The marathon can humble you.
– Bill Rodgers
First and most important things first… HAPPY 40th BIRTHDAY, KRISTINA! Please consider this blog post my present to you, in the form of another fun place to take the family. Though with today being particularly busy, you should feel free to wait to read it until, say, 12:01am tomorrow…
Admittedly I‘m no connoisseur of marathon training programs, but I’d imagine very few recommend the following regimen for weeks 10-12 of a 16-week training cycle:
Unfortunately, thanks to a nasty ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon in August, this is exactly what my training Franken-program would look like leading up to the Portland Marathon last Sunday. Yes, I was acutely aware that cramming in 50-mile weeks was a risky remedy for two weeks on the couch. But I was equally determined not to go first-time marathoner, fizzling out at mile 20 and death-marching my way across the finish line.
After my first four races this year alternated among rain, snow, ice, extreme heat and darkness – along with a healthy dose of hillage – I was looking forward to my first legitimate opportunity of 2013 to get out and run. And Portland would be just what this doctor ordered: a largely – though as I’d soon learn, not entirely – flat course under cool, sunny skies. In fact, Portland would be the coolest running weather I’d experienced since moving to L.A. from the Bay Area in April. So I was hoping that a summer’s worth of heat training would give me a literal leg up toward a new PR in the Pacific Northwest. Turns out I really should pay attention to course maps before the race.
I chose Portland as my autumn road marathon for two reasons: 1) Katie and I hadn’t visited the Rose City in over a decade and were eager to return; and 2) Fellow running blogger (runnogger?) Dan, whose goal is to run a half marathon or farther in all 50 states, had chosen this year’s Portland Marathon as his Oregon race. Dan and I first met after he found my Chicago Marathon post last October, and his blog quickly became a must-read thanks to its fluid style and narrative knack for making the reader feel like a strategic third eye in the middle of his forehead. Though our physical paths had never crossed (not counting the 2011 Austin Half Marathon, where we apparently finished 72 seconds apart), over the past year I’d watched him morph from 3:30:00 wannabe into hardcore ultrarunner whose no-joke marathon PR of 3:23:12 I now find myself chasing from a distance.
Dan and his buddy Otter (whose self-deprecating blog chronicles his own entertaining path to ultrarunning enlightenment) would be tackling Portland as the back end of their own personal gut check: back-to-back marathons. On consecutive days. In neighboring states. After running the Leavenworth Oktoberfest Marathon in Washington on Saturday, they would be driving five hours to knock out another 26.2 in Portland on Sunday. Like me, Dan’s most recent race had been truncated by injury, so I was psyched when he texted me shortly after noon on Saturday to say “3:57 for the first one. Tomorrow should be… interesting.” How prophetic he was.
We arrived in Portland on Friday afternoon. As we settled back for the 38-minute light rail ride from the airport to our downtown hotel, what struck me was the number of trees and the sheer amount of greenery (and autumn orangery, pinkery, and goldery) that lined our route. Not your typical urban train ride. A short time later, wheeling our luggage along city blocks that looked like they’d been washed down with a fire hose, my lungs filled with the crisp, newly scrubbed air that follows a good cry from Mother Nature.
Although Portlanders and Seattleites will argue over whose city gets more rain, Portland’s reputation as one of the soggier cities in the country is well-earned. Case in point, the week before our arrival saw the city buffeted by the tail end of a Pacific Typhoon that led more than one local to tell us how lucky we were “not to be here last week”. Portland is a very green city, and a beautiful place when the sun shines (as it would for us all weekend)… but with great greenery comes great precipitation. Such is life in the Pacific Northwest.
Even if I’d had no race the next day, Saturday alone would almost have justified our trip. The day began with a relaxed 3-mile run north along the western banks of the Willamette River (a friend now living in Portland reminded us that when in doubt of the river’s pronunciation, it’s the Willamette, damn it!). As I passed the Portland Saturday Market, the spirited sounds of weekend gaiety and the smoky smells of char-grilling billowed from an eclectic collection of white tents. The law of conservation of energy was on clear display in the sun-dappled park, with restless children chasing and giving chase while drowsy adults lay sprawled out on the grass in full repose.
