clearly asleep at the wheel, as though they were the ones who’d been awake for 24+ hours. Our team was stopped not once but *twice* late in the event—after legs 24 and 30—for roughly 90 minutes each time after outrunning our own expectations. In fact, by the time they released us and many other teams from our holding pattern after leg 30, the start line of leg 31 boasted more runners than had the actual race start on Friday morning. Despite that speed bump, we still finished as runners-up in our division. I’ve never organized a race myself, but I’m pretty sure the one thing you don’t ask your runners to do is STOP RUNNING during the event. All because the course permits apparently weren’t secured ahead of time. Who green lights a race without securing the permits ahead of time?? This reminded me of the Wile E. Coyote cartoon where he’s frantically laying down the track ahead of the speeding train. The situation was bewildering, and again were it not for the camaraderie of some awesome teammates, the combination of frustration and sleep deprivation could easily have led to a serious meltdown in the wee hours of the morning.

So as much as we all agree we’d love to get the band back together for another relay adventure, this won’t be the one. Maybe the Golden Gate Relay in May, since I ran that nonstop back in 2010…

PRODUCTION: Ouch, see above. Not only was the production severely lacking, but I was disappointed—though not surprised—to discover that Ragnar, the big glossy corporate machine that sends me twice-weekly emails urging me to buy their gear or sign up for another event, dispatched untrained high school-age volunteers to man key exchange points. Apparently the unfortunate volunteers were there simply to sit out in the cold and record bib numbers, with no working knowledge of the event or (in the two most important cases) why we were being detained.

I also encountered a couple of confusing junctures—including one in the pitch black of leg 31 in Spring Lake Park—where directional signage was absent. If not for a fellow runner familiar with the course, I likely would have wasted valuable time (and all time is valuable when you’re running on no sleep at 6:00am) playing “choose your own adventure,” which is beyond frustrating and easily avoided by throwing down a few more signs. And I know that at least a couple of my teammates weren’t so lucky and ended up taking wrong turns of their own.

Post-race food consisted of two free mediocre made-to-order pizzas per team, though honestly the last thing you’ll want to do after running and driving for 24+ hours is hang around the finish line area. So instead, once hugs are exchanged and team photos taken, I’d recommend regrouping at the nearby Gott’s Roadside adjacent to the Oxbow Public Market in Napa for a satisfying post-race meal and debriefing.

SWAG: Nicely done on both the Reebok shirt and medals (see photos), though admittedly I’m biased since I received an extra medal for running the “Ragnar Leg”—the longest of the 36 legs—early on the second morning. Curiously, the backs of the 12 medals fit together to recreate the Ragnar logo and a motivational message of some kind, though the purpose of this design detail aside from further branding is unclear since it’s neither conspicuous nor delightful.

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
1
SCENERY
5
SWAG
4
My Media

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Brazen Goonies Half Marathon (fka Lagoon Valley Half)

Brazen Goonies Half Marathon (fka Lagoon Valley Half)

BOTTOM LINE: Enjoy trails? Want a terrific race day experience? You’ll never go wrong with Brazen. And that’s saying something since Sam, Jasmin & the team produce 26 races a … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Enjoy trails? Want a terrific race day experience? You’ll never go wrong with Brazen. And that’s saying something since Sam, Jasmin & the team produce 26 races a year. This was my 12th Brazen race (and my first since 2012, after which I moved to SoCal) and the experience was just as awesome as I remember. I even had the good fortune to meet a lot of amazing Brazenites and RaceRaves am-badass-adors in person for the first time at Goonies, which made the morning that much more special. Definitely looking forward to seeing my new friends again soon, before another four years elapse!

Brazen has the most devoted following in the Bay Area and maybe the state, and that’s no hyperbole—136 (and counting) “streakers” including @mikebeckwith, @greeneyegirl9 and @ravyoly have run every Brazen race in a single calendar year, and some have done it more than once. You don’t command that kind of loyalty without taking pride in your product and caring deeply about your runners. The Brazen experience means family-friendly events, scenic yet challenging (!) courses, awesome swag and a post-race spread fit for a king. Even if you’re the last runner to cross the finish line a feast awaits you, so leave your craving for dry bagels at home.

Goonies is the quintessential Brazen course, run on hilly trails (mostly dirt) through a hidden gem of a regional park (Lagoon Valley) with rewarding views of the park and lagoon. This in fact is one of Brazen’s strengths—Sam & Jasmin have the Midas Touch with their ability to find relatively unknown, out-of-the-way green spaces throughout the Bay Area (even in far-away Vacaville) and spin them into trail running gold. Lagoon Valley isn’t as hilly as some of their other courses, but it’s definitely hilly enough, and your calves and quads will no doubt agree. Admittedly it wasn’t my favorite of their courses—that would be Wildcat (with its views out over the SF Bay), and Rocky Ridge (toughest half marathon in the state!)—in part because it included two identical loops. But I actually appreciated the two-loop route at Lagoon Valley since I was able to get a sense for the hills in loop one and then pace myself accordingly in loop two. And my personal highlight at Goonies was a paved mile 12 that, thanks to its downhill trajectory, allowed me to build up a head of steam and notch my first-ever sub-7:00 mile on a Brazen course. Flying recklessly down that hill with only a mile remaining was an incredible feeling.

PRODUCTION: From the runners to the photographers to the volunteers who mark the course, work the aid stations and hand out medals, everyone is part of the Brazen family. And corny as it may sound, as a runner you’ll feel like part of that family. But there’s nothing clique-y about a Brazen event—the team offers an early start for hikers, and in his pre-race announcements Sam makes sure to ask about first-timers and warn new trail runners that they should carry a course map to avoid taking a wrong turn. That said, the course at Lagoon Valley was so well marked with colored ribbons and flour arrows that even with my miserable sense of direction, I never missed a beat. Everything ran smoothly in Lagoon Valley, from parking to packet pickup (both a breeze) to the race itself. Turns out the course was roughly 0.2 miles short (my Garmin read 12.9 miles) due to the turnaround being in the wrong place, but I learned long ago as a trail runner to leave the type-A mindset at home, and +/– mileage on trails doesn’t faze me. The race itself is too much fun for that.

SWAG: With 26 events per year, you couldn’t fault the Brazen crew for mailing it in and designing a reusable template for their shirts and medals. But they don’t. On the contrary, their t-shirt and medal designs stand out in my collection, and their swag consistently gets rave reviews from their runners. I’m not a huge t-shirt guy (they even give runners the option to opt out of the tee and subtract $5 from the registration fee), but the Goonies skull-and-crossbones design is strong, and strategic parts of the medal glow in the dark (see photo). Sam even designed new age-group medallions specifically for Goonies, just as he had for their previous Tarantula race in Los Vaqueros. Just another example of the attention to detail that made Brazen the 2015 Best Trail Racing Series of the Pacific West region, according to Competitor Magazine. And unless the voting is rigged 🙂 , look for them to reclaim their title in 2016.

