The Portland Marathon: Part II – 26.2 up (and down) the Willamette

15 Oct

Portland was my third marathon in 2014. After last Fall’s Baystate Marathon, I had changed to a new training plan (Hanson’s) that increased my mileage and intensity in my training. While this approach did work in some ways for me, my Spring marathons found me suffering from heat related stress after a cold winter of outside running. Going from long runs in 30-50 degree overcast weather to 80 degrees and sunny definitely took its toll on me. I don’t fight heat. I abide. My times reflected the more laid-back pace. So much for a 3:55 BQ (Boston qualifier.) While I was disappointed, I knew in my head that my heart wasn’t really in it – I didn’t have the right passion or reason to go to Boston. In fact, I wasn’t sure I WOULD go to Boston even if I did get a BQ. It was just a number I felt I “should” meet, and I am competitive. But on thinking about it (and after a humbling response to my inquiry about the reality of my hitting that number from an expert on Runners’ World forums) I started re-thinking my priorities. Why do I run a marathon? Do I even like the distance?

With that in mind, I vowed to run Portland to enjoy Portland, no matter the time or weather. This would be my first visit to the Pacific Northwest. It is my brother and sister-in-law’s home, and I wanted to see it through the eyes of a runner. What better way than to do it on a partially closed course, without having to worry about knowing which way I am going? Of course, if you are reading this, you probably know me, and if you know me, you know that I love maps and love navigation and especially love route-making and way-finding, and that I did plenty of research on the route prior to running the marathon. But still, a marathon allows one to run for a very long time and see things (and the people of a place) in a unique way. With this in mind, my training leading up to the marathon was less intense, and while I got the miles in, I didn’t focus on speed, but on endurance and being present in the moment.

Marathon morning arrived with another day (after three similar days) of promised clear and sunny weather, with a projected high (and dry) of 70 degrees by noon. I dressed quickly in a loose tank over a running bra and bicycle-style shorts (the same ones desperately needing replacing after many seasons…) injini toe socks with a light sock over, and the Saucony peregrines. The Saucony is a narrow shoe, and I had not run longer than 20 miles in them, but that 20 was a good 20 and they are light and seem to do the job, so that’s the shoe I went with. I had worn Brooks’ Ghosts in the Spring races, and while I love the wide footbed of the Brooks’, the shoe felt heavy and square. The Saucony pair also happen to be the marathon colors, which were the same colors of the 2013-14 Superbowl champs, the Seattle Seahawks. So I was all matchy-matchy with the banners and signs for the marathon.

Tobi, Megan, Tom and I ate our breakfasts and got out the door. It took about 10 minutes to drive downtown. We were earlier than we had to be to get in to the parking garage which was not very near the start, but I do like to have some distance to walk before a race in order to get things moving (in the customary parlance) and to shake out the nerves. We sat in the car until we started seeing people moving along, and we got in the salmon run toward the start downtown. It was still quite dark, but there was a lot of action. Photographers stopped groups like ours to take pictures (later available for twenty five bucks a pop.) We located our starting areas and after taking a “we-fie”, split up to our respective corrals.


