Steve's 2002 Portland Marathon Report

Warning: This is a long story, so if you don't like rambling tales about split times, legless skateboarders, and bloody nipples, close this window now. Otherwise grab a cup of coffee, get comfortable in your chair, and read on...

Danielle and I flew up to Portland a few days before the race, so we had some time to explore the Columbia River valley as well as check out the marathon course. On Saturday, we took a bus tour of the race route that was offered by the marathon organizers. In retrospect, getting an advance look at the route was a huge help, because it meant I knew when to expect all the turns and hills, and was able to recognize landmarks along the way. It helped me feel much more confident than if I'd been running 26 miles off into the unknown.

Race morning I awoke at 4:45, tossed and turned a bit, and then climbed out of bed to get ready. I felt a lot more relaxed than I'd expected. After a light breakfast of a banana and bagel, and some easy stretching, we left the hotel a bit after 6:00. The starting area was just a few blocks away, and even in the pre-dawn darkness the city was already buzzing. We reached the starting block around 6:20, and it was packed with runners. I made one last bathroom stop, and jostled my way closer to the 8 minute mile sign, so I'd be among other runners of about the same speed. By 6:45 the darkness was finally beginning to give way to dawn, as the crowd of 10,000 runners, walkers, and wheelchairs got into place.

As the starting time approached, the crowd mushroomed into a wall-to-wall mass of bodies stretching three blocks down the street. Portland's mayor got up to give us one last good luck wish. Just before the start, she gave a special salute to one John Besson Jr, age 90, somewhere in that crowd, running to break the world marathon record of 7 hours 25 minutes for the 90-99 age division. I sure hope I'm still out there running strong when I'm 90! The crowd roared, and finally the 7:00 starting time arrived, just as the sun poked its first tentative rays above the horizon. We were off!

* Mile 0 - 6.2: elapsed time 0:51:48, segment pace 8:20 per mile

I'd been warned countless times about charging out too quickly at the start, and tiring myself out prematurely. Fortunately that wasn't a problem here. For the first mile, I was running in a crowd of bodies so dense, it was all I could do to avoid tripping over people. There was no way I could have run any faster even if I'd wanted to! The start was also a gradual downhill, giving me a chance to ease in slowly and get comfortable. The crowd charged through the China Gate into Portland's Chinatown, turned, and headed down Front Street to the cheering of huge crowds of excited spectators.

Based upon shorter races I'd done before, I'd set my marathon goal time at 3 hours 50 minutes, or about 8:45 per mile. At the 1 mile mark my watch read 8:38; just about perfect considering the slight downhill grade. Miles 2 and 3 were a moderate uphill, but not too bad compared to the San Francisco hills I train on, and I maintained my pace. Somewhere around mile 3 my right foot began to go numb, so I started to shake it out a little with a lopsided stride. We were well away from downtown at this point, so the spectators had thinned out and I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.

At mile 4 we turned around and sped back down the hill towards downtown. My foot started feeling better. I felt pretty light and relaxed-- in fact I didn't really feel like I was working hard at all. Just an early morning Sunday jog, right? I must have been feeling good, because I picked up the pace, clocking mile times of 8:08, 7:38, and 8:03. The thought occurred to me that I was charging too hard and headed for physiological crash at mile 20, but I felt so easy and relaxed that I didn't worry about it. Instead, I just settled in to the pace and kept moving.

* Mile 6.2 - 13.1: elapsed time 1:47:24, segment pace 8:04 per mile

After passing through downtown a second time, the route followed a long flat out-and-back through an industrial area along the Willamette River. Here and there, a band played along the route to entertain the runners as they passed. From what I'd seen on the bus tour, I was afraid that this stretch would be the most tedious of the entire race: nothing much to look at, no spectators, and no real goal except to run to the end and back. All true, but what I hadn't counted on was the excitement of watching the other runners going in the opposite direction. Just past mile 7, I passed the pace car and the lead runners coming back the other way at mile 11, and those guys were MOVING. Shin Nozaki and Akihiro Oshikiri were running neck and neck at the front. Oshikiri eventually went on to win in 2:19:56.

