Runner Wall: Mike Sohaskey
Ultra Runner, Scientist, and RaceRaves co-Founder
City: Del Ray, CA
Dream Racecation: Comrades Marathon
DESCRIBE YOURSELF AS A RUNNER.
I’d definitely call myself an avid runner. I typically run 5 days and 40-60 miles per week. I’ve finished over 70 races, including 42 half marathons, 20 marathons, 2 50Ks and (most recently) a 50-miler, finishing in the top 10% in most of them. Although my focus for the past 1½ years has been on road marathons, specifically to qualify for and then run Boston (which I did this year), I feel much more at home on the trails. Nothing beats the physical and psychological freedom of running in a beautiful place away from traffic, urban noise and dogs barking at you from behind chain-link fences. It certainly helps that California has some of the best trail systems in the country, along with weather that lets you enjoy them year-round.
A whole new world (literally) opened up to me as a runner when I learned about folks whose goal it is to run a marathon in all 50 states or on all 7 continents. And now I’m one of them! Running provides a singular opportunity to get outside my comfort zone, meet new people, appreciate other cultures and experience the world in a way that very few other people ever will. And some of the people my wife Katie and I have met on our travels have quickly become close friends.
Overall, my goal as a runner is as easy as ABC: Always Be Challenging. I’m not a crazy adrenaline junkie, but I am always looking toward my next challenge. And I’m always on guard against complacency.
IMPORTANT DEBATE QUESTION – DO YOU RUN WITH OR WITHOUT MUSIC?
With! And without! I run with music only on slow recovery days, when I don’t need to focus on my breathing, cadence, pace etc. On other days (speed work, tempo runs, longer weekend runs) I need to be able to adapt to my body’s feedback in real time, and that’s much harder to do when my attention isn’t 100% on the task at hand. On those days listening to music becomes counterproductive, because the distraction short-circuits the immediate feedback loop between mind and body, and I end up having to work harder than I should. And the last thing I need is to make running harder on myself!
WHEN AND WHY DID YOU FIRST START RUNNING?
Like most kids I played team sports growing up, with no real interest in running unless a ball or frisbee was involved. I became a runner when I could no longer find a regular pickup basketball or Ultimate game, around the time I finished graduate school—all the guys I played with graduated and moved away. I’m not good at sitting still, and running seemed like such an easy thing to do (put on shoes, tie shoes, run until tired, rest & repeat). Plus, my brother is an ardent runner, and he let me run 5 miles with him in the 2001 Boston Marathon which was a very cool experience. Six months later I ran my first half marathon in (hilly) Lake Tahoe, and 15 years + 70 races later, I’m honored to be recognized here on the Runfari blog as a runner!
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST RUNNING CHALLENGE, AND HOW DO YOU PUSH THROUGH IT?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything. I pride myself on my discipline, I rarely lack the motivation to run since it’s such great stress relief and we live in a beautiful location, and I’m fortunate in always being able to make time. I’d say my biggest challenge lies in getting re-motivated after a big race, but that’s when it helps to have the next goal already in mind. Or maybe it’s the struggle to convince my non-running friends that no, this isn’t bad for my knees!
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST PROUD RUNNING-RELATED MOMENT?
As tough as it has become to qualify for Boston, finally breaking through at last year’s Mountains 2 Beach Marathon may stand as my proudest moment. Technically I’d qualified twice in 2014, at the Berlin Marathon and California International Marathon, but neither finish time would have been good enough for acceptance. Having months of focused training come together and culminate in a legit Boston Qualifier at Mountains 2 Beach was just amazing.
A close second on this list would be finishing my first 26.2-miler at the 2010 Long Beach Marathon. Long Beach is my brother’s hometown and he lives close to the start line, so it was an easy choice for my first marathon. No matter how many marathons & ultras I run, I’ll never forget the feeling of pure euphoria on crossing that finish line, WOW. Czech running legend Emil Zátopek was right: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”
WHAT DO YOU TREAT YOURSELF TO AFTER A RACE?
The Devil himself (or so nutritionists now tell us): refined sugar! Usually in the form of a Coke or Pepsi, which tastes like liquid nirvana after a tough race.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT RACECATION.
Right now my perfect racecation would probably be a trip to South Africa to run the Comrades Marathon, followed by a safari in Kruger National Park to view the Big Five (African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and white/black rhinoceros) in their native habitat, and a diving expedition with great white sharks—from a cage, of course—at the Cape of Good Hope. We have a friend in Johannesburg who’s finished Comrades 12 times, and I’d love to talk as many other friends as possible into joining us—though I have a feeling I’d get more takers on the shark diving than the 56-mile race!