After lunch we hit the bustling race expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton. With its red velvet stanchions and awkwardly slanted floors, the venue felt like a low-budget amusement park ride. Sponsor booths, which were confusedly distributed among two rooms and a hallway, featured the usual combination of high-profile brands and less established companies. But the hands-down highlight was the opportunity to meet running legend Bill Rodgers. The line at Rodgers’ table was surprisingly short, and we chatted for a couple of minutes before he signed my copy of his new memoir, Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World (based on the title, I’m halfway there!). He also recommended former teammate Alberto Salazar’s own autobiography.
The second highlight of the day would come that evening, as fellow Antarctica travelers Donn and Rod hosted us and several other guests at their beautiful floating home on the Willamette River. Rod’s veggie lasagne was carbo-perfect, the camaraderie was excellent, and we spent much of the evening admiring the view of the river from their gently swaying deck. Donn recounted their first morning in the house, when he’d glanced out the window to see a seal feasting on a salmon, followed by two bald eagles swooping in to scavenge the leftovers. By the time he dropped us off at our hotel, I felt rested and ready to leave my non-carbon footprints all over this city.
Sunday morning’s alarm rudely interrupted our sixth hour of sleep. Pulling back the curtains on a still-darkened and slumbering city, I dressed and prepared my standard pre-race meal, an easily digestible mush of granola, peanut butter and almond milk yogurt. Contrary to conventional wisdom, my rapid metabolism compels me to eat no earlier than an hour before the starting gun, so I don’t burn through my glycogen stores by mile 10. Legs feel good, feet feel good… race day adrenaline gradually kicked in as we made our way through the nascent twilight toward Lownsdale Square, where the start line awaited.
On this day Portland would be honoring those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. I was relieved, then, to see no overt indicators of beefed-up security as we made our way through the throngs toward corral A. Kudos to the organizers for recognizing that you can’t police random acts of hatred without sacrificing a whole lot else.
It struck me how long it had been since I’d seen race-day weather like this: clear skies and a starting temperature in the low 40s. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need to reference the warning signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke listed on the back of my oversized race bib.
Finally 7:00a.m. arrived. After a moment of silence in remembrance of Boston, the assembled runners joined together in an a capella singing of the national anthem, followed over the PA system by a few bars of “Sweet Caroline,” again in tribute to Boston (I’d be sporting my own “I Run For Boston” shirt). Then my good buddy Bill Rodgers counted us down to zero, the crowd surged forward, and the streets of Portland beckoned.
Taking care not to fire out of the gate too quickly, I fell in with the 3:25:00 pace group and reached the mile 1 marker in a disappointing 8:16, already 33 seconds behind last year’s Chicago PR pace (an eventual 3:28:45 finish). I resolved to stick with the 3:25 group for as long as possible – if I could stay between the 3:25 and 3:30 pacers (and preferably closer to 3:25) from start to finish, I’d be a happy running man. This would be the first time I’d chosen to fall in with a pace group so early in a race.
Within the first mile, a female punk band supported on a platform over the street provided our first musical entertainment. The next few miles along the waterfront then featured, in rapid succession, an amusingly diverse collection of incongruent acts: a female singer/guitarist, solo harpist, honky-tonk bluegrass band, pan flutist and some sort of wind chimes which I thought might segue into “Silver Bells”. Apparently unimpressed by this latter selection, the fellow next to me shouted “Play ‘Eye of the Tiger’!” Ah, what highly trained creatures of habit we are.
