Monday, October 13, 2008

10/5/08 Portland Marathon

The Portland Marathon was my very first post-sickness marathon, back in 2001. I've come to this race five times before this year, but I've never done that well. Refer back to my 2007 race report for a detailed history. The brief summary:

  • 2001: 4:04:04. First marathon, huge positive split, big struggle.

  • 2002: 4:49. I had not trained a step for months before the race.

  • 2003: 4:30. My third fastest marathon at the time (4:04, 4:25), but still without great training.

  • 2004: 4:10. Again, my third fastest (4:03, 4:04) with improved training. Although I was two months removed from a broken leg. Eeeks.

  • 2006: skipped to be a cancer buddy.

  • 2007: 4:55. Tried to help a friend run a 4:30. Whoops.

It was time to run a strong and smart marathon at Portland. Now, I must qualify this. With only about four weeks of solid training, Portland was not going to be a goal go-fast race. But I did want it to be a good step on the way - a step that would represent a marked improvement upon my prior times, and a step that would provide solid training value. And so, without extensive consideration of course factors, race day weather, or how I was feeling at the time, I knew what my goals needed to be: 1) run evenly, and 2) "beat 3:40". 3:40 represents my current benchmark time on a flat course with good weather. I wanted to beat it. And, oh by the way, Portland ain't flat.

Portland is an interesting course. Or, maybe it isn't. What I mean is that many people love Portland, and many people most emphatically do NOT love it. Those who don't like it much generally give long sections of the course big thumbs down for boredom. I dunno. It's true that I like the race partially out of sentimentality (or is it just "sentiment"?). But I really do think that the course is interesting. To spice it up, the organizers line the course with entertainment spots. Some of the bands are better than others, but almost all of them are good. And after doing the race six times, it's interesting to see which spots are the same year in and year out... and which ones have changed over time.

Briefly, the course consists of two loops: a roly poly 10k from downtown southwards and back, and then a 20 mile loop northwards. Actually, the 20 mile loop is a bit convoluted. M6-M11 is a pancake flat out-and-back through an industrial area. This is a section that people hate; I love it because seeing all the other runners, both faster and slower, is a huge thrill. After a couple mostly downhill miles through a neighborhood, the course starts the long (and this part IS boring) flat trek from M13 to the St Johns Bridge at M17. The approach up to the bridge is a steep incline, but it isn't very long. Then over the bridge and back towards downtown on the other side of the river. The elevation chart for the race has been wrong about this section for years; the chart implies a bunch of flat and then a downhill from M21 onwards. In reality, the course rolls a lot after the bridge, and then M19-M21 is a gentle uphill. Gentle but long. The promised downhill DOES materialize at M21... gravity carries you back towards downtown and the finish. Usually the course cuts over the Steel Bridge to the downtown side at M24.5. For some reason (construction, perhaps), this year's course cut over the Broadway Bridge at M24. Two miles back... a bit more gentle uphill... a right turn by "the fat lady", a left turn, and done. Easy peasy. Except for the Matterhorn-like hill at M16.5 the course is not overly challenging.

The race has also been blessed with great weather. It has rained once on the Portland Marathon in the last twenty years. And that year, 2000, it ended quickly. Talk about good luck. I'm certain that this is one of the reasons why I enjoy this race so much. I've run in some seriously terrible conditions all over the country. Never here.

Many races are quick-turnaround trips for me, but not Portland. I usually make a big weekend out of it. And that's what I did this year. I arrived (go Amtrak!) Friday evening just in time to pick up my packet and buy a pink coat at the expo. Then, sushi... the best race weekend meal ever. Way better than Taco Bell or Subway, my usual traveling pre-race meal venues. Saturday morning, I got up and ran about seven miles along the waterfront, over and under various bridges. Knowing that the Steel Bridge wouldn't be in this year's race, I touched it for luck... I always touch it for luck... during this training run. Then more shopping at the expo.

