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The Course is Strong With this One: My First Marathon Saga

My first full marathon was a sci-fi movie: it was a trippy journey through time and space full of strange surprises,  plot twists, and Darth Vader playing the bagpipes whilst riding a unicycle (really! I have pictures! It was NOT post-marathon hallucinations) The whole time I was never really sure how it was going to end. But it was totally worth it.

Google the Portland Unipiper to see more of this incredibly talented dude.

Google the Portland Unipiper to see more of this incredibly talented dude.

Our journey began by flying from Kansas to Portland the Wednesday before the marathon. It felt like a whole different planet – we went from high 80s sweaty humid weather to low 50s chilly humid weather. The sun had vanished and someone had replaced it with fog machines. Lots of fog machines. It was eerie and pretty at the same time.

On our way to Eugene one morning on the hunt for Voodoo Doughnuts.

On our way to Eugene one morning on the hunt for Voodoo Doughnuts.

We’d start the morning being able to see the road and maybe 200 feet in each direction. But everything was grey, and it felt COLD. But by 2 pm, the fog was lifted and it was sunny and warm – and BEAUTIFUL.

There were trees EVERYWHERE. And they were real, not those on-purpose trees you find in cities (that’s what Jason called them). Besides being bathed in green, there were mountains in the backdrop with sprawling meadows beneath full of sheep and cows. The leaves were also starting to change. The closest we’d been to anything like this was looking at L.L. Bean catalogs.

Hiked up a trail to this breathtaking view at sunset in Corvallis

Hiked up a trail to this breathtaking view at sunset in Corvallis.

So the morning of the Portland Marathon, 7am on October 6, 2013, was really special. It wasn’t just race day – it was Sunday. Literally, SUN Day. It started out in the upper 50s and was in the low 70s when we finished – and it was SUNNY…the WHOLE TIME! It was such a beautiful morning and perfect fall running weather it was ridiculous. Having trained in what felt like God’s armpit all summer, we had an advantage with the weather.

We also had the 2-hour time zone difference advantage. 7am in Portland is 9am in Kansas. All week we were in bed by 9 or 10 pm PST and then up at 6-7am PST. So marathon morning was time-wise early, but didn’t feel early to us.

This is same drive back from Eugene that afternoon. Total transformation!!!

This is same drive back from Eugene that afternoon. Total transformation!!!

We took the light rail, the Tri Met, to the marathon start and found our corral in 20 minutes. This was probably the easiest time we’ve ever had getting to a race. Most Kansas City races, even though we live within 20 minutes of them, still involve leaving at 5:30am for a 7:00am race because of a little game we hate to play called Find a Parking Spot for All 10,000 Runners and Their Supporters in Two Downtown Parking Garages.

So we got to the starting line downtown and tried to find our corral. They had different blocks of streets for each corral, and our corral was based on our projected finishing time. Jason and I were in Corral D, hoping for around 4 hours, and Jen was Corral E for about 4 1/2 hours. We decided to go with Jen to her corral and had her husband, Jon, in tow as our moral support, but mostly to give him all our extra clothes and stuff to carry.

Lots of runners, supporters, and Port-A-Potties in Corral E

Lots of runners, supporters, and Port-A-Potties in Corral E

I felt very awake but surprisingly calm in the crisp, cool and dark morning air. Mostly, I just wanted to finally finish this thing. After months and miles of sweat, sore muscles, frequent cat naps, and eating twice my body weight in food, it was marathon time. I also couldn’t wait to start training for a half marathon again. Running a full marathon really put into perspective why I find 13.1 miles the perfect amount of racing challenge without under or over doing it in training. Half marathons are a hobby, but training for a marathon is almost like another job.

Corral E was a block full of nervous and excited runners. It was a mosh pit of people trying to gear check their backpacks, attach bibs to their shirts, and hope to God they could make it through the Port-A-Potty line before the race started. Suddenly, through the chaos and chatter, came the loudspeaker announcement – the race was about to begin!

Before every race anywhere, the national anthem is sung. Because one year something happened to the sound system before the Portland Marathon, the lead singer wasn’t audible. But the runners kept singing, strong and loud. So this year, to show our solidarity and support for the Boston bombings and to show our support of the running community in general, we sang the national anthem acapella. It was haunting – the song hung in the air above our heads as a chorus of runners showed their patriotism, camaraderie, and the fact that besides running, hey, we can sing pretty well too.