Inspirational or not, the music in the first three miles distracted from the course’s steady uphill trajectory between miles 1 and 3. I retreated into my own head for the early stages of the race, mentally ticking off each muscle group in turn to ensure we were all on the same page. After that I focused on a game of “Name That Shoe,” as I tested my knowledge by guessing the brand – and in some cases the model – of shoe being worn by those around me: So those are the Brooks PureProject line, but PureFlow or PureCadence? I think that color scheme is only offered for the PureFlow… and the Brooks logo on top of the upper tells me PureFlow 2, second generation. The early “get-through-em” miles of a marathon can be kinda boring.
After a 4-mile out-and-back hairpin loop through a typically urban mix of residential and commercial neighborhoods, we hugged the downtown waterfront for another mile before entering the least inspiring section of the course, another out-and-back through the train yards and industrial wasteland along Front Avenue. But for me, Front Avenue turned out to be the most eventful section of the course.
First, it was along this stretch that Dan and I met, offering quick words of recognition and encouragement as we headed in opposite directions. This was more challenging than it sounds, since the southeast-facing “back” segment I was running faced directly into a blinding sun. As seen through sunglasses, runners approaching from the other direction were nebulous silhouettes, leading me to run with sunglasses in hand as I squinted into the steady stream of oncoming runners. Fortunately Dan and I spotted each other around mile 10, as he looked to be well on his way to his second sub-4:00 marathon in 24 hours. Nothing seemed more appropriate at that moment than two marathoners meeting for the first time mid-race and in mid-stride.
I kept an eye out for Otter as well, but not knowing his pace or what he was wearing, I’d have to wait to meet him at the finish. Shortly after seeing Dan, we passed a loudspeaker blasting REM’s “Losing My Religion,” which despite being a catchy song did little for my motivation with its plaintive refrain of “Trying to keep, up, with you… and I don’t know if I can do it….”
But my gold star for “Worst Premeditated Idea” goes to the idiots in the pirate costumes, who apparently decided – with Boston still fresh on everyone’s mind – that firing off a cannon was a totally awesome way to show their support for the runners. As the blast exploded, runners around me momentarily broke stride before seeing the setup ahead and angrily realizing what had happened. Too bad we had no plank handy for those pirates to walk.
Thanks to the train tracks that regularly cross the course along Front Avenue, I found myself flashing back to my recent ankle sprain at the E.T. Midnight Marathon and monitoring my footing closely. On the bright side, any distraction (other than warring pirates) along this stretch of industrial nothingness was much appreciated.
Just before the mile 11 turnoff on to NW 17th Avenue, we passed one of Portland’s many (or so I hear) gentlemen’s clubs. Some useful trivia for those looking to plan a bachelor party for a hippie buddy: With its “live and let live” attitude and sketchy past, Portland boasts more strip clubs per capita than Las Vegas. And if I hadn’t been glancing around trying to distract myself at that moment, I probably would’ve missed the amusing sign advertising “hardwood” on the building next door to the strip club. If we weren’t all adults here, I’d compliment Portland on its sly sense of humor.
Still feeling strong and with the Front Avenue out-and-back now thankfully out of the way, I scored a momentary burst of adrenaline upon seeing Katie for (already) the third time at mile 11.5. We passed the midway point at mile 13.1 without fanfare and transitioned on to the spectator-free shoulder of busy NW St. Helens Road, where Smart cars, hybrids and a smattering of fossil fuel guzzlers zoomed by on our right. Three miles later I paused at the mile 15.5 aid station to spill a cup of Ultima Replenisher on myself (about half made it into my mouth) before setting off again in pursuit of the 3:25 pace group, which was slowly creeping ahead.