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
5
SCENERY
4
SWAG
5
My Media

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Omaha Marathon

Omaha Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Like its pleasant yet average host city, the Omaha Marathon is a pleasant yet average race. To this outsider Omaha was largely nondescript, and if you didn’t know … MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For everything you ever wanted to know about the Omaha Marathon but were afraid to ask, check out my race report at http://wp.me/p2rSqE-1jL

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
3
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
My Media

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Hatfield McCoy Marathon

Hatfield McCoy Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t sleep on Kentucky — Hatfield McCoy is a hidden gem of the marathon (and half marathon) scene. Even if you’re not a 50 Stater, I’d recommend the … MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more details — including a first-person account of Muhammad Ali’s memorial service, held in Louisville the same weekend — check out my blog report at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2016/06/29/hatfield-mccoy-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
5
My Media

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Ice Age Trail 50

Ice Age Trail 50

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a runner looking to make the leap to the 50-mile distance, do yourself a favor and check out the Ice Age Trail 50. It’s the perfect … MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a complete race-day narrative, check out my race report at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2016/05/25/ice-age-trail-50-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
My Media

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Big Sur International Marathon

Big Sur International Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a hardcore runner and/or California native planning to run the Boston Marathon, then the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge should be a no-brainer. Not only is … MORE

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

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

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

For more details & purty pitchers of the Big Sur experience, check out my race report at https://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2016/12/31/big-sur-international-marathon-2016-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
5
SWAG
5
My Media

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Boston Marathon

Boston Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Boston is a pretty cool race. And Tyrannosaurus rex was a pretty cool lizard. Boston is hands-down (and it’s not close) the coolest race in the country, if … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Boston is a pretty cool race. And Tyrannosaurus rex was a pretty cool lizard. Boston is hands-down (and it’s not close) the coolest race in the country, if not the world. Chicago has a similar feel in terms of race magnitude, community support/civic pride and an historic sports venue in Wrigley Field, but Boston is without rival. And unfortunately, the Cubs’ season typically ends well before race day in early October (oh no he di’int!).

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

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

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

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

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

For a more detailed narrative plus a few tips & tricks for Boston Marathon weekend, check out my blog post at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2016/04/27/boston-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
5
My Media

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Peace Love Run Half Marathon – San Diego

Peace Love Run Half Marathon – San Diego

BOTTOM LINE & PRODUCTION: The Peace Love Run Half is a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde race. On the one hand, Mission Bay Park is a beautiful area and … MORE

BOTTOM LINE & PRODUCTION: The Peace Love Run Half is a bit of a Jekyll & Hyde race. On the one hand, Mission Bay Park is a beautiful area and scenic venue for a road race, since a) it’s always sunny in San Diego and b) the course follows paved footpaths removed from automobile traffic. From that perspective, I’d definitely recommend PLR if you’re looking for a leisurely morning run, either alone or with friends.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to race competitively as I was (using it as my tune-up race for the Boston Marathon), then Caveat Emptor — this was a bit of a clusterf#@*, especially once the 10K runners merged with the half marathoners in mile 4. At that point I lost track of the faster half marathoners ahead of me, and ended up expending a lot of energy trying to weave around a) slower runners in the left lane, b) runners wearing earbuds in the left lane so they couldn’t hear me yell “On your left!” or c) a mash-up of the two: slower runners wearing earbuds in the left lane who were completely oblivious to everything going on around them. Unfortunately there were plenty of these runners, as well as groups running together side-by-side-by-side spanning the path like a human wall, so that I actually had to slow to a walk long enough to “Scooz me” my way past them. Certainly this wasn’t intentional on their part; they just weren’t paying attention to the other runners around them.

The course required that half marathoners run two loops around Fiesta Island Park, with confusing signage at the end of each loop directing 10K runners in one direction and half marathoners in another. At the end of the second loop, half marathoners (I know this now) were supposed to ignore the signage and follow the 10K arrows. Confused yet? Then you can imagine how my brain — in its fatigued state, with all mental energy focused on weaving around runners and maintaining pace as the morning heated up — ended up missing a turnoff. The result: I ended up running an extra loop (i.e. 2 miles), meaning that by the time I crossed the finish line, my half marathon ended up being a 25K. No big deal — no harm no foul, since it was actually good mental & physical training, and luckily I wasn’t chasing a personal best. But I did sign up for a half marathon, and I would have won my age group by roughly 12 minutes on a 13.1-mile course. Haphazardly labeled courses are something I’ve come to expect in trail races, not road races… and for a half marathon registration fee of $80, I naturally expect the course to be clearly labeled at all times with unambiguous signage in place if there’s any possibility of confusion. Other half marathoners ahead of me after my bonus third loop were clearly confused by the “10K in one direction/half marathon in the other” signage, despite the valiant (and much-appreciated) efforts of one poor volunteer who was standing at the juncture trying to direct the oncoming flood of runners in the right direction. All in all a chaotic scene, like, “Duuude, where’s my turnoff?”

Another sub-optimal course consideration: the last several miles took us through a section of the park where the path was shared with the public, a situation which always makes for a near-collision or two when someone out for a morning stroll with poochie fails to anticipate or acknowledge oncoming runners.

So my two main recommendations for making Peace Love Run the excellent race it deserves to be: 1) much-improved course markers and signage; 2) pre-race emails/announcements emphasizing to slower runners and earbud wearers that they’re not the only runners on the course, and they need to stay to the right.

That said, the finish line festival was groovy, with plenty of music and a cool backdrop for taking photos (though it should have been facing toward the sun rather than away from it, for less shady results). And the post-race bananas were great!

SWAG: Aside from the chance to run with a good friend who recently moved from Boston to San Diego (and who won his age group), the swag was the highlight of the morning. The race shirt is a shiny white tech tee with the colorful Peace Love Run design on front, while the medal is an equally colorful VW bug decked out with flowers & surfboards (see photos). Very cool and, despite my on-course experience, definitely a medal that makes me smile when I look at it.

DIFFICULTY
1
PRODUCTION
3
SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
My Media

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Los Angeles Marathon (LA Marathon)

Los Angeles Marathon (LA Marathon)

BOTTOM LINE: I love LA, and Los Angeles should be high on any serial marathoner’s list. California has something for every road runner – the breathtaking beauty of the California … MORE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
My Media

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Tucson Marathon

Tucson Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: I ran thru the desert on a course all the same... If you’re a focused downhill runner seeking that elusive Boston Qualifier, then dry desert air and barren … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: I ran thru the desert on a course all the same…

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

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

On the other hand, mile 23 hill aside, Tucson is much more intriguing as a speedy half marathon, where quads be damned you can throw caution to the wind and use the first 9+ miles of downhill to your PR’ing advantage. For those considering the 13.1 distance, I’d suggest you check out @dansolera‘s excellent post on his own Tucson Half experience here: http://dans-marathon.com/2010/12/18/state-eight-arizona-damascus-bakeries-tucson-half-marathon-2/

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

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

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

For more downhill desert details, check out my blog report at: http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2016/02/04/tucson-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
3
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USA Half Marathon Invitational

USA Half Marathon Invitational

Like the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon I ran back in May, the USA Half is a race by runners, for runners. If your preference is for balloons, costumes and fanfare, … MORE

Like the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon I ran back in May, the USA Half is a race by runners, for runners. If your preference is for balloons, costumes and fanfare, you’ll want to stick with the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in June. But if you’re a half marathoner who simply loves to run or who’s looking for a new type of challenge to motivate your training, then do yourself a favor and check out the USA Half. Its “qualifiers only” status and San Diego venue also make it a great option for 50 Staters looking for a distinctive California race.

