Most marathons don’t allow their runners to get much sleep the night before. The typical race starts between 6 and 8 in the morning, which has us eating our ritualistic pre-race meals between 4 and 6. If we want to give ourselves some time to wake up before eating, then we’re setting our alarm clocks between 3 and 5. If you’re anything like me, then you can’t go to sleep before 11 PM anyway, which sometimes means just four hours of shuteye before the big day kicks off.
But when you run a marathon the day before, then your body completely shuts down by 9 o’clock.
Because of this, I woke up on Sunday, October 6 feeling blissfully refreshed, as if I had slept for days on a bed made of unicorn hairs. But the minute I moved, I could feel the rust creaking off my joints in little red tufts. The five-hour drive from the Leavenworth Marathon to Portland the day before had done my post-race recovery efforts no favors and I felt like a machine that hadn’t been used in decades. But it was too late to do anything about it, so like clockwork, Otter and I got into race mode, eating the exact same breakfast as the day before.
Portland Marathon Course Map (Google Earth)
The day began in a sort of haze. Yesterday we were admiring the beauty of the mountains all around us, taking in each white peak adoringly, excited to run, happy to be alive. But as we prepared for the 2013 Portland Marathon, we were reticent, focused and very stiff. We parked in a garage downtown and walked to the start line, barely stopping to take any pictures. Even in our corral we hadn’t even run in place yet just to see how it would feel. We were resigned to run but didn’t want to do any more than necessary. It was all business.
After a very emotionally stirring national anthem sung by the running crowd of thousands without music, Boston Marathon champion and American running legend Bill Rodgers sent us on our way.
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch-ouch-ouch …
It felt as if a demented doctor had replaced my right Achilles tendon with a shorter one overnight. Every time I pushed off my right foot, I felt a strain on it. I briefly considered changing my stride but opted to just tolerate the ache for the time being. Otter vocalized his own discomfort by laughing and simply acknowledging the crazy thing we were doing for what it was: lunacy. We stuck together for the first 5k, which started out flat, ushering us out of the city through Chinatown, but later climbed consistently for a good two miles.
Fortunately, we didn’t focus too much on the hills because that first 5k was flush with entertainment. In the span of twenty minutes, we saw a female-led rock band suspended on a crane, a children’s handbell ensemble, a bluegrass band, a solo Celtic harpist, a dreadlocked acoustic guitarist, a Peruvian flute band, more than one drumline and a group playing marimbas on a pedestrian overpass. And those are just the acts I remember. The sheer variety and number of performers was staggering.
Start and Finish Area (Google Earth)
“I’m going to kill this downhill,” I told Otter as we reached a turnaround just before 5K. He gave me his blessing and I sped around it at what felt like a 45-degree angle. I looked at my watch and saw that I was running at a 6:52 pace, as if releasing the pent-up moderation from yesterday’s 10-mile downhill. It would have been so easy to kick down that portion unrestrained, but I had kept myself in check. Today I was hungry and I gave into that primal urge to fly, soon overtaking the large 3:55 pace group.
The course flattened quickly and I returned to a stable pace. My lungs were fine, my breathing was controlled and relaxed, but my legs were still very acidic. Ignoring the aches was proving difficult, but I had no choice. Either I push through it and continue my sub-4 streak or groan my way through an unpleasant race. About a mile later, every single person around me uttered a loud, collective groan. I was so focused on my body, dialed into every electric response that I didn’t notice that the path ahead was getting cut off by a train.
It wasn’t a hallucination. The striped signals were down, red lights were flashing and volunteers had brought in a large, orange mesh fence to stop the torrent of people coming at them. While many runners looked indignant, scoffing loudly and craning their necks to the sky, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was just a passenger train, so it only slowed us down by a minute, tops. Had this been a freight train, I would have joined the outrage. Once it was past the intersection (and literally not a second later), everyone scrambled under the gate and tried to catch up with their non-train selves.
I foresee a future tagline: Train to Beat the Train (Google Earth)
The next part of the race was the worst. We were on a paved road that ran between an industrial park and a train yard. Soon the four lanes bottlenecked into what felt like two. Aid stations became somewhat claustrophobic, there were few bands to speak of, and we had nothing pretty to look at except for distant hills experiencing the advent of fall. My legs weren’t doing any better and by this point the race was starting to feel like a controlled bonk. But there was a bizarre silver lining to this: had this been any other race, I’d feel nervous or downright awful at how much I was struggling so early. But this time, I knew why I was tired. I could point to the reason so really, my expectations were lining up.
Exactly how I derived some sense of optimism from that, I still don’t know.