Behind the leaders was a thin crowd of other elite athletes, followed by a few more human but still ridiculously fast runners. The lead woman raced past to cheers from all around. The crowd going the other way was still pretty thin, until... BOOM! A tight group of over 100 runners sped by, led by a pacer holding a sign reading simply "3:10": the time needed to qualify for entry into the Boston Marathon. Those guys were determined to go!

At the 9 mile turn around, I still felt good, and was clocking mile times well ahead of my goal. As I headed back the other way, I got a look at the runners coming up behind me. I passed the 3:45 pace group, then 4:00, and the size of the crowd of runners was surprising. While there was a decent sized group running around me, the density of people coming the other way must have been at least twice as high. It was around this point that I started to feel excited: I was ahead of the main pack, well on track to reaching my goal-- in fact, ahead of my goal pace by a good bit. But there were still many more miles to go.

At mile 11 I exited the out-and-back section, and set off through some small hills along a residential neighborhood. Families sat out on their front porches, cheering us on. Out the other side of the neighborhood, hugging the edge of Forest Park, I finally reached the first major milestone of the course: 13.1 miles, halfway home. I crossed the halfway point about 2 and a half minutes faster than my half-marathon time from July, and feeling about 1000x better. I still felt like I was just getting warmed up! But as I'd soon learn, halfway on distance didn't mean halfway on effort.

* Mile 13.1 - 20: elapsed time 2:44:45, segment pace 8:19 per mile

I plugged on for a few more miles, feeling pretty good. The route took us along the bottom edge of a tall bluff, with views of the river on our right. This was another mostly industrial area, so the crowds of spectators were pretty thin. Cars passing on the other side of the road honked their support, but it wasn't the same as a good crowd of enthusiastic fans cheering for you. We were far outside downtown now, gaining very slowly on our next objective hanging tantalizingly in the distance: the Saint John's suspension bridge, 4 miles up the river. This section of the course was supposed to be very windy, so much so that the race guide suggested drafting behind other runners to cut the wind and reduce fatigue. Thankfully the winds were calm this particular morning, though, so I didn't have any problem.

Very slowly, the bridge grew closer and closer, until I reached the toughest feature of the course: the access road up the bluff to the bridge on-ramp at mile 17.5. I'd heard it described as "cruel" and "a heartbreaker", given its length, steepness, and placement late in the race. Sure enough, when I got there, lots of fatigued looking people were stopped and walking slowly up the hill. Some walked up backwards. Is that supposed to help somehow? I guess all my hill training must have saved me, though, because I charged up the hill without too much problem. About halfway up, I passed a legless man sitting on a skateboard, pushing himself up the hill with his hands. Now that's a serious workout!

As I crested the highest point on the bridge span, I was rewarded with a beautiful view of Portland's distant downtown. Beautiful, except a bit depressing considering that I still needed to run all the way back there for the finish! At mile 18 I was expecting an aid station and another drink of water, but I'd gotten confused, and the station was actually about a half-mile further than I'd thought. That half-mile was not fun, and it was right around then that I realized I was getting tired.

Coming back up the other side of the river, the route passed through more residential neighborhoods, and the University of Portland. The crowds of cheering fans started to pick up again, and none too soon: I needed those cheers of encouragement to keep going. My legs were beginning to feel heavy, but I kept on. I smiled for the official photographers as I passed the 20 mile mark-- the farthest distance I had ever run during training.

* Mile 20 - 26.2: elapsed time 3:37:39, segment pace 8:31 per mile

Just 10K left to go, but this was the hard part. The quickness I'd felt for so much of the race had definitely faded, and it took a concerted effort to maintain my pace. Still, I seemed to be holding up better than many other people around me. Some had slowed to a hobble, others had stopped entirely. I knew how they felt. The route passed along the top of a high bluff overlooking the river and the downtown skyline beyond, giving me some motivation to keep going and finish what I'd started. I felt okay, better than expected actually, but definitely very heavy and clumsy as I ran on.

At mile 23, I was thrilled to reach the nice long downhill section to the bottom of the bluff. Downhill: that's the way all races should be, and it's certainly what my legs needed! The downhill grade gave me the chance I needed to rest just a bit, and prepare myself for the final few miles. The guy pushing himself on the skateboard sped by me on the downhill; he looked great considering he'd powered himself the whole way with just his arms!