The course then veered left past a “Checkpoint Charlie” overseen by marines in uniform. Here began the toughest and most noticeable ascent of the day, a slow ½-mile burn up to the St. John’s Bridge. Pushing uphill as hard as I dared without risking a flame-out, I reached the roadbed of the St. John’s Bridge with the 3:25 pacers still in my sights about 25 yards ahead. The bridge provided a much-needed respite as my hill-addled legs tried to recover from the brief but taxing climb. And there I was able to appreciate the highlight of the course, a stunning panoramic view of Mt. Hood in the distance.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Although I wouldn’t realize it until after the race, the hills had taken enough out of my legs that mile 16 (at 7:52/mile) would be my final sub-8:00 mile of the day. Not coincidentally, as we reached the eastern (opposite) side of the St. John’s Bridge, I glanced up to see the 3:25 pace group gradually… pulling… away. In that moment, I felt strong enough to convince myself that as long as I maintained my current pace, I might still be able to gain back some ground in mile 23 or 24. And even if I didn’t catch them (a more likely scenario), I’d still set myself up for a 3:27-ish finish, which would send me home from Portland with a nice PR.
As we descended from the bridge on to Willamette Blvd, we re-entered the spectator zone where onlookers were once again vocalizing their much-appreciated support. And though I paid little attention to the signage along the course, the crowds at Portland left a lasting impression for one reason: their unfailing ability to pronounce my last name correctly. With my last name printed on my bib, I heard it included in shouts of support at least a half-dozen times. It really is easy to pronounce – So-has-key – but newcomers almost always insist on throwing a “z” or “j” into the mix. Yet with just a fleeting glance at my bib, the Portland literati nailed it time and time again. At one point I trailed a runner with “Mike” printed on his bib, so I’d hear frequent cries of “Yeah, Mike!”, “Go Mike!” and “Looking good, Mike!” along with the sporadic cheer of “Go Sohaskey!” These people love me! I hallucinated. It was like I’d brought my own cheering section… which I had, except she was now waiting at the finish line.
The 6.5 miles after the bridge began with more tree-lined neighborhoods and led us down the eastern side of the Willamette, with occasional glimpses of the Portland skyline (unobscured by clouds!) visible across the river.
Throughout the race I kept reminding myself to smile, stay positive and do whatever I could to reduce my all-important perceived effort. And I kept returning to one simple mantra: Just run. Time to tackle another uphill? Just run. Hit an energy lull at mile 15? Just run. 3:25 pacer fading in the distance? Just run. Boneheads in pirate gear firing off a cannon in my ear? Freak out momentarily… then just run. This mantra proved particularly helpful in the last six miles, as the world around me began to look more and more like a casting call for The Walking Dead. Runners in front of me suddenly stopped running and started walking. Several more pulled over to the side of the road to nurse cramps. And still others trudged along wearily at a non-quite-running/not-quite-walking pace, eyes cast downward as though burdened with a lead brick around their neck.
Just run rhymes with Just fun.
Sometime around mile 20, when I could have used a raucous blast of three-chord distorted guitar, what I got instead was a lounge-style smooth jazz ensemble that made me want to curl up and take a nap. I half-expected a cocktail waitress in Sauconys to pull up alongside me and offer me a martini. As much as I appreciate a good saxophone solo in the right place and at the right time, this was neither. Nearly three hours after I’d scoffed at the same request, this was “Eye of the Tiger” time.
Although my nutritional reserves weren’t noticeably dwindling, I paused at the mile 21 aid station to force down some Ultima and an Accel Gel, my first solid fuel of the race. As my legs and hips slowly ossified, I wanted to ensure I’d have enough energy to maintain – if not increase – my pace over the last five miles.
And the last five miles felt surprisingly good. Like a trip down memory lane, miles 23 and 24 led us through one last industrial stretch alongside one last series of train tracks. We then looped around and crossed back over the Willamette River on the Broadway Bridge, which looked to have been constructed from a Paul Bunyan-sized Erector Set. Returning the way we’d come along the waterfront, I barely registered the final aid station as I turned away from the river, waved to Katie one last time and fired down those final 385 yards to the finish line. My stride still felt stable, and despite not having seen the 3:25 pacer in nearly 8 miles, I felt confident a PR was within reach…
… until I made one final left turn on to 3rd Avenue. “3:30:17” read the finish line clock matter-of-factly as I entered the home stretch. Crossing the blue and red finish line mat, I heard my name announced over the PA system (another perfect pronunciation!) and glanced down at my Garmin for the first time. 3:30:28. Dumbly accepting my medal from one of the day’s many fantastic volunteers, my mind was already grinding away in search of answers. How had I finished more than five minutes behind the 3:25 pace group? And more stupefying than that, how had I finished behind a 3:30 pace group which I was almost certain had never passed me??