At some point between seeing the 3:25 and 3:30 pace groups on their way back, I saw Mike. I found his blog almost exactly a year ago, drawn to his keen eye for detail, elevated diction, and the reverent way in which he described his Chicago Marathon experience. Since then, we’ve been regular readers of each other’s racing exploits. We exchanged a quick hello before continuing on our ways. I reached the end of this awful gray out-and-back and turned straight into the sun. I took my sunglasses, which had fogged up by the first mile, and wiped them with my shirt. I put them on to find that I had just distributed sweat in thick, opaque streaks. While it was better than my other option, blindness, my sight was limited to just bobbing silhouettes ahead of me.
I somehow saw Otter to my left, running towards the turnaround. He told me he was thinking it would be a 4:30 – 4:45 race for him. I joked that we had just passed mile 35 and he chuckled, but later admitted to me that it took him a few seconds to understand what I meant. I guess I wasn’t the only one slightly out of sorts.
The marathon split from the half around mile 11. In almost every single case where there’s a half marathon option, the vast majority of spots are dedicated to it, leaving the marathoners to run a lonely second half. In Portland, the exact opposite happened. In fact, when the half marathoners abandoned us, I barely noticed a difference.
It looks boring on Google Earth, it’s even worse in reality. (Google Earth)
I couldn’t wait to leave the trainyard, so I was willing to forgive the gently rolling hills we ran from miles 11 through 14. We eventually returned to the Willamette River, where the course flattened out. I saw a large green suspension bridge on the horizon as I passed 25k. In the last eight miles, I had somehow gotten stronger; as if I needed the last 15 miles to truly warm up. Running wasn’t getting any easier, but I was no longer feeling tiny sears of pain with every step. We had been told that the first miles would be the worst, but I never thought it would take this many. I actually managed to smile during this section, wondering if this race would pan out like Bruce Willis’ character in Unbreakable or the incredibly convenient material “unobtainium” from The Core (not Avatar), both of which got stronger with additional pressure. With this newfound vigor, I picked up the pace just a little.
Mile 11, picture courtesy of Katie
But my hopes of invincibility were dashed when I realized that we would be crossing the river on that giant suspension bridge. The road dodged left and immediately sloped upward, a group of marines stationed at the bottom to provide the necessary motivation. During that long climb, I could have taken a walk break to enjoy a wall of trees in varying shades of fiery reds and burnt oranges. But instead, I kept my head down and heaved upward.
Don’t bonk until 30k, I was telling myself. You can bonk at 30k if you want, but get there first.
I had to change gears midway up the hill, breathing more per turnover to keep from exhausting myself. It was tempting to walk, especially as I saw every other runner around me stop to recover. It might have been smart to stop and walk, but I refused. I kept running until I reached the top of the hill and made a sharp right onto the St. Johns Bridge. I was breathing through my teeth as I reached the top of its barely perceptible arch, letting the downhill carry me past many runners. Somewhere on the bridge, I realized that my Achilles was no longer hurting. I really was getting stronger.
The St. Johns Bridge (Google Earth)
But over the next four miles that strength would once again be tested. We were running through neighborhoods overlooking the Willamette River, the city of Portland far away on the opposite shore. Had I taken the time to examine the race’s altitude chart, I would have known that a gradual uphill would throttle my legs over the next four miles. I passed 30k feeling relatively fine, but every time I looked ahead, after every turn, I wasn’t rewarded with the end of this climb. Like the St. John’s Bridge, the slope was barely there – just enough to make you feel a little weaker with every mile, as if with each step the race was slowly leeching its runners.
Get to 35k, I thought. Once you get to 35k, you can bonk.
The lead-up to the St. Johns Bridge (Google Streetview)
I had started to sweat a lot more. All morning it had been foggy and cool, with a frosty breeze sliding under my shoulders. The chill kept me from abandoning my long-sleeved shirt. But the sun had been lording over us for almost two hours now and the uphill had started to sponge all the energy out of me (and I thought the Pacific Northwest was supposed to be perennially cloudy). I would have tossed the shirt, but it was from a race I ran in 2009 and sentimental attachment kept me from shedding it.
The crowds were out now, with signs bobbing on sidewalks and strangers supporting indiscriminately.
“You guys look great!” a woman said to my left. “You look like you’ve done this before!”
“I have. Yesterday.”
She and several people around her laughed at me, but I don’t know if they quite understood what I meant. They most likely disregarded my comment as the raving madness that consumes you in the throes of a long-distance race. Onwards and upwards I continued until I reached the top of the climb right at 35k. The Willamette River beckoned me at the end of a delightfully long downhill, the weight of the earth and the 48 miles in my legs all but shoving me downward. Aided by this pull, I reached the 3:45 pace group. I tried to lock myself in with their pace only to watch them slowly pull away.