The course is solidly urban and isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, with the first half falling somewhere between “rolling” and “hilly”. But the second half makes up for the sins of the first, with a Kansas-flat profile and a final three miles that border the sun-drenched harbor and marina. At $95.00 + processing fees the race isn’t cheap, but it’s a solid value – in both production and swag, you get what you pay for (see below).

The overarching patriotism of the event – from the name to the logo to the U.S. flags flanking both the start and finish lines – was a curious choice that wasn’t fully explored. I assume the star-spangled theme was in homage to the host city, which boasts a proud military (and specifically naval) history. In fact, several retired battleships – chief among them the USS Midway – now call the Port of San Diego their permanent home.

Given its overt patriotism and proximity to Veterans Day, it seems appropriate that next year’s race include a tribute to current military personnel, veterans and fallen heroes. And why not partner with a charitable organization that supports veterans? Because honestly, given that nearly $8 of every registration fee already goes to the hot mess that is Active.com, I certainly wouldn’t protest if a portion of my registration went to a worthy cause like veterans programs. This would also help engage the community and increase civic support for the race.

Overall, count me in for next year!

PRODUCTION: As expected given the parties in charge (including the Race Director of the Boston Marathon), event production was spot-on and a high point of the race. The pre-race expo (what we saw of it, arriving as we did an hour before it ended thanks to SoCal traffic) was small and easily navigated. Race day itself went off without a hitch, from the firing of the starter’s pistol at 6:00am sharp to the immediate and efficient disassembly of the finish line at 8:30am. The course was impeccably marked, to the point that my Garmin chimed the mile just as I hit the timing mat at mile 10. If GPS units can dream, then mine at that moment dreamed of being the official timer.

Aid stations (none of which I used, as usual) looked to be fully stocked, with vigilant volunteers calling out “Gatorade!” or “water!” as runners approached. As seems to be the case wherever I run, volunteers were friendly, encouraging and eager to help. Post-race snacks were plentiful, though finish-line festivities were minimal given the event’s constricted time limit of two-and-a-half hours (mandated by the city, I assume). And race director Ken Nwadike Jr made great use of his omnipresent camera, providing free race photos – always a much-appreciated bonus – courtesy of his own Runner Buzz Media.

SWAG: The race swag is a definite selling point, and includes a colorfully patriotic “USA” medal emblazoned with a bald eagle, as well as a black-with-white-zipper USA Half Marathon finishers jacket (though the logo on front could stand to be a bit brighter and more readable). Curiously, the jacket zipper is designed for left-handers. In any case, the jacket is a significant and much-appreciated upgrade from the standard race tech tee. And the medal will definitely stand out from its less flamboyant brethren.

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
5
My Media

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Mountains 2 Beach Marathon & Half Marathon

Mountains 2 Beach Marathon & Half Marathon

Mountains 2 Beach is an all-around awesome race, and one of the gems of the California marathoning scene in only its 5th year. Based on the laughter and smiles at … MORE

Mountains 2 Beach is an all-around awesome race, and one of the gems of the California marathoning scene in only its 5th year. Based on the laughter and smiles at the post-race festival, Boston hopefuls and non-hopefuls alike enjoy this event. With its fast and spectator-friendly course, first-rate production and laser-like focus on helping its runners qualify for Boston, M2B very much strikes me as the California International Marathon (in Sacramento) with warmer temperatures and better scenery.

The race perfectly complements its low-key venue. The outdoor expo at Ventura High School was easy and quick to navigate, though late arrivals on Saturday should expect a bit of a wait to collect their number. Apparently there was a pre-race pasta dinner available for $10 at Ventura High, though given my run-in with food poisoning at the 2014 First Light Marathon in Alabama, I figured the night before a PR & BQ attempt would be a bad time to poke the bear.

Whereas many races give lip service to their runners while bending over backwards for their sponsors, Mountains 2 Beach in every way feels like a race organized by runners, for runners. Admittedly I’m pleased I could support the title sponsor (Berkeley company Clif Bar) with my choice of Clif Shot Bloks for my race-day nutrition.

And reinforcing the “by runners, for runners” vibe of the weekend, the decision to have the pacers run at two minutes under their official Boston Qualifying time (e.g. a 3:23 pacer for runners with a 3:25 qualifying time) was a genius tip o’ the cap to the realities of BQ’ing in 2015.

In case you can’t tell, I’d highly recommend this race… unless your own choice of races hinges on a strong social media presence. Then you’re out of luck. #justrun

PRODUCTION: I loved the “show up, run fast” mindset at Mountains 2 Beach. If you favor low-frills yet extremely well-produced events that finish alongside the Pacific Ocean, this is your kind of race. If, on the other hand, you prefer screaming spectators and raucous on-course entertainment, you’re likely to be Ojai-ly disappointed.

Despite the fact that I tend to ignore aid stations and only grabbed two quick sips of water at M2B, there seemed to be plenty of aid stations serving both water and Fluid, the electrolyte drink of choice. The name “Fluid” made me smile, sounding as it does like the ambivalent beverage equivalent of Soylent Green (though I doubt Fluid is people).

Luckily my innards behaved, since bathrooms along the course were few and far between. If there were porta-potties I didn’t notice them, and the only facilities I remember were the public units in Foster Park near mile 16.

The cozy post-race festival in Promenade Park included more sponsor tents than the pre-race expo plus a beer garden, Boston Qualifiers gong, massage tent, medical tent and stage featuring a live band, all conveniently encircling an open grassy area where runners basked in the SoCal sun and their post-race glow. All in all, a very nice arrangement.

SWAG: The race tee is a simple gray Greenlayer technical tee that, like other Greenlayer apparel I own, doesn’t fit particularly well. The finisher’s medal, though, makes up for its less swaggy cousin with its attractive part-metal, part-stained glass design (see photos). And I’d swear I can hear the ocean when I hold it up to my ear.

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
3
My Media

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Sunset Strip Half Marathon

Sunset Strip Half Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: The inaugural Sunset Strip Half was a terrific opening act that’s only going to get better as it matures (unlike some of the musical acts who made their … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: The inaugural Sunset Strip Half was a terrific opening act that’s only going to get better as it matures (unlike some of the musical acts who made their name here). The course provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity for runners to retrace L.A.’s musical roots while collecting a finisher’s medal and t-shirt at the end of their tour.

Overall, there’s a lot to recommend this race:

1) The COURSE itself starts at the Pacific Design Center in the West Hollywood Design District and immediately heads south on a 2.5-mile loop back to the start, before leading runners on a challenging climb of ~1.5 miles up San Vicente Blvd to Sunset Blvd. Out-and-back stretches along Sunset Blvd and Santa Monica Blvd follow, stretches that to the uninitiated may feel like quintessential L.A. with their nondescript storefronts and seemingly endless strip malls, but which are in fact home to some of the city’s most historic nightclubs – venues such as the Whisky A Go Go, Troubadour, Viper Room, Roxy Theatre & House of Blues, where bands like Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe & Guns N’ Roses all plied their trade as fledgling musicians.

