Time for a race recap of the Portland Marathon!
First, I kind of wanted to sue weather.com for false advertising. The weather report for Portland all week called for 72 degrees, partly sunny, and no rain. 48 hours before the race, that changed to 80% chance of rain. 24 hours before the race that changed to 100% chance of rain. Well, ok then. I had no idea how my body would feel about running in the rain for four hours, but it looked like I was going to find out.
It was lightly sprinkling in Seattle on Saturday (the day before the race), and I did a short run to loosen up my legs Saturday morning in the drizzling rain, and I felt strong! Strong and prepared for a marathon the following day! I listened to ‘Til I Collapse by Eminem and Eye of the Tiger from Rocky, and I was feeling ready to go and very antsy to get to the start line. My typical night-before-a-long-run snack consisted of two coconut milk yogurts and either one or two peanut butter and jelly Larabars (depending on the length of the long run). Then the morning of the long run, I typically had one more yogurt and one more Larabar before the run. It’s important to replicate your training as much as possible in your race, so Mike and I stopped at a Fred Meyer grocery store on the way down to get a little cooler and ice for my coconut milk yogurt.
I had my Larabars and my yogurts. And one of basically every type of running outfit available, including both my pairs of running shoes. (I couldn’t make up my mind what I was going to want to wear, so I brought literally everything.)
Mike and I were initially planning to drive down with my running buddy and her husband, both of whom were also running the marathon, but at the last minute her husband got a bad cold. It was up in the air whether or not he would be able to run the race, but he decided he was up to it. However, in an effort to stay healthy the day before the race, Mike and I drove down separately. The drive was pretty much constant (I always forget how much traffic there is between Seattle and Portland because we actually haven’t been to Portland many times… maybe 4?). We found the hotel without much difficulty, but it was pretty packed since we were staying at the same hotel the race expo was at. Mike and I walked over to the race expo and picked up my race packet. We also looked for a very lightweight running rain coat that I could wear the following day, but we really didn’t see any. Maybe everyone else had the same idea and they were already all taken? My right hip flexor was feeling tighter than I knew it should feel (maybe from the ride down in the car? or the cold and rain?). Regardless, Mike and I had a quiet dinner at the steakhouse across the street from the hotel where we were staying. My treat, since I had basically dragged Mike down to Portland to stand out in the rain taking pictures. Mike got a steak and I got a giant plain baked potato. Perfect race fuel! Then we went back to the hotel, went over the race course so that Mike could decide where to take pictures. Then I ate two yogurts from the cooler and two peanut butter and jelly Larabars. I was ready. I went to bed and slept like a LOG. I know a lot of people can’t sleep the night before a race because of nerves, but I have never had that problem. I can basically always fall asleep. Most of the time that’s awesome, but sometimes it’s not. Like when I’m in uninteresting meetings at work. Anyway, I slept really soundly, and my alarm went off at 5:00am. We were meeting my friend Anna and her husband Nick at 6am, so that gave me plenty of time to think about my race outfit. I thought about it while I retrieved one more yogurt from the cooler for breakfast and munched another Larabar. (People think that you run so you can eat whatever you want, but I actually find that when I’m seriously training I have to be way more careful what I eat…. the last thing you want is an upset stomach or overactive digestion during a long run or a race! So I tend to gravitate towards the same tried and true foods.)
After sticking my head out the window to verify that, yes, it was raining, I went through all the running clothes I’d brought to try to choose what I wanted to wear. I settled on my thinnest capri pants (which were purple, so made it easier for Mike to spot me during races… bonus!) and a running T-shirt. I woke Mike up to help me choose which running shoes to wear. My options were the lighter, faster, but less supportive pair that had fewer miles on them or the heavier, slower, more supportive pair with more miles on them. I put both pairs on multiple times and jogged across the hotel room trying to make a decision. Mike just watched me.
“You think I’m crazy, right?” I asked.
Mike shrugged. “I’m pretty OCD actually. I’m like this about most stuff.”