Get to 40k. You can bonk at 40k. You can bonk at … bonk at … bonk …
Runners approaching the finish line
And then it happened. The sack of bricks that hovers over every runner, held in place by a thread that thins with every mile until it is just a tiny filament, finally became too heavy. I reached mile 23 and stopped running. My head slumped and my hands slid to my waist as I reached complete exhaustion. The time bomb had gone off, my legs were flooded with cement and the long march began. For the next two miles, I would run to the nearest mile marker, and then take a walking break. I kept up a sluggish pace until mile 24, where a circular onramp guided us across the Broadway Bridge and back into the heart of the city. While I felt like I was running uphill, I’m sure that I could have walked faster. I was a sad sight.
Once back in the city, there was little to do but just keep moving forward. Unless a sinkhole were to eat me up, I was all but guaranteed to finish under four hours. I had no other time goals, so there was no real point in speeding up. But I didn’t want this weekend to end with a crawl. I took one last sip of Ultima sports drink at an aid station that couldn’t have been more than four blocks away from the finish – placed to help runners around mile 1 – and took off. Before the final turn, I heard someone call out my name and turned to see Mike and his wife Katie beyond the barricades with a camera.
I look delirious. Picture courtesy of Katie.
After one last turn onto 3rd Avenue, I made it to the finish line in 3:48 and change. There was no glorious moment of triumph, no tears of relief or even a primal scream to the heavens. I simply turned off my watch and basked in the satisfaction of a challenge completed. My sense of accomplishment, and to a significant degree, my pride had both been hurt by my withdrawal from the North Country Run last month. As often as I told myself that I had done the right thing, it still stung to put so much effort into something and not see it through to the end. Reaching the finish line in Portland and running 52.4 miles in two days was not only a return to form, but a vindication of my decision to call it quits in Michigan’s forests. It wasn’t until I held that medal, which wouldn’t look out of place on a decorated soldier’s uniform, that everything was finally okay.
The finishers chute looked more like a smuggler’s bazaar than the usual smorgasbord of carb-heavy foods. Friendly volunteers were handing out the expected bananas and oranges, but past them I was given two velvet pouches, one with a coin and the other with a pendant-sized replica of the medal. I kept walking and was offered a rose by another cheerful volunteer, symbolizing Portland’s nickname, the City of Roses. Finally, just when I thought I had seen everything, another volunteer offered me a potted tree. I was half expecting someone to offer me a live chicken at the next table.
This is so Portland, the recurring sentiment played out in my head.
The 2013 Portland Marathon Medal, front and back
I left the race and hobbled to the 26.3-mile post-race party, where I sipped on a local IPA and met the man behind Blisters, Cramps & Heaves and his wife / race crew / photographer Katie, who impressively managed to get some excellent pictures of me despite having never met me before. That night Otter and I dined with them at the Deschutes Brewery Public House, where we exchanged war stories, talked about future running plans and waxed glycogenic on the things that only diehard runners care about. I realized then that I have two pretty solid streaks going: running marathons in under four hours and meeting amazingly friendly and down-to-earth people afterward. You know who you are.
Left to right: Otter, me, Mike. Picture courtesy of Katie.
Once sufficiently full of food and local brews, Otter and I walked what felt like twenty blocks uphill to meet up with Will, a friend of mine from middle school, at Pope House Bourbon Lounge. It was a dimly lit bar in what looked like an old Victorian house (again, so Portland) but we enjoyed ourselves because their craft beers were $3.75 each and Will is good people.
And so ended our double-marathon experience. If we’re being completely honest, I don’t think I will do something like this again. Sure, you have to take anything I say with a grain of salt, because “never again” is a popular saying in the sport that usually precedes “maybe someday” which is just shy of “where’s my credit card?” But I truly didn’t enjoy the Portland Marathon as much as I would have had it been the only race of the weekend. I was too focused on pain maintenance, on keeping a reliable stride to minimize discomfort, on second-guessing every tiny pain as a harbinger of bonk-provoking doom to look around and absorb the city’s autumnal glow or the beautiful music being played by its urban minstrels.
Will is moving to Denver soon, after 3 years of being a Portlander. Portlandan? Portlangolier?
But what an experience it was nevertheless. These two races were so different in every measurable way that it was easy to forget they happened just a day apart. The first was remote, wooded and lost in an ice-carved canyon, the second in the middle of a raucous city. One started silently in between mountains, the other with a former marathon legend under steel skyscrapers. Leavenworth allowed me to run smoothly, evenly and enjoy the sinewy elegance of conversation on the run; Portland skewered and shamed me by pushing my body to the brink of collapse. Washington showed me of how far I’ve come as an athlete as I ran comfortably at a pace I could only dream about four years ago and reminded me that running long distances can be fun and not a lonely, isolated experience. But Oregon reintroduced me to the gut-busting wall and over the same distance proved to me once again that running is hard, that not all pain is significant, and that suffering is optional when you’re inching ever closer to your goal.