How often do you have the chance to run down the middle of the city’s celebrated Sunset Strip, without having to dodge traffic or evade police officers? It’s an awesome feeling that I basked in, despite the fact that the “out” portion of each stretch does lead directly into the rising SoCal sun. Sunset Blvd in particular has a rolling quality to it that keeps the legs interested, without the steepness of San Vicente. And with the final mile along Santa Monica Blvd being a nice downhill to the finish line in West Hollywood Park, I was able to clock my fastest mile of the day.

2) The field was relatively small (1739 half marathoners, 577 5K’ers) and slow – I finished 28th overall and 4/180 in my age group. I only note this because I was surprised to find myself running the final two miles by myself, with the next closest runner ¼ mile ahead and the closest pursuer ¼ behind. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that much elbow room in a road race before, and it really added to my feeling of complete freedom while running along Sunset & Santa Monica. Understandably crowd density increased where the half marathon & 5K courses merged on Sunset Blvd, but even then I was able to negotiate the more leisurely 5K runners with minimal effort.

3) Energized positivity infused the start/finish area – the vibe was laid-back and festive, with enthusiastic runners who were excited to be there, and volunteers who were (as race volunteers usually are) helpful & friendly.

4) Race-day packet pickup in WeHo Park was smooth & easy, as was parking near the start line in the WeHo Library parking structure. Be aware that access to the Pacific Design Center (our original target) was blocked earlier than the published 6:15am cutoff time, so we shared a brief moment of panic while circumnavigating the road closures. Luckily the WeHo Library parking structure was still accessible, cheaper than the PDC and just as convenient.

5) The race is a great value – see “PRODUCTION & SWAG” below.

With all these positives in mind, this was nonetheless the race’s inaugural campaign, and several steps can be taken to make next year’s iteration even better:

1) Most notably, the music did not live up to the promise of the race’s name. Granted I was running closer to the front, but I saw only one band along the course around mile 6, and they were still setting up when I passed. Nor did the pre- & post-race music impress – in fact my only memory of the pre-race music was “Happy”, nowadays a race staple which I’d hoped to avoid on the Sunset Strip.

My recommendation here would be to forego all live bands along the course in favor of giant on-course speakers blasting the music that made the Strip famous. I’m going to presumptuously speak for all runners in saying we’re fueled & motivated by the classics we know played by the bands we know, rather than by live bands reworking those classics. On the other hand, live bands feel completely appropriate for the post-race party.

2) The 5K turnaround on Sunset Blvd made for some awkward & potentially dangerous moments, as faster half marathoners with a full head of steam had to swerve or slow down to avoid slower 5K runners turning around right in front of them. Separate lanes for the half marathon & 5K runners at this juncture would avoid these near-collisions.

3) According to Katie’s Garmin which clocked in at 3.35 miles, the 5K course was long.

4) Every race organizer has heard this race-day mantra at one time or another: more porta-potties, please. When your announcer is suggesting to runners that “If it’s not an emergency, feel free to wait and use the porta-potties on the course”, you know you should’ve ordered more. Luckily we got in line early, but there were plenty of runners still in the queue when the starting airhorn sounded.

PRODUCTION & SWAG: The race is an excellent value: I paid $55 for the half marathon, while Katie paid $30 for the 5K. In both cases this included a colorful long-sleeve tech tee and a cool medal (the medal for the half marathon is a definite keeper, a glitzy purple-and-gold Flying V guitar with the Sunset Strip logo emblazoned on the headstock – see photos). And post-race snacks (including fruit) were available in the finish chute.

Worth mentioning here is the contrast between the Sunset Strip Half and the more established Hollywood Half, held one week earlier: the Sunset Strip costs half as much and starts 90 min later (at 7:00am). These criteria alone made the choice of races a no-brainer for us, and we weren’t disappointed in our decision. And unless we find ourselves otherwise engaged next year (Boston, maybe?), we plan to run again in 2016.

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
4
SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
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Carlsbad 5000

Carlsbad 5000

BOTTOM LINE: The Competitor Group bills the Carlsbad 5000 as its "Party by the Sea". It's an apt description – Carlsbad isn’t a 5K race so much as it is … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: The Competitor Group bills the Carlsbad 5000 as its “Party by the Sea”. It’s an apt description – Carlsbad isn’t a 5K race so much as it is an entire morning of 5K races. But even more than the races themselves, it’s a celebration of running. What better venue for a high-stakes race than a low-key coastal town like Carlsbad?

After running it, I now understand why the folks at the Competitor Group have branded this their signature event. Maybe the race gets obscured by the other 2,000+ races held in California every year – but the truth is, Carlsbad is a not-so-hidden gem.

The course is surprisingly hilly; according to my Garmin, the total elevation gain and loss over 3.1 miles exceeded both the Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon I ran in November, and the Disney World Marathon I ran in January. Total elevation gain of the course (413ft) slightly exceeds elevation loss (387ft), and while the uphills are noticeable, I most appreciated the fact that the home stretch on Carlsbad Village Dr from the final turn to the finish line was all downhill. A great way to end a fast race.

Granted I’m used to paying marathon and half marathon fees, but the Carlsbad 5000 is very affordable – registration ten days before the race cost $40 (plus a $5.99 processing fee), and I was able to find a discount code online that saved me an additional $10. The fact that I was able to sign up for this race so cheaply less than two weeks out still surprises me.

My only – “complaint” may be too strong a word – objection would be that moving back the start line on Grand Avenue this year added ~88 yards (or in my case ~19 seconds) to the commoner’s course, or “Peoples Route” as it’s referred to on the race website. For a marathon 88 yards is negligible, easily falling within the margin of error for those not running the tangents. But for a 5K race 88 yards is over 1.5% of the distance, so it’s critical to get that measurement right. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but something for the organizers to keep in mind next year. Although the name rolls off the tongue, I doubt they want to rebrand their signature event the “Carlsbad 5080” (“Fifty-Eighty”).

PRODUCTION: It’s tough to beat a race that’s run only a few yards from the ocean. Or at least that’s what the course map showed – my laser (read: pained) focus during the race precluded me from appreciating my surroundings in the moment.

I’m not sure how runners in the later races fared, but running in the first event of the morning meant parking near the start line was a (ocean) breeze. I made a porta-potty stop, ran my warmup mile + striders, picked up my number directly adjacent to the start line (easy race-day bib pickup, how awesome is that?), and attached my timing chip to my shoe in time for the national anthem… all within 30 minutes. Thanks Competitor, for a seamless pre-race experience.

My only critique of the production would be, as noted above, that the course was 0.05 miles too long, a buzz kill for those of us chasing PRs and/or a well-defined finish time like 20:00.