L-R Megan, Tobi, me, Tom. photo courtesy M. McCulloch

Tom was in corral A, Tobi and I in corral C, and Megan in Corral G. We walked Megan over to her corral, said “Good Luck!” (this being her first marathon, ever) and Tobi and I walked back to C. Once there, Tobi got in line for a last pit stop and I chatted it up with a 10-year veteran of the Portland marathon, a sprightly older fella with a pointy beard. He told me that the Portland marathon was not about a PR. “The bridge gets in the way.” Deep inside, a last little glimmer of “maybe I could bust 4 hours” started to fade. I let it go. I reminded myself it was not about the time. Someone on a bullhorn started getting us moving. Tobi was still in line for the portos so I caught her eye, wished her luck, and moved with the herd to the next part of our waiting area. Once there, I noticed I was standing next to the 3:45 pace group, so I back-stepped twenty feet until I got to a saner place at the back of the pack. We all sang a unique national anthem (worth the watch), and our wave start lined up at the start. We waited for a train. You could hear the train whistle. In the distance, up the road, we could see the B wave bopping up and down. I was oddly calm. A part of me thought, you know, I’m not sure I really feel like running 26.2 miles right now. Sigh. Then the dude on the megaphone started hustling us again, and before my lazy brain could say any more, we were shuffling across the start line, our shoes clomping across the timing mat and the chorus of beeps as people started their watches. I pulled a little to the right to let the fasties pass. I was determined to go out slow, but immediately, we were greeted with the most amazing sounds and sights. On our left, about 100 feet from the start, a high school or college drum corps belted out a fast-tempo concussive that got my heart racing and my legs all shibbery. Just beyond, there were cute teeni-bopper cheerleaders, and a very LARGE early-morning crowd at the start (largest I have ever seen at any race). In a few more streets, another drumming band, this one Chinese (I think) along with real Chinese dragons dancing right next to me as I ran. I was carried away and really enjoying this first mile. A man came up on my elbow and asked about my shirt, which says “NRA – you can have my shoes when you pry them off my cold, dead feet.” for Narragansett Running Association, not the other NRA. I am not a frequent member of NRA but have done some runs with them and love the jersey, so I wore it to honor Little Rhody. By the time I finished explaining that, we were at the 1 mile marker. Oh my! I looked at my watch and realized that first mile went way too fast. I told the guy talking to me that I was going to slow down, so see yuh. He took off ahead, and I settled in to a great pace. It helped having such great crowd support. Amazing people, so friendly. And the bands. Nice! At about mile two, I saw Tobi pass by me up ahead. I mentally sent some good thoughts her way. I was so caught up in the bands and the people that I basically took no note of my location, but I know we passed beneath the Chinese gate, and we moved through an older part of town that was reminiscent of New England mill towns. Then the road moved up a long hill, and we could see the leaders come flying down the other side. That was cool. At the top of the hill, it turned hard left and we were now the leaders flying down the hill. I looked left and saw that the G bibs were heading up the hill, and looked for Megan. Finally, I saw her, running with a big-ass smile on her face. I yelled “Go Megan!”, but she didn’t hear me.

The next few miles began a long, straight, hill-less out and back along the river, with train tracks and warehouses on either side, along with some wide open lots. In the distance, a skyline of douglas firs met the blue sky. The sun was up and it was starting to get warmer. I was feeling very good at this point, and it was work trying to keep my pace back. There was plenty of water stops, so I skipped a lot of these early ones. Along about mile 7, there were pirates high five-ing the runners, playing pirate-y music and generally gargling into a microphone. I said “arghhhh” and did a little jig. I started looking for Tom in the stream of runners coming back the other way. They all had the sun in their eyes as it came up behind me. Finally, about one hour and six minutes in, I saw Tom. He was bolting, I tell ya, just flying up the road. I yelled “WOOOOO! Go Tom!!!” but he didn’t hear me. He was busy getting ready to high five those pirates on the return trip.

Now that I had seen three of the four of the my Portland marathon party (I did not expect to see Liz until the last six miles of the race) I started getting into marathon mode in my head. This wasn’t just some random run in some random town. I was in PORTLAND, OREGON baby and I was running the PORTLAND MARATHON! A quick check of my watch told me I was running on average a nine minute mile, which I knew was kind of ridiculous and maybe a little ambitious because it was only going to be hotter. As we finally came around the corner past this Christian rock band, and headed back into the sun, I realized the same thing that seemed to transport me at Wakely was happening here. I was coasting. Relentless Forward Progress. I was not in a bad place, or in a super good place, I was just getting the thing done. The crowd was cool and everything but I was not as present as I would have liked to be. I think my body or my brain just does this. I can’t quite explain it except that in front of my eyes is a narrow course and everything else is a blur. The sun, the bands, the people, the buildings, the fir trees, the other runners… I might latch on with my eyes to a swatch of pink, or a pair of purple socks, or a black wristwatch, and keep the thing in my sights for awhile, running to stay moving. I did remember to stop and get a drink, and when we took another hill at about mile 13, I noticed a woman with a corgi at the top of it. And then we were on highway 30 heading up toward the bridge. In the distance, I could see it, the St. John’s Bridge.