Absent-mindedly I accepted a white rose and mylar heat sheet from two cheerful volunteers, before turning back toward the finish in search of the 3:30 pace group. Sure enough, moments later I saw the “3:30” red lizard sign (all pace groups carried red lizard placards showing their target finish times) enter the finish chute.
Son of a @%*$#!
True, I had no way of knowing how far ahead the 3:25 pacer had finished. But I’m accustomed to pacers finishing a minute or two ahead of their projected time, to ensure that all runners in their group meet their individual time goals. And based on where I positioned myself in corral A, I don’t see how I could have crossed the start line that far ahead of Team 3:30.
So as I chugged a pint of chocolate milk and gnawed away at an orange slice, I was a bit dazed and a lot disap-pointed. Not only hadn’t I scored a PR, I hadn’t broken 3:30. Apparently I should revise my mantra to Just run faster.
But life – and more to the point, traffic in the finish chute – goes on, and riding the wave of triumphantly exhausted runners, I turned my attention to finding Katie. Before I could reach her though, volunteers handed me 1) two small velvet pouches containing a finisher’s coin and mini-me pendant version of the finisher’s medal; 2) an eye-catching long sleeve baby blue and gold finisher’s shirt; and 3) a tree seedling I politely declined, having left my third hand back in the hotel room. I wondered how much of Portland’s verdure had been planted by zealous marathon finishers.
As I hobbled through the finish chute, one of the friendly volunteer florists obliged my request for a red rose, which I shared with my all-in-one support crew/cheering section/race photographer. As always, Katie the Ubiquitous had seen me off at the start, beaten me to the finish and cheered me on at several points in between…. all while capturing some pretty sweet shots of the action. In fact, she took several impressive photos of Dan at mile 11.5… before she’d ever met him. And as I wearily admired the deep red petals perched atop a long supple stem, it occurred to me that not every rose has its thorn.
After reuniting with Katie, we circled back to watch Dan complete his second sub-4:00 marathon of the weekend and check off Oregon as state 34 on his 50-states running tour (compared to the fifth state on my own less strategic tour). With Otter still en route, the three of us convened at Portland Brewery’s “26.3 Mile Gathering Place,” a grassy street corner nearby. There we relaxed on the grass, the late-morning sun warming us as we happily sipped local brews and compared notes.
With so many people now wearing their blue and gold finisher’s shirt, the area looked like a convention of Boston Marathon wannabes, myself included. Otter was all smiles when he joined us, and though his second marathon of the weekend had hit a few more rough patches than Dan’s, he’d earned his medal like everyone else. And his ills were nothing an IPA or two couldn’t smooth over.
After following Dan’s Marathon for the past year and Otter’s I Drank For Miles in recent months, and after seeing so many photos from so many places, I got a kick out of finally matching voices to faces and personalities to blog posts. And at 6’0”, it was one of the few times I’ve ever felt legitimately short. Congrats to both of them on an amazing athletic feat… on amazing athletic feet. I do relish the mind games of running, and theirs is an accomplishment that’s just crazy enough to have set my own mental gears in motion.
That evening we continued the celebration over a satisfying dinner at Deschutes Brewery & Public House in the Pearl District of Portland. Both conversation and drinks flowed easily, as though among old friends who simply hadn’t seen each other in a while. The discussion centered around all things running, but it didn’t stop there, and I was reminded that runners are some of the most genuine and sociable people you’d ever want to meet. My head hit the pillow that night wishing I’d had more time to get to know these guys. Hopefully I’ll have that chance – and in the meantime, I’ll keep reading to see what crazy shit they talk each other into next.