On the other hand, the chance to meet and take photos with the elite runners more than made up for the added distance. For a race with significant prize money at stake, the organizers do a fantastic job of maintaining a low-key vibe and allowing spectators post-race access to the elites. Where else can an age-group runner stroll up to and shake hands with world-class athletes like Bernard Lagat and Deena Kastor? I felt like a kid on Christmas day, except in this case Santa Claus was real.

That said, there’s a lot to recommend here even for those runners who aren’t stargazers. It’s a premier race in a relaxed oceanside venue (the “relaxed” part comes once you cross the finish line), a solid opportunity to test your mettle and your fitness level. Plus it’s a great value – the entry fee ranges from $20 (early) to $40 (late). And if you really like running the course, you can sign up for the “All Day 20K” and run it four times to earn special 20K swag.

Speaking of swag, I was pleasantly surprised to receive not only a blue Leslie Jordan short-sleeve tech tee (always high quality) but a cool medal as well featuring women’s world record holder Meseret Defar. Not to mention some decent snacks in the finish chute.

The new elite course, with its tighter loops and two added hairpin turns, seems designed more for the spectators than the runners. But whereas the effect of the new course on finish times remains to be seen, the organizers may want to reconsider the sequence and timing of the events if they hope to see Sammy Kipketer’s course record of 13:00 challenged anytime soon. I didn’t envy the elites having to run in the heat of the day.

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
4
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Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend

Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a marathoner, then the Walt Disney World Marathon is a no-brainer. And if you don’t believe me, feel free to read a few of the gazillion … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a marathoner, then the Walt Disney World Marathon is a no-brainer. And if you don’t believe me, feel free to read a few of the gazillion blogs dedicated to the runDisney experience. Nobody stages a more entertaining race than Disney, because nobody CAN stage a more entertaining race than Disney (Th-th-th-that’s a challenge, Warner Bros). Whereas other races rely on “loud and abrasive” for their on-course entertainment, Disney relies on its time-honored characters and theme parks. With a couple of well-timed exceptions (e.g. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” blasting at mile 16), the WDW Marathon speaks softly and carries a big stick. And if you’ve only ever run a Disney race in California, don’t think this is more of the same – Florida is a completely different experience. It’s one of the very few (only?) instances where I’m willing to concede that Florida trumps California. That and alligator density.

I’ve heard the complaint that Disney races are too expensive – and if price is your sole criteria for judging a race, then maybe you’d be right. But the truth is, the next runner I hear second-guess their decision to run the WDW Marathon will be the first. Disregarding Active.com’s processing fee, my marathon registration was $170 (compared to $255 for the NYC Marathon and $195 for the Avengers Half), which by the time I crossed the finish line on Sunday felt like a bargain. And the fact that their most expensive option – the Dopey Challenge – is also their most popular says all you need to know about the supply & demand at work here. So if your primary concern is the $170 registration fee, I might suggest you focus less on price and more on value.

PRODUCTION: No one produces a race better than runDisney, and they have a whopping 68-page Official Event Guide to prove it. WDW is a race for the runners, as evidenced in every facet of the race organization with the possible exception of the 5:30am start time. While Disney may claim the early start time helps to beat the Florida (and California) heat, it also conveniently helps to clear as many runners out of the parks as possible before the paying customers rise and shine.

There’s a fine line between “flawless organization” and “military precision”… and I might argue that at times Disney’s organization is so good as to make the process feel devoid of spontaneity. Who knows, maybe this is the key to producing a race of this magnitude… I’m just not sure they need quite so many crew members and volunteers directing people every step of the way, from expo to race day. Save the stanchions for Space Mountain, Disney.

That said, my race weekend went off without a hitch. And every volunteer I met was sincerely wonderful, wonderfully sincere and clearly drinking happy juice by the tankard. I don’t plan to run WDW again anytime soon – after two of their races in two months I’m pretty Disney-ed out, and 41 other states await before a return trip to the Magic Kingdom. Then again, when it comes to Disney I’ll never say never, even if does bring me back to Florida…

SWAG: For us “marathon only” slackers, the t-shirt was a nice black Champion tech tee. And the ribbon on the finisher’s medal is fastened to itself by velcro, making it easy to separate ribbon from medal if that’s your preference – one final example of Disney’s unrivaled attention to detail.

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2
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5
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5
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California International Marathon (CIM)

California International Marathon (CIM)

BOTTOM LINE: Six letters to sum up this review: run CIM. The organizers bill their marathon as the "fastest, friendliest, most spectacular course in the West!", and they may well … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Six letters to sum up this review: run CIM. The organizers bill their marathon as the “fastest, friendliest, most spectacular course in the West!”, and they may well be 2/3 right. Suburban monotony notwithstanding, the net downhill course is PR-friendly and offers just enough variety (i.e. hillage) in the first half to keep the legs guessing. From its readily navigated expo to its easy start line access to its cowbell-toting spectators, CIM is a first-class marathon that doesn’t sacrifice its relaxed, small-town vibe. The field size (5,805 finishers this year) is very reasonable, not to mention fast – my 3:24:15 placed me in 997th place. Spectators and musical entertainment along the course maintain the low-key feel of the race, being supportive but not oppressively so. And weather conditions have been ideal both years I’ve run, although December typically is the rainy season in Northern California.

For runners looking for a year-end marathon in the first week of December, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either CIM (if you’re partial to roads) or The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship in SF (if you’re partial to trails). Both are terrific, well-produced races.

PRODUCTION: Don’t be fooled by its lack of bells (except cowbells) & whistles – race production for CIM is among the best you’ll find anywhere. And though there’s never a perfect race, clearly the Sacramento Running Association (SRA) puts a lot of hard work into chasing that goal.

Take my 40-minute journey from hotel (in nearby Rancho Cordova) to starter’s pistol: Katie drove me ~15 minutes to the start-line shuttle pickup point, where I hopped aboard one of the last departing shuttles at 6:40am, arrived at the start line at 6:50am, made a quick pitstop at one of the abundant porta-potties (more proof of CIM’s keen attention to detail – porta-potties nearly as far as the eye can see), surrendered my drop bag and lined up alongside the 3:25 pacer by the time the National Anthem faded on the breeze. Now THAT’S customer service.

The race’s late-registration window for BQ wannabes is, to my knowledge, another CIM exclusive. This is a pretty genius idea on the SRA’s part, one I’d anticipate other race directors adopting in the not-too-distant future.

SWAG: This year’s shirt is a nicely designed, dark blue long-sleeve cotton tee and admittedly one of the few race t-shirts I’ll wear with any regularity after race weekend. And the finisher’s medal is a stylish periwinkle-and-gold souvenir with the capitol building and Tower Bridge emblazoned across a gold “CIM”. All in all, a nice collection of parting gifts.

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
2
SWAG
4
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Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon Weekend

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon Weekend

BOTTOM LINE: For much of my childhood I ate, drank, breathed and slept Marvel Comics. And I greeted the announcement of the inaugural Avengers Super Heroes Half with wide-eyed enthusiasm. … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: For much of my childhood I ate, drank, breathed and slept Marvel Comics. And I greeted the announcement of the inaugural Avengers Super Heroes Half with wide-eyed enthusiasm. So I’m disappointed to say that after experiencing the race once, I have zero interest in running it again.