Saturday evening, I ate Italian with a big group of people. I almost never do this. I knew more folks than I thought I would, and I met some new ones. Conversations about different races and football. People asked each other about goals for the marathon. I kind of sandbagged my answer to that. At that point, my goal was "beat 3:40", but my stomach's status on race morning has a big effect on things, so I didn't want to say it outloud and tempt fate. I think I said "faster than 4, I hope". Which was accurate, really, just not exact.

I checked the weather forecast... partly cloudy, no chance of rain, and cool... and then it was time for bed. I never sleep well the night before a race... especially a race I've been looking forward to, like Portland. But I slept like a baby. And woke up exactly on time. Perfect!

Pop tarts? Check. Potty? Check. And then check again, heh. Pink? Check. Including my extra special pink Portland Marathon hat. And out to the start.

I got there just before the area got too crowded, and found my way to the 8:30/mile pace signs. As I was standing there, my friend Anne found me. We chatted briefly as the area started packing in the runners. This year, the organizers had changed to chip-embedded paper for timing. By looking at everyone else's feet, I realized that I had attached my paper tag chip thingy upside down (or inside out). Huh. Oh well.

The pace leaders showed up. Anne's plan was to stay between the 3:40 and 3:45 groups. I don't really like running with formal pace groups, but I was feeling really good. I decided I'd try to keep the 3:35 group in sight for as long as possible. I still wanted to run evenly, though, so this implied that my "beat 3:40" goal got adjusted slightly to "about 3:35". Fine. The starting area was getting sardine can crowded. Opera version of the National Anthem. Off we went. As one big group.

The first mile was a nice, easy cruise through downtown... past my second-favorite music stop: a drum line. It was excellent. I ran with Anne for a bit, and then another friend, Chris, caught me. By intentionally NOT zig-zagging around people, I knew my first mile would be somewhere in the 9:00 range. Then I wanted to settle into the 8:10-8:20ish area... although because the first 10k had lots of little hills, I wasn't too concerned about identical splits. Even effort.

Well, except for the potty stop at M5. Sigh. I had felt fine before the race started, I really had. And I ate the "right" stuff the day before. Guess I should have stuck with Taco Bell. Anyway, I spent the first five miles talking to Chris, but I bid him adieu and jumped into the little blue box.

My favorite section of the course is the out-and-back between about M6.5 and M11. As I started into this section, I recall quite clearly thinking to myself, "gray skies, but thankfully it isn't going to rain today." I made it to almost M8 before the leaders passed me going the other way. The women's leader was a well-known trail runner from Oregon, Kami Semick. She looked like she was out for an easy jog. She would go on to win the race. I said hello to the faster Maniacs... Maniac Bob for one... as they went by. Then I hit the turnaround and now I was one of the faster people going the other way. And this made me run a little bit faster.

Careful with that ax, Eugene. Speeding up too much had the potential for grave difficulty later. So I tried to tone it down. Several people passed in the opposite direction and tried to high five the guy in pink. Sometimes I executed the slap successfully. Sometimes I didn't. Ooops.

And then at M10, the rain started. I repeat: at M10, the rain started. What the heck? It never rains here. The forecast specifically said that it would not rain. But there it was. Light at first. Then heavier. Then lighter again. But it started raining at M10 of the Portland Marathon and it did not stop raining until sometime in the evening. Over two hours of running in the rain. Yippee.

Out of the out-and-back, through the neighborhood with lots of screaming spectators, and then into the truly boring section of the course. Normally it's boring, except that for three miles, runners are treated to a view of the St Johns Bridge looming way up high. This year it was simply boring; the bridge was obscured by low clouds and yucky rain.

I hit the halfway point at 1:47... just about where I wanted to be for an "about 3:35", especially factoring in my slight turbo-speed through the out-and-back. And somewhere around M15, I caught Chris. Interestingly, the 3:35 pace group had been... and was still... ahead of me this entire time, even though I was running slightly faster than a 3:35 pace. I started to see the ghost of the bridge up in the clouds.