WHAT ADVICE OR TIP WOULD YOU OFFER OTHER RUNNERS?
Can I have three?
1. Never judge a run by the first mile. The first mile of every training run is almost always the worst, as the body adapts to the physiological stress of being forced out of comfortable sedentary mode. Unless you’re being chased by a bear or running on a broken leg, you’ll probably start to feel much better once you have a mile or two under your belt. So don’t quit on yourself early because you feel lethargic—be patient and give your body time to settle in. I’ve had many good runs where the first mile felt terrible.
2. Don’t put too much faith in “conventional wisdom”. The amount of misinformation out there is mind-boggling, and much of it is gamely parroted back by running magazines and “experts” whose job it is to publish as much content as possible on a regular basis. So I’d say—as with everything else in life—think for yourself, peel back the layers and don’t be afraid to question everything.
3. When the going gets tough, smile—research has shown that smiling reduces your perceived effort, so when all else fails late in a race, smiling may trick your brain into giving your body that little adrenaline boost it needs.
WE HAVE ALL THOUGH TERRIBLE THINGS DURING A RACE – WHAT IS THE WORST THAT HAS CROSSED YOUR MIND?
“I may not finish this race”—a thought that’s crossed my mind on several occasions, though each time for a different reason:
The first time was at the 2008 Muir Woods 25K, which ended up being closer to 29K after I (along with several other runners) independently made the same wrong turn as the leader, meandered off the trail and got badly lost for a while. Eventually we were able to retrace our steps and reach the finish line long after my group of friends had finished.
The second time was at the Mount Diablo 50K in 2012, which would have been challenging enough even without the freak heat wave that sent temperatures soaring into the 90s on race day—that was touch-and-go, since I was dangerously close to overheating all day.
At the E.T. Full Moon Midnight Marathon in 2013, I twisted my ankle on a cattle guard at mile 17. Good times! Determined not to quit and leave Nevada with nothing to show for my visit to Area 51, I shuffled though another 9 miles with what felt like a sandbag for a foot.
And most recently, this year in Boston for whatever reason it just wasn’t my day—maybe it was the heat, maybe it was something else. But I was so lethargic by mile 18 that I started to think I wouldn’t have the energy to finish. Luckily, in each of these cases I was able to pull myself together and re-focus long enough to reach the finish. It wasn’t always pretty, but then again nothing is prettier than crossing the finish line!
GIVE A RACE A SHOUT-OUT – WHAT’S BEEN YOUR FAVORITE RACE, AND WHY?
This is probably the predictable answer, but that’s because it’s true—Boston is absolutely amazing. The race (now in it’s 120th year) is woven so indelibly into the fabric of the city that it’s unlike any other race you’ll ever experience. To have volunteers and non-runners thanking me for running their marathon… it gave me goosebumps. And since you can qualify either by the standard qualifying route (for faster runners) or by raising a minimum amount of money for charity (for slower runners), I’d say it’s a race every serious marathoner should run at least once in their lifetime.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Antarctica Marathon is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Like nowhere else I’ve been, Antarctica feels like a different world in almost every way—the sounds, the colors, the textures, all of it. Race-day temperatures were in the mid 20s, no colder than an average winter day in Chicago, but the real wild card in Antarctica is the wind, and we got lucky in that respect. But as (literally) cool as running beside penguins was, the real highlight of the trip was the opportunity to spend a couple of days exploring the area after the race. I memorialized our trip in two blog posts (here and here), for anyone who’d like to learn more about the Last Continent.
WE DO MORE THAN JUST RUN – SHARE SOMETHING NON-RUNNING RELATED ABOUT YOU.
More than run?? Just kidding… but to keep things running-related for a moment, Katie and I recently followed our passion to create a resource at RaceRaves.com that allows runners of all levels to discover, track & review thousands of races, from 5Ks to ultras—think of it as a Trip Advisor for races! The RaceRaves community is growing quickly, and we now feature reviews from all 50 states (+DC) and ~30 countries. I also love to write and keep a running blog at Blisters, Cramps & Heaves, where for better or worse I post some of the most detailed race recaps on the Interwebz.
I’m also a biologist and research scientist by training—I earned a BA in Biochemistry & Cell Biology from Rice University and a PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford University, before moving on to studying the development of the skeleton (bones, cartilage, joints) for nearly a decade. And I definitely bring my scientific mindset and understanding of physiology to my training as a runner!
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