Yes, runDisney recently added their predictable enticement of an extra medal courtesy of their two-day “Infinity Gauntlet Challenge” (10K on Saturday, half marathon on Sunday). And yes, the race again will sell out faster than you can say “Ultron”. But my own enjoyment of the event derived almost entirely from seeing other runners in their full or partial superhero regalia, rather than from anything the runDisney folks did. So the folks in the home office have some major kinks to iron out here before I can recommend the race in good conscience to any but the most hardcore runDisney-ophile.

First, and speaking of “iron”, I don’t claim to understand licensing or film rights, but I do know Iron Man is a key member of the Avengers, as are the Hulk and Captain America. And yet Iron Man was conspicuously absent from the weekend’s activities, while the Hulk and Captain America appeared nowhere but on the cover of the official event guide. So Disney needs to untangle itself from Marvel’s restrictive licensing deals before this race can realize its potential and fully live up to the “Avengers” label. Until that happens, runners will have to be content with Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow as the meager on-course Avengers representatives. Fans of the franchise know there’s a reason Hawkeye and the Black Widow don’t have their own movie franchises – they’re BORING.

Second, the course itself outside the parks – specifically miles 4-12 – is mind-numbing. Disney can create magic; it can make wishes come true; it can turn adults into kids, and kids into believers. Disney has the power to achieve a lot of things – but making Santa Ana, Garden Grove and the rest of Anaheim interesting ain’t one of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed January’s Walt Disney World Marathon in Florida and hope to return; on the other hand, I don’t anticipate running another SoCal Disney race. Tough to believe I’d recommend Florida over Southern California for any reason, but if you’re a runner eyeing your first runDisney race, and as long as you aren’t wed to either the Avengers or Star Wars, then set your sights on Florida. And if race distance is no object, then the WDW Marathon is a no-brainer.

PRODUCTION: I appreciate the fact that runDisney events attract a slew of unlikely runners and inspire loyalty among those runners, as only Disney can. And this year’s WDW Marathon was seamlessly orchestrated from start to finish. But the inaugural Avengers Half – and I never thought I’d say this about a Disney production – felt like a company going through the motions. Honestly, it felt like the folks at runDisney half-assed this race. Logistically the race went off smoothly enough, but when your reputation enables you to charge $195 for a half marathon while promising a “power-packed weekend of fantastic fun and amazing excitement”, you can’t half-ass ANYTHING. For $195, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should be waiting to valet my car on race day.

Unfortunately runDisney has no qualms about wringing every last penny out of its customers. Case in point, the runDisney ChEAR Squad program (get it? EAR? Mickey?) lets spectators purchase silver, gold or platinum packages to gain “special access” inside Disneyland during the race and to reserve seating at the finish line. This, rather than apathy, was the reason the finish line bleachers were largely empty on race morning – friends & family had to pay to sit there! Spectators who smartly refused to pay were positioned behind barricades on the far side of the finish line, where the real crowds gathered.

Note to runDisney: feel free to charge the runners whatever registration fee you can command for your races, but leave the spectators alone. Better yet, if you were to offer a race-day Disneyland park discount to every registered runner, maybe you could access those spectators’ wallets without seeming so blatantly exploitative.

The high winds on race day certainly weren’t Disney’s fault (so much for my illusion of a climate-controlled dome…), and I’d like to see whether the finish-line festival becomes more festive without the overriding concern of booths, tents and the main stage blowing away at any moment.

And one other question, runDisney: why would I dedicate (at least) 20 minutes of my time to complete your anonymous post-race survey that no other runner will ever see, when I can post my review on RaceRaves.com where other runners (and race directors) will read and benefit from it? Maybe it’s time to ditch the anonymous survey in favor of a forum where runners can openly share their honest feedback? Your finishers are your best evangelists, so a little trust in them might go a long way…

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
3
My Report
SCENERY
2
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4
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New York City Marathon

New York City Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: New York City is a marathon in every sense of the word, and if you don’t like your races epic, you probably won’t enjoy New York. But I’m … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: New York City is a marathon in every sense of the word, and if you don’t like your races epic, you probably won’t enjoy New York. But I’m willing to bet you will – and that like the rest of us, once you’re running through its five boroughs with thousands of raucous strangers cheering you on, you’ll be willing to forgive New York its logistical hoops. The lengthy lag time between rise-and-shine and time-to-run is now an engrained part of the New York experience; it’s well worth the chance to start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and it hella beats running several loops within Central Park (as runners did until 1976). And by the time you reach that start line, you’ll be ready to run through a wall. Besides, what marathoner doesn’t want to be part of the world’s largest running party? Boston may be the marathoning mecca for the fast kids, but for everyone else, that distinction goes to New York City.

PRODUCTION: Not once did I hear – nor have I ever heard – a single runner complain about the marathon’s $255 entry fee ($288 for me, taking into account my three previous lottery entries at $11 apiece). Because it’s clear where all the money goes. This is a first-class production, choreographed down to the smallest detail and on par with the Best of Broadway. The NYRR did a {insert superlative here} job of ensuring the race and the entire weekend went off without a hitch. The expo was easily navigable, the swag (nice shirt, cool medal, sleek finisher poncho) was great, and the entire weekend was laid out in a colorful 53-page PDF, of which half the pages were ads.

So race production was silky smooth from the time we set foot in the expo to the moment I crossed the finish line. Which makes the NYRR’s misstep in mile 27 even more perplexing. Once the cheering died, and despite finding ourselves in the city’s emerald oasis, exhausted finishers were unceremoniously funneled out of the park and regurgitated onto Central Park West. Even – or maybe especially – with post-marathon brain it struck me: Why can’t we hang out here?

Note to NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg: official post-race party or not, that’s your call… but you need to convince the city to open up Central Park to your runners and spectators. You already have the biggest race on the planet – this will bring you one step closer to having the best.

You must know better than anyone that endorphins sell merch. Were I in your position, I would a) be overwhelmed, but b) take full advantage of each and every runner’s post-race euphoria and hard-earned sense of accomplishment by setting up food carts, sponsor booths, a massage tent, the Asics finisher gear store and a medal engraving station right there in Central Park. My guess is the NYRR lost a lot of potential profit by inexplicably herding runners out of Central Park immediately after the race, and by asking them to return on Monday to buy finisher gear and have their medal engraved. Many folks were on their way home or already back at work by Monday, so this finish-line faux pas was a head-scratcher.

DIFFICULTY
2
PRODUCTION
4
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SCENERY
3
SWAG
4
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Berlin Marathon

Berlin Marathon

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 … MORE

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. 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. That said, I was still able to PR by 4½ minutes.

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.”

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. But 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 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.
• 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.

For a more blow-by-blow account of the weekend, check out my race report at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2014/10/13/the-berlin-marathon-race-report/.