Once I’d had a chance to ice my legs and clear my mind, I had to admit – the weekend had come up roses. Portland lived up to its reputation as a clean, green progressive machine. The city had admirably hosted a marathon that, while not exactly scenic, provided a solid urban challenge. And despite a two-week training hiatus, I’d run my second-fastest marathon on a relatively hilly course, and learned a valuable lesson about relying on pacers (i.e. don’t do it).
When I wasn’t running, we’d reunited with old friends and rendezvoused with new ones. I’d met a bigger-than-life yet decidedly down-to-earth icon whose name is synonymous with American distance running. And in a town maybe best known for its persistent precipitation, we hadn’t once opened our umbrella.
All told, I’d call it a pretty successful weekend along the Willamette, damn it.
BOTTOM LINE: Portland is a beautiful city when the sun is shining. And while October isn’t the driest month in the Pacific Northwest, Les Smith claimed in his October Newsletter and Pre-Event Instructions that only once in his 33 years as Race Director had it rained on race day. So chances are good you’ll get as lucky as we did. I’d like to run every race Oregon has to offer, since much of the state is a trail runner’s paradise… but if road running is more your forte, I’d recommend Portland as a worthwhile urban footrace. And I’d recommend you not underestimate those harmless-looking hills on the course map.
PRODUCTION: Overall, the Portland Marathon was well organized and well executed. For the most part, I enjoyed marathon weekend and my 3 hour 30 minute tour of the city. The race medal is stylish (see below) in a “military service medal” sort of way, and the inclusion of two race shirts – one for registrants and another for finishers, both attractive, high-quality offerings from Leslie Jordan – was a very nice touch. That said, I’d suggest a few changes to make the weekend even better:
First, the out-and-back through the train yards along NW Front Avenue is an uninspiring eyesore, a reaction I heard from several runners after the race. In a city as green and picturesque as Portland, it’s unclear (aside from convenience) why the organizers settled on this 4½-mile stretch of industrial badlands.
Second, the aid stations in Portland featured gummy bears as their primary source of carbs. Yes, gummy bears – a great choice if my 5-year-old nephew is running your race. Unfortunately, it’s not like you can pop a gummy bear in your mouth and let it dissolve over the next ½ mile. It’s hard enough for many runners to stomach energy gels, let alone a tiny pencil eraser. And the last thing anyone needs at mile 20 of a marathon is a snack food that fights back. So please Portland, talk to the folks at Gu, or Clif, or PowerBar, or Accel Gel, or Stinger, or any of a hundred honey companies before next year’s race.
One last on-course item: this isn’t a big deal for me since I always judge mileage by the twitter (not Twitter) of my Garmin, but the mileage markers were consistently short for most of the course. One surprised runner asked, as we passed the mile 1 marker, “How far is this marathon?” Only in the last five miles or so did the markers more or less sync with my Garmin.
Swag-wise, the two t-shirts and finisher’s medal are nice keepsakes, but I’m less sold on the finisher’s coin and mini-me medal. While I appreciate the sentiment, I certainly don’t need more stuff, and I’m quite sure I’ll never again open those velvet pouches.
And finally the expo, held in the basement of the Portland Hilton, was organized (or disorganized, as it were) in a convoluted maze of rooms that made the whole thing difficult to negotiate. I was never quite sure which aisles I’d already strolled and which booths I’d already passed. In the end though (or was it the beginning?), the circuitous route was worth navigating for the chance to meet Bill Rodgers.
October 6, 2013
26.3 miles in Portland, OR (State 5 of 50)
Finish time & pace: 3:30:27 (first time running the Portland Marathon), 8:02/mile
Finish place: 610/6958 overall, 77/524 in M(40-44) age group
Race weather: sunny and cool (starting temp 39°F), with an intermittent breeze
Elevation change (Garmin Connect): 728ft ascent, 742ft descent (compared to 121ft, 119ft at Chicago)