Tuesday, October 16, 2007

10/07/07 Portland Marathon

The Portland Marathon is special. The 2001 Portland Marathon was my very first marathon. Twice after that, the Portland Marathon restarted me on running again when I had pretty much given up on the whole marathon scene. The funny thing about this is that I've never run Portland fast. In fact, I've done some dumb things there that I tell people not to do.

A quick list. In my first marathon, I made the key rookie mistake of going out too fast. I've done that many times since then, of course, but never with such dramatic effect. I hit the halfway point at 1:45. This matched my half-marathon race times from this same period. It is generally a bad idea to hit the halfway point saying "wow, I'm running this just like a half!" That lasted until about M16. I finished the second half in 2:19 - a full 34 minutes slower than the first half. Then I collapsed in a park, went somewhat catatonic, and didn't move for an hour or so. Visually, my finish time is cool: 4:04:04.

It would turn out that this 4:04, a race that I ran poorly, would remain my PR for quite some time. And why? Because I went through a period of a couple years where I honestly didn't train. I "ran" three marathons after my first Portland and then stopped running for the most part because my job took all my time. For some reason, I had registered for the 2002 Portland Marathon. I had not trained in seven months, but a couple of my friends were going to walk this race as their first (and only) marathon, so I decided to go too. I ran it. Well, I ran what I could, walked most of the rest, and limped some of it. 4:49. Yeeks.

But it was an interesting experience that taught me several things. For one, I learned my "floor". With no training, I completed a sub-4:50. I would never ever ever recommend this approach to anyone, and I should not have done it. It's a great way to do damage to your body. I did do it, though, and I did not die. With training, I knew I could do better. And this got me interested in running again!

I learned a second important thing after the 2002 Portland Marathon. I felt like complete crap after the race, but this didn't last. I was back to normal within a couple days. This was my first real hint that my body was "good" at handling recovery from running long distances.

Unfortunately, this renewed interest did not last that long. I ran a few more marathons in late 2002 and early 2003, but work continued to get in my way. I trained a bit through my March races... but then in late March, a death in the family and a root canal (yes, those are random unassociated things) completely derailed my running. I went to Alaska to run a race in June because I paid a ton of money for the trip, and I absolutely hated it. I was done with marathons.

Except that I had already registered for the 2003 Portland Marathon. Hmmm. I trained for a few weeks, and I went. And I ran a 4:30. By my current standards, that's a bad race. At the time, though... wow... it was one of my three fastest. I felt great... and once again I told myself that if I actually truly TRAINED, for more than a few weeks, I could beat that 4:04:04. I got interested in running again. This time it stuck.

And why? Well, for one, I ditched that job and went back to school. I had more time to train, and I had more time to travel. I did both. My times did not improve that much, except for a new 4:03 PR in Houston. Woohoo! In the rest of the races, I'd alternate between running a 4:20 and a 4:40. Back and forth. That 4:30 in Portland was right in the middle. But I stuck with it because it was fun.

Until I broke my leg in the middle of 2004. Whoops. It took me awhile to come back from that.

At the 2004 Portland Marathon, two very cool things happened. I was able to run "the hill" (I'll explain the hill in a bit) for the first time. And, out of nowhere, my 4:30ish times turned into a 4:10. Again, by my current standards, that's slow. But at the time, it was striking distance from the 4:04:04, the 4:03 PR, and the magic 4 hour mark. I was pumped.

2005 was really my breakthrough running year. I didn't run Portland, though. I tried a new race on the same day, in Victoria BC. It was great and I ran a 3:48. But it wasn't Portland.

In 2006, the cancer fairy paid a visit, and there was no racing in Portland.

Which finally brings me to 2007. I could have picked Portland to be my go-fast choice for this season, but instead I completed the Quadzilla on the previous weekend. My training for the mighty Quadzilla involved lots of volume and no speedwork. Plus afterwards, I was recovering from the whole 4-in-4-days thing... so, nope, no go-fast this year in Portland.

I did something better, though. I ran with a friend in her very first marathon. Chelsey is the tall one in the picture. She trained hard for Portland. She did all the right things. I had run a couple times with her, so I hoped I could offer some support and encouragement during the race. I wanted Portland to be as special to her as it had been to me for my first marathon.

Portland is a great race. It was once declared "the best organized marathon in America" by a now out-of-print book. While other marathons are at least as well organized, Portland still does a wonderful job. The vibe is perfect. And while lots of people run this race, it never feels too cramped.

I know several people who do not like the course. Their two basic complaints: a boring out-and-back section in the middle, and lots of industrial non-scenery miles. I agree that some of the non-scenery miles are kind of boring (and M14-M16 are completely grim), but it is hard to find 26.2 miles of jaw-dropping sights. As for the out-and-back, this happens to be my favorite part of the race. I love seeing the fast people go by, I like providing encouragement to all those folks behind me, and mostly I like being able to shout-out my friends no matter whether they are in front of me or behind me. On loop courses, I never see anyone I know except those very few people who are running my exact pace.