At mile 24, the bottom of the hill, the route crossed quickly through a commercial area and then to the Steel Street bridge. My legs felt wobbly, but still relatively okay. A psychological drama began to play out in my head. I knew that if I started thinking about the finish, I'd lose my concentration and focus. I needed to keep going, keep in the mental zone I was in, so I lied to myself about the remaining distance. "Just 10 more miles to go," I kept repeating to myself. Stupid, but it seemed to work.

Across the bridge, at the 25 mile mark, I knew I was getting close, but my fatigue was growing every minute. As I looked at the runners around me, I saw that many of them were far worse off than me. Even a highly-trained athlete's body gets punished by the demands of a marathon, but for those who aren't as strong or well-prepared, the punishing can be extreme. By this point, blisters from poor-fitting shoes or inadequately conditioned feet will make you wince in pain at every step. Minor aches in the hip or knee will blossom into intense full-body pain that begs you to stop. Cramps will double you over, unable to go on. Minor chafing will grow into open bloody sores. Men's nipples can be chafed to the point of bleeding just from the friction of a shirt over 26.2 miles, and I saw several runners with the blood soaked shirts to prove it.

I'm extremely grateful that I experienced almost none of those symptoms. My feet held together, my joints didn't creak apart, and I never cramped up. I think I owe it all to the many training miles I put in, getting conditioned for the race. I did get some minor chafing in my groin from my thighs rubbing together, but nothing painful enough to slow me down. And after an unhappy experience during an earlier training run, I was careful to tape up my nipples, so I didn't have any problems there. So the only thing slowing me down were the lead weights that had somehow attached themselves to my legs!

Just 10 more miles to go. 10 more miles. The pack of runners headed up Front Street into downtown, for one last push through the city. The route was now packed with crazy cheering fans several deep on both sides of the road. At mile 26 the security fencing went up to hold back the crowds, and I was running down a pristine blue ribbon of road for the final tenths of a mile to the finish. The roar of the crowd was incredible-- I felt like I was finishing in some world-wide championship event! In the distance I could faintly hear the announcer calling out the action at the finish line, drawing me closer.

As tired as I was, I felt that I still had a little strength left in reserve, and decided to use it then. I stepped out around the runners in front of me, and began to surge. Slowly at first, then picking up speed, I drove ahead quickly and passed several little clumps of runners ahead of me. Rounding the final corner two blocks from the finish, I pumped my fists in excitement, then bent down into an all-out sprint to the finish line ahead. Supposedly the MC announced my name during the last stretch, but I don't remember it. Breathless, I zoomed past more and more runners. Just two more guys were ahead now, running side by side about 20 yards out in front. With my last effort I gave everything I had left, beating out both by no more than a couple of strides as I crossed the line at 3:37:39.

* Finish

Immediately across the line, I passed into a mass of volunteers handing me stuff. Some girl scouts gave me an emergency heat retention blanket. I was handed a rose, a pin, and a cup of water, seemingly all at once. When the big gold finisher's medal was placed around my neck, I got a bit emotional for a minute, started to cry, then cheered instead. I think my body was pretty confused, but also pretty hungry! Free food was everywhere and I grabbed everything I could carry: Powerade, potato chips, string cheese, ice cream bars, a banana, whatever I could grab ahold of. Finally I escaped from the finish area to eat my feast and watch the other finishers. The marathon is easily as exciting to watch as it is to run-- maybe that's why it's so popular.

In the end, I finished the race feeling much better than I'd feared I might, and much faster than I'd hoped I would. I beat my goal time by more than 12 minutes, which is a pretty huge margin in marathon terms. My 3:37 finish put me 839th out of 7091 marathoners. At an average pace of 8:18 per mile, I kept a better pace for the whole distance than I do in most of my short training runs! Along the way I figure I took about 30,000 strides, sweat a gallon of fluids, and burned more than 3000 calories. Not bad for a morning's work!

And John Besson, the 90 year old marathoner? He crushed the world record by more than 35 minutes, finishing in 6:48. Totally amazing. Recovery's a bit tough, and my aching legs have left me hobbling about today, but I'm sure I'll be back to normal in no time. I don't have any future marathon plans yet, but I'm sure I'll do another one sooner or later. Maybe one of you wants to join me? :-)

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