It was time for the hill. In five prior Portland Marathons, I've only managed to run all the way up this hill once. And that run was one of those "I could probably walk this faster" shuffles. Not this year. I charged up the hill and over the bridge. Woohoo! I was definitely slower up the hill than I had been in prior miles, but I did alright. It was still raining, but it wasn't windy and it wasn't cold. Plus, I was headed back towards the finish now. Alright!

Somewhere around M19 is the belly dancer stop. The famous belly dancers. Close your eyes and picture a belly dancer. Nice, huh? The belly dancers in the Portland Marathon are probably not exactly what you pictured. They are nice. And they can dance. Perhaps because of the rain (or maybe they were on a break), this year they weren't numerous. Anyway, let's just say that there's a reason that they are called belly dancers. Shudder.

I could tell that I had lost a little bit of my pace going up the bridge hill, and it had not come back. Sure enough, I hit M20 at 2:45. This is usually a good predictor for a 3:35-3:40 finish... to make it closer to 3:35 than 3:40, I'd really need to focus. At least there was a nice downhill coming up.

Uh oh. Another potty issue. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick....

At M20.5, a spectator called out my name from the left side of the road. In my peripheral vision, I spotted Fast Maniac Extraordinaire Sean, who would win the Spokane Marathon 7 days later. Thanks, Sean! And then right after that, a familiar voice called me from the right side of the road. It was my friend Dr. Econo. Cool. Alas, quickly moving my head from left to right made me dizzy :-). At least I didn't need to potty again.

Headed downhill, my legs felt like they'd been beaten by a hammer. I did the best I could. Maniac Van caught me at M23. I managed to stay with her until the Broadway Bridge at M24, but then she pulled away. She would finish a couple minutes ahead of me. She had also run the Leavenworth Marathon the day before, and I had not. Go, Van.

Rain, rain, rain. After the downhill and the Broadway Bridge, the course was a gentle uphill to the finish. Nevertheless, my last three miles went 8:43, 8:21, 8:16. Cool.

Past the fat lady. The fat lady is a giant poster of a cartoon opera singer lady in the whole Viking motif. She's always accompanied by an opera soundtrack. Get it? The race must be close to over because the fat lady is singing. Last year, when I was running with my friend, I had played up the fat lady as a very big deal... and then when we ran by it, the fat lady wasn't singing. This year, she was.

And then I was done. I didn't notice whether they announced me or not. It was nice to feel like I had made an honest effort and had run a (mostly) smart race. I finished at 3:38. This means that I didn't quite make "about 3:35". 3:36 and 3:37 qualify as "about 3:35". 3:38 was a teensy bit slow. I managed a 1:47/1:51 split - not quite as even as I wanted, but not that bad. Way better than some races, and considering the bridge at M17, pretty good. Besides, 3:38 is my fastest time since May. Faster than my 3:40 two weeks ago on a much easier course. Pretty cool. Also a top 13% finish.

As I was eating a popsicle at the finish, in came my friend Anne. She wanted to beat 3:45, and I think she did... I know she qualified for Boston. Woohoo Anne!

Unfortunately, once I stopped running, I got super cold. Uncontrollable shivering. So I went back to my hotel room and changed. THEN I went back out onto the course to root on runners. I saw lots of people I know. It was very nice.

I love this race... and this year, I was pleased with my effort. Pizza and beer for dinner!

Next up: originally, I was going to take the next weekend off. But one of my friends from Spokane passed away recently. Coincidentally, the next weekend would be the Spokane Marathon. So I headed to Spokane.

Incidentally, I am already registered for next year's Portland Marathon. They reserve the first 100 numbers for elite runners. My assigned number is #113... so I was the 13th person to register for a race that will host 7500+ people. Alas, it is too bad I couldn't score my Maniac number, #111.

"Is ok".

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