photo courtesy

I knew we had a way to go before getting to this bridge. From my research, I had learned that this is a busy highway, and it is not closed for the marathon. We were to run alongside oncoming traffic with only orange cones separating us from the trucks and cars racing by. I was glad for all of the training I had done along Division Street and route 3 in West Greenwich. I was quite comfortable with the cars, the industrial buildings, the noise, and the lack of spectators. Again, I was in a good spot mentally. I had taken a little cup of gummy bears at the last rest stop and worked on one, putting the rest in my back pocket. I thought about the bridge. If I was feeling good now, how was I going to feel once I was over on the other side, facing the sun? I was worried about that. That’s what got me both at Raleigh and Maine. I am not good with full sun in my face. But I figured I would wait and see. Pretty soon, we were heading up the on ramp to the bridge. This was a big hill. I was doing pretty well, just chugging along. But I noticed that pretty much everyone had started walking – power walking, really – to maybe save energy? “How smart!” my lazy brain chimed in, “you know, you could save a lot of energy just walking! I mean, they are all walking as fast as you are running. How bout it?” So I started to walk. Immediately, a woman came up on my right. She was wearing headphones and had a shiny black ponytail. She turned toward me, wagged her finger, and said, “uh, NO. You are going to run this.” So I started running, and kept up with her til we got to the bridge. Once there, the grade was much less steep, so I was running well again. The girl dropped back and said, “I’ve been pacing behind you about two miles. You can’t walk now!” So we ran together until the top of the bridge, and I looked out at the views. On the left was up the river, and dark woods and islands. Way off in the distance was a peak – what was it? I think it was Mt. St. Helens. And straight ahead was Mt. Hood. What an awesome sight. To the right was the sun, and the city. I took no pictures, because there are already a billion out there. And I don’t want to spoil it for you, oh you who may someday run this awesome race.

Needless to say, I blew down the other side. That is just my thing. I like the downs. I bomb the downs. At the bottom, a handful of soldiers were saluting a veteran runner. I got very choked up. Then we were off the bridge and bombing down this little side street, and then a sharp left and up into a neighborhood. And that is when the heat started to bother me.

This was about mile 18. I was hot. I was starting to get cranky from the sun and no shade. And this neighborhood was eerily quiet. There were people out there, but they seemed kind of dazed, as if the runners had woken them up, and they stood around their driveways and on their front lawns with coffee mugs, in slippers and pajamas. Christ, it was pretty late for pajamas. But I guess if you live in Portland, and it is sunny outside like this, you come out and just kind of… sun yourself.

I can’t say I didn’t struggle miles 18-22. All in to the sun. Very little shade. Lots of fun downhill! It was getting later and I figured Liz had already walked and was likely already done. Another neighborhood seemed very friendly with a big band on a lawn, and someone with a sprinkler. Heaven!  I walked a few times. I looked at my watch. I saw the possibility of a four hour marathon pretty much fade at that point. Okay, I thought, maybe a 4:15.