That said, Portland really *is* a loop course. Two loops, really. It starts and ends in downtown Portland. The first loop is a nice, roly poly six mile tour of downtown and the neighborhood to the south. M6 through about M12 is the out-and-back section dreaded by some, but loved by me. It is flat. M12 through M16 are the grim miles heading north towards the St John's Bridge. M16 through M17 is "the hill" heading up to the bridge. Runners cross the bridge and head back towards the city. M18 through M22 pass through great neighborhoods with tons of spectator support. This part of the course contains lots of uphill which oddly does not appear anywhere on the elevation chart. In 3 of my 4 Portland Marathons, these were known as the "curse miles". M22 starts a nice downhill all the way to the Steel Bridge and M25. This downhill is what gives Portland the reputation as a fast course. The hills before M22, especially "the hill" itself, are challenging, but this downhill comes at the best possible place on the course.

M25 to the end are somewhat uphill, but just barely. The spectator support towards the end is awesome, there's a great band waiting at M25.9, and then at M26.1, there's the fat lady. The fat lady is simply a big billboard of a stereotypical cartoon female opera singer in full-on Viking garb. The sign's lady is belting out opera. Point being, when you see this sign, the fat lady is singing, so you know you are done. HA. Alas, this year, the volume was cranked down and the fat lady wasn't nearly as impressive as years past. In any case, there's so much energy at the end that the barely-discernible uphill is quite fine. As opposed to, say, the end of the Seafair Marathon where the uphill is a killer.

How did our race go? As with every other year, the weather on race morning was very good. We got to the start early, which was important because the start was packed. Chelsey's goal was basically "about 4:30", and her training supported this. I thought she could do a little better.

BOOM. Off we went. Well, not really. We had lined up far enough back that it took five minutes to get to the line. And... off we went. Portland has pace groups, so we tucked in between the 4:15 and 4:30 group. The miles ticked by. I kept making conversation, partly because it was an interesting thing to do, and partly because it helped me judge how she was doing.

The first loop went great. We started into the out-and-back section at M6. Sure enough, I saw tons of people I know. Potty stop. At aid stations, I tried to run ahead and grab a drink for my friend so she could focus on running. We hit the turnaround at M9, and all was well. At M10, I saw a local (to Seattle) DJ heading the other way. He was at M7 and he already had the death stare going. It was going to be a bad day for Bob Rivers.

Around M11, Chelsey ate a hammer gel... which she had tried on practice runs.

A few minutes later she said, "I don't feel so well. We need to slow down."

Uh oh. The hammer gel wasn't agreeing with her. It passed after about 10 minutes, which was good... but it scared her from eating more hammer gel later. In fact, periodic stomach problems kept her from drinking the sportsdrink after that too. Which meant the next 15 miles would be water only. You can probably tell where this is headed. In retrospect, I can too.

We were tucked in with the 4:30 pace group as we passed the half (at 2:14) and headed into grim part of the course. "I really need to slow down." I remembered my first Portland Marathon. This is where my wheels fell off.

At that point, it was obvious that we had gone out too fast. I didn't tell her that it was going to get harder; she knew. We continued. We hit "the hill" at M16, and I challenged her to run as far up it as she could. We got about halfway up, which really impressed me. I made sure to tell her that the first THREE times I ran this race, I hadn't made it that far up the hill.

We walked about halfway across the St John's Bridge. Then we ran. Then we walked. She drank water because that was all that would stay down. I alternated between being quiet and telling stories to pass the time. I'm not sure which one was the better strategy :-).

There were some low points after M18, but we kept on going. We ran. We walked. We did not stop.

M20. "There's just a 10k left."

M21. "You've never run this far before. You are doing really well."

M22. "Let gravity help you down the hill."

M23. "Don't cry yet. The end will be emotional. Let's cry at the end. You are doing awesome." And she was.

M24. "Let's touch the Steel Bridge and try to run to mile 25."

M25. "This is it. Last mile. Notice everything around you."

M25.5. "Just five more lights, and we turn right to the finish."

M25.8. "Three more lights. We're there; you're doing great."

M26. "We're turning... this is it!"

M26.1. "There's the fat lady. Don't know why she's not singing."

I called out to the crowd of spectators, "Hey everyone, this is Chelsey's first marathon!" and everyone cheered for Chelsey. Her friends were there in the crowd to take a couple pictures.

M26.2. "We did it!"

4:56. (Ok, officially, 4:55:59).

Whew. We got something to eat and limped back to the hotel. Chelsey didn't want to eat anything, but she did anyway.

First marathons are especially tough. It's hard to choose an appropriate goal, and even with the best information, sometimes race days go awry. 4:30 was not in the cards, and we (and by that, I really mean *I*) took too long to realize it.

We did not stop, and we did not quit. Chelsey toughed it out. The medals for races like that are the really meaningful ones. It was outrageously hard, and she did it.

Go Chelsey.

Next up for Chelsey: uh, no marathons. For now. Heh.

Next up for me: It has come and gone. A double weekend in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

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