I eventually decided on the lighter pair. I put them on, attached my bib to the front of my running capris and my timing chip to my shoe.
We met up with Nick and Anna outside of our hotel and walked the few blocks to the start line. There was a really weird corral setup where different corrals entered from different streets, so Anna and I were a little confused looking for our corral C. We were already wet and there wasn’t much we could do about that, but on the way to the starting line Anna accidentally stepped right in the middle of a big puddle and soaked her sock and her shoe. Running a marathon with a wet foot right off the bat sounded miserable, so we went to a little running shoe store near the start line that was open early to accommodate the marathon runners. While Anna bought a new pair of socks and changed into them, I listened to one of the store employees stand on a bench and give a short, inspiring speech about running and having fun and focusing on the nice temperature instead of focusing on the rain.
Then Anna and I found ourselves at the start line and I queued up my marathon playlist. Ready to go!
And now for a rabbit trail.
As (some? many? most?) of you know, I have approximately a 7 year history trying to get a marathon time below 4 hours. I started training back in 2010 for my first marathon. It didn’t go well. I registered for the Detroit marathon (why Detroit and not Chicago? Why?? Chicago is a much better race.) and got IT band pain and ended up not being able to complete the marathon. I had another false start that ended in IT band pain before finally getting to the start (and finish) line of my first marathon in Seattle in June of 2011. I fought IT band through the race, it was miserable, I was in pain the whole time, and I limped across the finish line with a time of 4:22:14… over 22 minutes shy of my goal.
Frustrated but determined, I trained for the Las Vegas marathon in December of 2011. It was the first year they were doing the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon series in Las Vegas, and it was rough. My training runs had gone great with little IT band pain, but I started getting sick around mile 11 of the race. Like really sick. Like I wasn’t able to keep the energy gels coming in fast enough to balance the speed at which they were coming out. Sorry, TMI, but totally the truth. As it turned out, the race organizers were using Las Vegas city water at the water stations on the course, which made a lot of runners sick. If I thought the Seattle marathon was hard, it was nothing compared to the Vegas marathon. Running down the strip was awesome, but I was so sick to my stomach I couldn’t think about how awesome it was. I was too busy looking for the next bush by the side of the course. I basically limped weakly across the finish line of that marathon with a time of 4:35:43 (and I felt lucky to even have that time), limped right back to my hotel, fell into the tub, and lay there in the warm water trying to figure out what on earth had happened. (I didn’t find out about the water situation until later, so I didn’t realize I wasn’t alone in getting so sick.) The best part of that race was hanging out with my bestie Lia (who lived in Vegas) the day after and eating as much of a giant Whole Foods salad as my touchy stomach would allow.
At that point I swore off marathons. Every runner has heard about “marathon amnesia” (i.e. you forget how terrible a marathon was and sign up for another one anyway). I did not have amnesia. I remembered exactly how bad it was to run FIFTEEN MILES while looking for the next bush and trying to force down energy gels that my stomach was rejecting. Since 2011 I had run a couple of half marathons a year, lots of 15ks, 10ks, and 5ks, but I was steering clear of marathons.
Until I joined the Seattle Green Lake Running Group in April of this year. They were encouraging, helpful, and coincidentally all training for fall marathons. I became friends and running buddies with Anna through that group. She had run one marathon previously and basically had a terrible experience as well (super rainy, hilly, muddy course). Together we decided that we could run a marathon together. After all, we couldn’t have a worse experience than our collective previous marathon experiences, right? After checking out a couple of local-ish races we decided on Portland, an old race celebrating their 45th year this year.
And that was how I found myself at the start line of the Portland marathon at 7am on a dark, rainy morning. My right hip flexor still felt tighter than I knew it should which wasn’t a great sign. I heard some runner say at some point that if you’re already feeling problems before mile 8 of a marathon you’re in real trouble. Where did that leave me, given that I was already feeling muscle tightness before I started? Anyway, not a very encouraging thought, but I decided to be positive. Negative thinking would get me nowhere.