At mile 21 or 22, we had a nice long downhill. I pretty much bombed it, full sun and all. Some guy was getting sick to my right. Everyone walking occasionally. It was like we were all one body moving as one, just get it done. The crowd started to pick up a little. I had a little shade in the lee of some buildings. I picked it up again, and then saw ahead that we were going to be crossing another bridge. That meant we were near the end, YAY! But that also meant another little hill to get up to the bridge! I tucked it in, took a deep breath, and got ready for the left turn. Police officers were directing traffic and allowing cars between bands of runners. I picked up my pace a bit to be a part of a pack that was getting ready to turn left, and made it. We crossed the lane, started up the ramp, and I felt surprisingly fine. As I got to the top, we started to circle around this little loop, and I heard my name. I turned, and there was Tobi. I was very confused, because there is no way I could have caught up to her. But she said she had been slowed by the heat and had lost some steam. We took a quick walk break and then I said, “hey there’s this woman running with purple socks and she’s kind of slow but steady, so let’s just get behind her when she comes up.” So we waited and then we saw her, and we started running over the bridge. Before we knew it, we had passed her and were moving right along, Tobi in front of me. We came out on the other side and I could feel our pace increasing (and I knew I would not be able to keep up, even if only for a mile or two.) On our left were some old guys and a rock and roll band. I could hear the crowds in the distance. Suddenly Tobi called out, “Hey look! There he is!” and we saw HIM.



Yes, that’s right, we saw the unicycling flaming bagpipe playing darth vader.

And all I could think was, MAN, his legs are FILTHY!

Not, “hm, that is so weird, does he just show up at all of the events in town?” or “gee, why does he ride around playing flaming bagpipes? Why Santa, WHY?”  No. Just, “wow. those legs could use a bath.”

It was as if there was a Portland Visitor’s Center Fairy and she had granted our party three wishes and the one that someone wished hard for (probably Megan) got thrown in as a bonus. Like, why YES you can have the flaming bagpipe unicycling guy viewing. HERE!

After that, all I knew was, I was at the most loathed point in the race, yes, that moment when you are okay with 25.798 or whatever. Like, do I REALLY have to keep running? Can’t we just call it done? I briefly considered just walking to the end. I was done. It was hot. I was looking forward to the part after when I could collect armfulls of food and meet up with my peeps. Yes, and visit the porto.

And it was slightly uphill.

And the people were yelling “YOU’RE ALMOST THERE!” and I’m like, okayokayokaaaaaaaay shuddup.

And then the sign.

photo from

And the purple chute, which meant I was nearly, nearly there.

Nearly there…

A left turn… um, still not quite there…

Another turn, a little rise… oh for…

Another turn and BAM! Finissio! Like, Immediately! Like, you are done!

And someone is giving me a medal.

And I am walking walking walking up to the food tables and just making this little cradle out of my bent arm to collect all of my free marathon food! And chocolate milk and more Ultima drink and water… and some crackers, some halloween candy, DAMN, I wish I had a shopping bag. Because girlfriend, I can eat after running 26.2. Oh yes.

And they gave me a finisher’s shirt which I fashioned into a food hammock, and tried to walk back down to get more food but An Official Volunteer gently turned me back and said “please move forward.”

And they gave me a finisher’s jacket, which I suddenly felt the need to put on right away.

And I kept walking and finally saw Tobi sitting on the side, on a curb. I put my stuff down and visited the porto while she chatted up this exquisitely handsome lad.

And then I made her get up and walk, unfortunately busting into her small talk (sorry, Tobi!)

And we walked. We walked and walked, completely lost. Since we had no drop bags at this race, we had no map, and no phone. Just a general sense (and not so good) of where we were supposed to go. Little realizing that as we dallied, my poor sister waited on us at the agreed upon spot (sorry, Liz!) and we did not wait for Megan to come in (sorry, Megan!) I felt like I had to keep walking or I would never be able to walk again. We saw some tweaky street boys and asked them for directions and they kindly obliged. We finally found the parking garage, and damn if we didn’t take the stairs (whose awesome? We’re awesome.) We found Tom sleeping in the car. We changed and went across the street to this amazing amazing amazing fountain.

Teachers’ Fountain, from

We sat and soaked.

And Liz called.

And Megan called.

And eventually, we were all together again.

And we drove back to the house, and took long showers.

And Peter and Stacy brought over this amazing barbecue, and Liz brought ice cream and pumpkin pie, and it was all soooo soooo good.








2 Responses to “The Portland Marathon: Part II – 26.2 up (and down) the Willamette”

  1. Life With Horace October 23, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    So, one of the best race narratives I’ve read. You are one good writer madam! Not to mention funny.

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