DIFFICULTY
1
PRODUCTION
3
My Report
SCENERY
4
SWAG
2
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Big Sur International Marathon

Big Sur International Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: Despite tainted race-day memories courtesy of plantar fasciitis, I'd recommend Big Sur in a heartbeat. And I'd love to run this race again (healthy) as part of the … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: Despite tainted race-day memories courtesy of plantar fasciitis, I’d recommend Big Sur in a heartbeat. And I’d love to run this race again (healthy) as part of the Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge. Nearly as impressive as the course itself is that the BSIM boasts an impressive field of national and international runners (from 50 states and 30 countries) while maintaining a decidedly low-key vibe. Yes, the BSIM will be among the toughest road marathons you’ll ever run, and if you’re looking for a Boston Qualifier then keep looking. But if you’re the type of runner who prefers to run with your head up regardless of pacing, you’ll be richly rewarded with stunning views on even the cloudiest day. And if I were to recommend just one road marathon in California, I have to agree with Bart Yasso (Runner’s World Chief Running Officer) that this would be it.

Unfortunately the race’s popularity (the 2014 race sold out in 59 minutes) compelled its organizers to institute a lottery system for 2015 and beyond. And though at the end of the day it’s still a lottery system, BSIM organizers have clearly given this much thought, as the upcoming 2016 “staggered” lottery offers five distinct opportunities for runners to earn a spot – as first-timers, locals, loyal BSIM runners, groups of 2-6, and finally a “last chance” lottery for all individuals.

If you’ll be running the BSIM as a destination race (smart choice!), your most convenient option will likely be to fly into the San José International Airport, then either drive or catch the Monterey Airbus down to the Monterey Peninsula. Alternatively, the Monterey Airport – with direct flights from Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and San Diego – is located only minutes away from downtown, site of both host hotels as well as the race expo. Leave yourself time for a leisurely self-guided tour of this quaint seaside town including its premier destination, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Check out my included GoPro footage to get a better sense of the course along the Pacific Coast Highway along with some glimpses of Dean Karnazes, who I ran alongside/behind for much of the first half.

PRODUCTION: Not to be outdone by the course itself, race production was almost picture-perfect. The Goldilocks-style expo (not too big, not too small, but just right), conveniently located adjacent to both host hotels, was easy to navigate. The pre-race pasta dinner, though a bit pricey at $25, hit the spot without poisoning any runners. The 4:00am shuttles assigned to carry marathoners the 30+ miles to the start were dispatched efficiently and ran on time – and if I’m not mistaken, I thought I heard Race Director Doug Thurston say they mobilized 185 buses (!) on race day. Where they found 185 buses in Monterey and Carmel, I have no idea.

The most consistent element of every race I run seems to be the fantastic volunteers, and the BSIM was no exception. The selfless folks in maroon shirts worked tirelessly to ensure that every runner’s race experience was as positive and as worry-free as possible. Special thanks to Cheryl for my first-ever post-race massage, which refreshed my tired legs despite its inability to appease my overworked plantar fascia.

Aside from the prominent Michelob Ultra tent in the post-race Marathon Village (all the appealing local microbrews to pick from, and we end up with Michelob?), my only legitimate gripe from the weekend would be the disappointing performance of the runner tracking app, which after the 13.1-mile mark became increasingly unreliable. I’m not exactly sure why runner tracking is such a difficult technology to implement correctly, but its erratic behavior in this case wreaked havoc on my ability to catch friends at the finish.

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4
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5
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5
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Mobile Marathon (fka First Light Marathon)

Mobile Marathon (fka First Light Marathon)

BOTTOM LINE: I ran First Light as the second half of a weekend back-to-back following the Mississippi Blues Marathon. And allowing for the fact that the organizers may have inadvertently … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: I ran First Light as the second half of a weekend back-to-back following the Mississippi Blues Marathon. And allowing for the fact that the organizers may have inadvertently poisoned their runners with the pre-race pasta dinner (and apparently there were many of us), I appreciated my 26.2-mile tour of Mobile. I always welcome the chance to support smaller races, particularly when they benefit as worthwhile a cause as L’Arche Mobile, whose members played a significant role in both the preparation and execution of the race. And as the second half of a geographically convenient back-to-back, the First Light Marathon will always hold a special place in the hearts and pocketbooks of Marathon Maniacs, Half Fanatics and 50 States runners.

PRODUCTION: First Light is a low-frills yet well-organized race. The course profile is unusual for a road marathon, in having a surprisingly hilly middle section (miles 12-21) flanked by perfectly flat stretches at the start and finish. Most important on this day was the abundance of aid stations along the course. Normally 19 aid stations would be about 18 more than I’d need, but on Sunday I found myself wishing – due to the aforementioned & highly inconvenient food poisoning affair – that there were actually more. On the bright side, I feel qualified to vouch for the cleanliness (if not the godliness) of the First Light porta-potties.

Potential dysentery notwithstanding, the pre-race pasta buffet hit the spot and was included with race registration (additional tickets were $10). And if I were to run First Light again, I’d feel confident the organizers would be extra-diligent in ensuring the Alabama Dept. of Public Health doesn’t get involved.

The First Light race shirt is a highly wearable long-sleeve black tech shirt with “MARATHON” printed along the sleeve. And as referenced above, back-to-back (Mississippi Blues Marathon/First Light Marathon) runners received their own long-sleeve white tech shirt with both race logos on the front and a “BACK 2 BACK” design on the back, as well as a commemorative plaque hand-painted by a community member of L’Arche Mobile. Nothing notable to report from the race goodie bag except the bag itself, which was both reusable and neon orange.

On-course entertainment was limited to the running commentary and frequent cries of “War Eagle!” from a good-natured fellow runner whom I’d catch up to after each of my five (yep, five) pit stops. Spectators were sparse but supportive, though not as supportive as in Jackson, Mississippi the day before, where everyone happily thanked us for coming. The enthusiastic orange-clad sentries stationed along the course in Jackson were replaced in Mobile by purposeful police officers whose job it was to keep both foot and motor traffic flowing smoothly.

Once my stomach settled somewhat I was able to appreciate the finish-line festival in sun-dappled Bienville Square, the highlight being the jazz stylings of the Excelsior Brass Band (see video).

If you’re a fan of potty humor puns, or simply want to know (much) more about the actual race, check out my blog recap of the First Light Marathon at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2014/01/28/first-light-marathon-race-report/

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3
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Mississippi Blues Marathon & Half Marathon

Mississippi Blues Marathon & Half Marathon

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a 50 States runner or are simply looking for a low-key, well organized road marathon that appreciates its runners, then you’ve gotta get to the Magnolia … MORE

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a 50 States runner or are simply looking for a low-key, well organized road marathon that appreciates its runners, then you’ve gotta get to the Magnolia State for the Mississippi Blues Marathon. With its frequent turns and rolling profile the course isn’t necessarily PR-friendly, but it does offer an unrivaled opportunity to see Mississippi’s capital city up close and personal. Climate-wise, the state is tough to beat as a winter running destination. And if you’re a musician, the medal alone is almost worth the trip.

PRODUCTION: Aside from eating crunchy yogurt for breakfast on Saturday (through no fault of the organizers), my race weekend in Jackson went off without a hitch. Communication leading up to race weekend was minimal but sufficient, and the pre-race expo was small with just a handful of vendors. The post-race party in the Art Garden was similarly low-key; food choices could have been more diverse, but I was perfectly happy snacking on bananas and chocolate milk to supplement the trail mix we’d brought with us.