When our corral started off, I just focused on taking it slow-ish and fell into step with Anna. The first couple of miles we were mainly hitting our pace. We started out a little fast according to our GPS watches, but when we hit the 5km (3.1 mile) sign on the course, our watches showed that we’d gone 3.5 miles.
“It’s going to be a long course,” Anna said. “That’s discouraging this early in the race.”
I agreed. If it’s a long course (even if just by 0.4 miles) that tacks on extra minutes to your final time and make it harder to hit a sub 4 hour goal.
We kept running. The first five miles or so was running around downtown Portland and the surrounding areas. Then we started to head north towards St. John’s Bridge, and the rain started to come down harder. My right hip flexor had progressed from tight to painful by this point (maybe because of the cold and rain?), but I was concentrating hard on keeping good running form, and the pain was manageable (unlike IT band pain which is basically impossible to run through). One thing I have 100% learned during years of running is that good running form can help you run through a lot, and bad running form will absolutely lead to pain. I knew that if my form suffered early in the race I would be in a lot of pain by the end. Around mile 11, we passed Mike and I flashed him some bright smiles for the camera even though my hip flexor was painful and the rain was getting pretty old.
Around mile 15 we started up a long slow hill taking us up to St. John’s Bridge. We were running into a strong headwind, it was really rainy, and my hip flexor pain was starting to be harder to manage. It was pretty clear at this point that Anna was having a better race day than I was, given my hip flexor. She ran on ahead, and I stayed back, going at my own pace, knowing that if I kept below a 9 min/mile pace I’d finish under 4 hours, even given the long course. The hill up to St. John’s Bridge was about a mile and a half long, but it actually felt pretty easy. Yay for all the hill training I did in Seattle! Running across the bridge, I was actually able to pick up my pace and my hip felt a little better. Back to being tight instead of painful.
Once across the bridge, I hit mile 18 soon after and told myself at that point I only had 8 miles left and I just had to hang on to a 9 min/mile pace (normally really easy for me, but I was still feeling tightness in my hip). The next two miles went by quickly and actually felt pretty pleasant. The rain had backed off a little, so even though I was fully drenched, at least I wasn’t actively getting so much more drenched.
They say that the first half of the marathon is 20 miles and the second half is 6.2 miles. It was with great trepidation that I hit mile 20. My hip flexor was back to being painful, and the 3:45 pace group passed me, so I knew my shot at a 3:45 time was gone (not that I was really fazed by that given that I was only shooting for a sub 4, but it was still a little discouraging). Mile 21 was HARD. Everything hurt. The bottoms of my feet, there were twinges in both my IT bands, and my right hip flexor continued to be in pain. And then Til I Collapse by Eminem came on my playlist. I remembered running to that almost exactly 24 hours earlier and feeling so strong. Time to keep running strong. I picked up my pace a little and was thrilled to discover that mile 23 was mostly downhill and I managed an 8:12 min/mile pace. Sub 4 hours was looking really attainable unless something really went wrong. I was just about to the bridge that would cross the Willamette River back into downtown Portland. I knew that at the end of the bridge, I would hit mile 25 (well, actually more like mile 25.5 because the course was too long), where Mike was planning to be stationed again with a camera. I wanted to hit that point strong, but I was struggling during mile 24. I had very little left. Everything hurt (not just the hip flexor anymore), and I’d been pushing through rain and wind and pain for 3+ hours at that point. But I knew I was going to finish. And I knew I wanted to finish as strong as possible. I crossed the bridge, holding on to my pace, and then saw Mike up ahead. That gave me a boost, and I gave a bunch of happy smiles for the camera.
It’s hilarious, because looking at those pictures from mile 25 it’s not at all clear that I was struggling to maintain pace. I look surprisingly happy.
