Portland Marathon

Yesterday I completed my second marathon, in Portland, mindfully placing one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles. Along the way, I was encouraged by running alongside family: I paced my sister-in-law’s brother, Trevor, for the first three miles before he took off and completed his first marathon in a fast 3:40 ish pace; and my brother and sister-in-law Lainie, who I got to see at the turn around near mile 10. Also out cheering on the course was my masters swim team coach, Gina – I got to give her a high-five at mile 6, a shout-out at mile 11, and a weary thumbs-up on a hill that almost did me in at mile 23.5. I had been training for a slow (for me) pace, thinking I’d do the half marathon split around 2:05 and then see if I could hold on to that pace for the second half of the race. Having completely hit the wall in my first marathon attempt in ’08 in L.A., I knew the mental dimension of the marathon, the fact that the last six miles really is nearly all psychological: as you feel your body’s reserves running out, muscles tightening up, and see the runners falling to the side of the course, one-by-one succumbing to exhaustion, and have to block out your desire to do the same and run on! Yesterday I tried to hold back my desire to run a faster first half marathon, and hit the 13 mile marker in around 2 hours, 2 minutes; perfect, I thought, I’m right on time, now I’ll see what happens in my body the next two hours! The course took us through downtown and industrial northeast Portland, wove through a few residential neighborhoods in NW, before heading out along a long stretch north to the St. John’s bridge. Lainie had told me that was going to be a tough stretch, that I’d see the bridge four miles ahead at mile 12.5 and that I’d keep running towards it feeling like it wasn’t getting any closer! So I’d programmed my ipod mix with a lot of soul-searching music, and just tried to go internal and keep running. Actually, after mile 13 was the point in the race where I started passing people, slowly, just by maintaining my pace, I started overtaking people one by one. My ipod mix included some songs from the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, and I thought of all the running that people do without wanting to, the fleeing, the struggling, the surviving, and I reminded myself how this physical challenge of the marathon reminds me of our common humanity, our abilities to persist… There is a pretty big hill @ mile 17 to climb up to the bridge, and that’s where I dug really deep as I saw everyone start to walk, and I just jogged up it one step at a time. At the top, I felt a second wind of sorts, and some great songs came on my mix, and I sung my way over the St. John’s bridge, passing people and enjoying the view. After the bridge, we wove through neighborhoods of north Portland along our way to the University of Portland – the same streets I’d run in the Portland Triathlon two weeks earlier. This was probably the best stretch of the race for me: I really felt good, I was passing people, enjoying the crowd support, giving shouts-out to other runners, and trying to force down another Gu (my second of the race). I hit the 20 mile mark still feeling good and at about 3 hours and change. I had a momentary feeling of wanting to speed up, wanting to be able to throw down some 8 minute miles and finish in under four hours. But it was about mile 21 when I started feeling really tired; my quads starting burning and locking up in pain on a long, sloping downhill around mile 22 that takes us out of the neighborhoods into a stretch of concrete with little support and lots of runners completely hitting the wall (walking, crumbling over, grabbing their sides and stomachs, stretching their cramping legs on the side of the road, sitting on the curb, etc. – the last six miles of a marathon are truly one of the most grueling physical challenges that anyone can endure). But I remembered from my previous marathon that this was the proverbial “wall” that I could mentally tough my way over, and that previous experience helped me push through the pain this time, just forcing one foot in front of the other, trying to use my music and change up my cadence, shift the emphasis of my stride to my hamstrings, use my arms for some momentum. Somehow, even though I felt I was slowing down, I was still passing people, just by holding on to my jog. Seeing coach Gina at the top of a little hill at mile 24 (a hill that felt HUGE by then) boosted my spirits, and I had another quickening of my step up a little hill to get onto the Broadway Bridge, where I passed a few women I’d seen very early on in the race, and tried to encourage them with some words like “we can do this!”. After the bridge, we were back downtown at mile 25, but the last 1.2 miles of this (and any marathon, I imagine) felt like double or triple that distance. At one point, running along the waterfront somewhere between mile 25-26, I asked a spectator “how much longer?” feeling as though I really just wanted to stop, walk, be done. I continued to dig in deep, not even mentally aware any more of the pain in my quads, realizing it wasn’t my cardiovascular system at this point that was working hard (I had lots of breath), but my muscular and nervous system, battling each other, mind over matter, desire to run across the finish line willing out the pain in my legs… the final 500 meters I looked down at my watch (one of the few times I did so the entire race) and saw I could cross the finish line in 4:05 if I picked up my pace, so I used my arm swing to charge up a little incline and over the finish line. Yay! Finish time: 4 hours, 4 minutes,  49 seconds. Somehow, I maintained my pace almost the entire race, with an average of 9:18 min/miles. Just what I’d trained for; I was really satisfied with my performance. I think running a marathon is not for everyone, half marathons are lots more fun and you can still walk the next day! However, there is certainly something about digging in deep, setting goals and achieving them, using mental strength to overcome physical obstacles, practicing and planning and training for a race and then executing that plan – I think all these things are life lessons for the rest of my existence, beyond the marathon course. After I recovered a bit, I went to cheer on some runners finishing in around 5 hours, folks gutting it out for an hour longer than me on the course, some grimacing in pain, some smiling and looking at ease… I feel as though every finisher is a winner, we all accomplish this goal and hopefully take lessons from race day into the rest of our lives!


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