Race volunteers are typically among the most patient and friendly people you’ll meet anywhere. But the volunteers in Mississippi were a cut above in terms of friendliness, seemingly always smiling and taking every chance to thank the runners for coming to Jackson.

Other than the people, thoughtful race swag set this race apart. In addition to the eye-catching, core-strengthening finishers medal, each race goodie bag contained a Hohner harmonica and a “Made in Mississippi” CD featuring music of the Mississippi Blues Marathon (including the appropriately titled track, “Done Got Tired of Tryin’ ”). And rather than a race t-shirt, all runners received a long-sleeve black microfleece with the race logo emblazoned on the left lapel, and with a zipper that quickly broke. [UPDATE (Jan. 31, 2014): A huge thumbs-up for Race Director John Noblin – all Mississippi Blues runners today received an email saying he’d heard our feedback and would be replacing “all of the shirts that have bad zippers”. As a runner, you can’t ask for a more committed and responsive RD than that… thanks, John!]

One suggestion for future races would be to have MUCH larger labels for each handheld pace group sign. Our 3:45 pacer (Pacer Bob) did a great job, but whenever he got more than about fifteen feet ahead of me, I needed binoculars to read the time on his pace group sign.

DIFFICULTY
3
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
3
SWAG
5
My Media

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The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship – California

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship – California

OVERALL: Unless you’re allergic to dirt or ocean breezes, I’d strongly recommend The North Face Endurance Challenge (the Bay Area edition is their Championship race). If you’re looking for a … MORE

OVERALL: Unless you’re allergic to dirt or ocean breezes, I’d strongly recommend The North Face Endurance Challenge (the Bay Area edition is their Championship race). If you’re looking for a memorable way to round out the year’s race schedule, this is it. The course is stunningly scenic, the weather’s been beautiful all three years I’ve run it, and Ultramarathon Man mojo (in the form of North Face athlete Dean Karnazes) hangs in the air. What’s not to like?

Now let’s talk details…

The Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is an awesome playground for runners. Thanks in large part to the GGNRA’s 117 square miles, the Bay Area deserves its reputation as one of the country’s trail-running meccas. I’d run the half marathon distance for this race twice before and decided this time around to step up to the marathon distance (50-mile and 50K options were available as well, but sold out more quickly).

WEATHER: Despite near-freezing rain the day before, Saturday (race day) dawned on a brave new running world. Bright blue skies, near-windless conditions and temperatures in the low 40s coalesced into a dazzling morning. Maybe, like the rest of us, the running gods wanted to see trail-running phenoms like Rob Krar, Emelie Forsberg and Max King tackle the technically demanding 50-mile course in ideal conditions. Whatever the reason, the crisp clean air that greeted runners in the grassy, sun-dappled staging area at Fort Berry confirmed that today would be a very good day for a run.

As a bonus adrenaline boost, Dean Karnazes was waiting at the start line to encourage and send off the marathoners.

COURSE DIFFICULTY/SCENERY: After an initial ¾-mile descent on asphalt to awaken legs and lungs, the course crosses Bunker Road and left-turns onto the forgiving and well-groomed dirt trails that lay stretched out ahead, like a rock-strewn orange carpet, for most of the next 25.5 miles. A quick right turn leads on to the popular Miwok Trail, where our eager caravan faced its first physical and psychological test, an ascent of 600 vertical feet over 1-1/4 miles.

The marathon course comprises six major hills, including two climbs each up the Miwok Trail and Marincello Trail as well as separate climbs up distinct sections of the Coastal Trail. Together these six major hills account for most of the course’s 4,757ft of elevation gain, and break down as follows:
1) Miwok, mile 1
2) Marincello, mile 3.7 (followed by Alta, mile 5.8)
3) Miwok, mile 9
4) Coastal (part I), mile 12.6
5) Coastal (part II), mile 16.4
6) Marincello, mile 20.3 (followed by Alta, mile 22.4)

Near its summit, the Marincello Trail opens out onto panoramic views of Marin City, which like a newly painted small-scale model lies neatly laid-out below at the foot of Richardson Bay.

The second half of the marathon is equally demanding but even more scenic. The Coastal Trail runs along the western edge of the continent overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with unspoiled coastline and the crash of pounding waves to distract from the hangover of another tough climb. For me the second climb up the Coastal Trail from Muir Beach was the most ughhhhh ascent of the day – 970 vertical feet in just under two miles – and required my first bit of power-hiking to reach the crest of the trail and the zenith of the course, at 999 feet above sea level.

The final descent of the day down the Rodeo Valley Trail offers glimpses of iconic S.F. landmarks Sutro Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge, both peeking over the hilltops to your left. From there it’s a short transition back on to asphalt, followed by a brief ascent up Bunker Road and back to Fort Barry to finish under the familiar red start/finish arch.

While the rest of us were enjoying the epic views, overall 50-mile winner Rob Krar and women’s winner Michele Yates were each earning $10,000 for their efforts. Talk about a runner’s high!

PRODUCTION/SWAG: The North Face organizers do a great job of staging a race they’re obviously proud of. During race bib pickup at the SF store, I had animated conversations about the race with two employees, one of whom would be running it as his first 50-miler. On race day the course was well marked, and strategically positioned aid stations were well stocked and manned by terrific volunteers who, despite having to stand out in the cold, were unfailingly supportive.

Other than the venue, one of the main reasons to recommend this race is the always impressive swag. This year’s goodies included a tastefully designed finisher’s medal, a pair of SmartWool socks and a nice royal blue TNF tech t-shirt, with the TNFECC insignia on the sleeve plus the option of having your race distance and “California Championship” screen printed on the front. And the virtual goody bag included a gem I’ve never seen before – a free magazine subscription from Rodale that allowed you to opt for a $20 refund rather than the free subscription. All this, and a $95 registration fee (not including a $5.75 processing fee from RaceIt)… so even without the sweet offer from Rodale, the marathon is reasonably priced for a high-profile trail race.

As the third-place finisher in my age group, I earned additional swag in the form of a nice pair of TNF arm warmers, assorted CLIF products, a Road ID coupon and – check your excitement – a SmartWool product brochure and stickers. Luckily we’d be celebrating my nephew’s sixth birthday later that day, so thanks to SmartWool I now had a present to give him.

The post-race buffet offered a selection of very decent options for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, as half the grassy field of the finish line festival enjoyed the warmth of full sunlight while the other half found itself trapped in bitterly cold shade.

My only (minor) grievance would be the 50-question post-race survey sent out by the folks at TNF. Unfortunately I didn’t realize its scope until I was already committed (I’m sure that’s their intent), and though I did complete it, I was definitely losing patience by the midway point.

For an even more verbose synopsis, check out my race report at http://blisterscrampsheaves.com/2013/12/21/the-north-face-endurance-challenge-championship-marathon-race-report/

DIFFICULTY
4
PRODUCTION
5
My Report
SCENERY
5
SWAG
5
My Media

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