And then I was past Mike and I had a little over a mile to go. I had to stop quick once or twice just to stretch out my hip flexor for a second, but I made it through the last mile. I kept waiting and waiting for the finish line to show up. It didn’t show up and didn’t show up. But Eye of the Tiger came on my playlist, which was more than enough to keep me moving. My watch showed that I’d already gone 26.2 miles, but I knew I wouldn’t be done until mile 26.7 ish. Finally I turned a corner and saw the race finish line and the giant LED digital clock. The hour’s place still showed a ‘3’, and I knew I hadn’t started right when the clock started so I was going to come in under four hours easily.
I ended up crossing the finish line in 3:51:14. Anna was about three minutes ahead of me with a time around 3:48, and her husband Nick had a blazingly fast, amazing race despite his head cold and ran a 3:24! (For anyone interested in numbers, here are my final stats.)
I found them and the three of us collected our race medals, finisher’s shirts, and struggled back towards the hotel. Ideally we would have hung out, waited for Mike, gotten him to take our pictures, celebrate in our successes, etc. Practically, our legs were seizing up, my hip flexor now refused to contract at all, and it was continuing to rain and now that we were no longer moving we were drenched and chilled. We limped back into the hotel, and Anna and Nick caught an Uber back to their hotel about a mile away and I forced my chilled, numb fingers to text Mike to let him know I was back at the hotel. My hands were so cold that I had to put my race medal, bottle of water, and finisher’s shirt on the floor of the hotel so that I could use two hands to get the key card into the door slot. Once inside, I struggled to get my drenched clothes off without flexing any of the muscles in my legs and then stepped into the hot shower. Mike came back to the hotel a few minutes later, not quite as drenched, but still really wet. Even his raincoat was completely drenched. He had been out in the rain for so long that the rain literally penetrated the raincoat. I didn’t know that could even happen, but Mike explained to me that rain coats are really just “water resistant”, not “water proof”. Good to know!
After both Mike and I had taken hot showers we walked over to take a look at the indoor mall that was a few blocks from our hotel. I was feeling surprisingly pretty good. I had a bottle of water and was drinking regularly, but definitely felt like my sodium levels were out of whack. I remembered that after my long training runs I typically ate soup, or something else high in sodium, and I hadn’t done that after this race. Mike and I went to a middle eastern place in the food court and I ordered two fattoush side salads and also surreptitiously took 8 of their little salt packets. I ate two salt packets just plain (yup, this is what being a runner does to you… you are completely oblivious to the strange stares you’re getting as you toss back salt packets in a mall food court), and I sprinkled the rest on my two side salads which I ate with gusto.
Although Mike and I were planning to stick around in Portland for an extra night, it remained so rainy that we were just kind of over the whole thing. We were out of towels and out of soap in our hotel room after all our showers, and our wet clothes were dripping all over the bathroom floor from their spot on the shower curtain rod in the bathroom.
On the drive back, I was recapping part of the race to Mike.
“It was pouring rain, we were running into a headwind and up the hill to get us to St. John’s bridge, and my right hip flexor was in pain pretty much constantly even though it was only mile 15 and I had over 10 miles to go, and I was asking myself, Why am I doing this?”
Mike’s eyebrows raised as he kept his eyes on the road. After a brief pause he said, “And what did you come up with as a reason? Because I can’t think of one. I mean, sure… this time it was for the sub four hour time. But what reason will you give next time?”
I sat back in the seat and tried to think of a good reason. And I couldn’t come up with one. I really couldn’t. Not a single one. I wasn’t even sure why the sub four hour time was important to me except that I’d started trying to hit that seven years ago. It has something to do with the rush of accomplishment, of doing something today that seemed impossible yesterday, of breaking through self-imposed boundaries. Ultimately, why does a man climb a mountain? Because it’s there. And maybe there is no other reason.
Quick addendum: The Portland Marathon officials actually came out and apologized for the long course a couple days after the race; it was a mistake on their part and they sent the runners through the wrong course in the first couple of miles that tacked on an extra 0.4 miles so they’re correcting everyone’s time. I’m still waiting to hear my “new” official time. Probably somewhere in the 3:48 vicinity.