Singing a song and waiting for the race to start

Singing a song and waiting for the race to start

We followed this up with a lively rendition of “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond. Having grown up in a household of two hardcore Neil Diamond fans (thanks Mom and Dad!), I actually was exciting for this because I know the ENTIRE song and not JUST THE CHORUS. But we sang just the chorus because this too was a tribute to Boston. Apparently it’s sung before Boston sporting events, especially Red Sox games. Also, back in Portland’s history, there was a coin toss between two politicians of what the name of Portland would be – either Boston or Portland. Clearly Portland won. Although, City of Bearded Hipsters could have been a close third.

The gun went off! The race had begun! And we! We stood there motionless. Seriously, it was about 10 more minutes before our corral got to cross the starting line. We eventually lost track of Jon in the crowd, which is saying something considering he had about 10 more clothing items to carry. We nervously chatted about the race, agreeing to stick together and make sure to pace. A marathon is not something you want to start too fast. Which is why I really love long distances – because I’m a Pacer. I’m not a Sprinter, I’m not a Fast Runner, I’m a Pacer. And I’m totally fine with that because at mile 9 when you’re dying from starting out too fast, I’m passing your tushy because I’m the slow and steady turtle who keeps even splits and probably just took an espresso Gu shot.

Here's Jason pre-race looking all bright-eyed and bushy bearded. He grew this beard in a week specifically to fit in with the locals

Here’s Jason pre-race looking all bright-eyed and bushy bearded. He grew this beard in a week specifically to fit in with the locals

So I was excited for the marathon because I knew this was a race to take slow. And it was my first so any finishing time was going to be a PR. But like several first times, this one was going to hurt. And it did. But not right away.

Mile 1: We knew Portland was going to be entertaining when in the first half mile we went through Chinatown and saw this awesome sign “Hung Far Low Cocktails” Oh yeah. I had to go back later and get a picture of that. The excitement was undeniable. The Chinese dragon dancers were pretty cool too.

Mile 2-4: Full of spectators and their funny signs. A South American band with pan pipes. We had some uphills through neighborhood areas. I always love a good hill being the Hill Master. In fact, that was my name on my bib: HILMASTR. When registering, you could customize your bib with an 8-character name. Hill Master was my nickname from high school cross country. I thought Jason’s should have been BAMF for Bearded Awesome Mother…well, you get the idea.

Miles 5-6: It started getting hot. I was in shorts, a thin tank top, and long-sleeve half-zip top. I had unzipped my top and rolled up my sleeves. Glad I had my Adidas hat on too because there was lots of sun and no shade. We started heading out of downtown.

I think the name pretty much sells itself

I think the name pretty much sells itself

Mile 7-9: We were out by the railroad tracks. It was SO BORING. It was one of those racing tricks where you run down a road for a mile or more and then back up the same road, so it’s the same scenery! But, we had some pretty interesting entertainment including the Portland Pirates, a live Pep Band, a Spanish-singing Jamaican-sounding band, and mountains in the background. My hamstrings started getting tight from having so much flat course and my feet and lower back were hurting. Even with the insoles I’d gotten, my Mizuno Wave Rider 16s just weren’t working for me for distances over 9 miles.

Miles 10-12: We went through more of Portland. Now it was more the side neighborhood places on the outskirts of downtown. We smelled Beer and Bacon going past a local pub. The foodie in me secretly hoped someone was passing out bacon to runners even though I learned my lesson last year about eating bacon before racing. We got a good long downhill, and my knees got a bit twingy – a quick sharp pain that disappeared after I tightened my patellar bands. I kept waiting for the halfway point.

Running on this boring road but we can see the bridge. It's getting closer! But then again, that's what we thought last mile

Running on this boring road but we can see the bridge. It’s getting closer! But then again, that’s what we thought last mile

Mile 13: We hit at 2 hours and 20 minutes. This meant we probably wouldn’t make my 4 hour goal, but I was okay with that. I felt like my body was more sore and tired than it should have been at that point. I blamed my shoes. At this point too, it was still flat, and we were running on the side of a boring ass road outside of town. There wasn’t much scenery or spectators.

Miles 13-16: I knew the Big Hill was coming. And I was getting excited. Running on the shoulder of a boring road was wearing on me. Our conversation was dying off. We got to the point when we started asking each other when we’d have kids. We didn’t even know if we’d survive this race to have kids! There was no shade, the sun was beating on me. I took my Cliff energy gel shot near Mile 15. It was an espresso flavored one with 50mg of caffeine. I waited for the kick in the tushy I knew I needed.

Mile 16: The Hill. OMG. It was SUCH A RELIEF. Everyone else around me was walking up it, but I took a deep breath and dug deep. This was MY MOMENT. Time for the Hill Master to do what she does best. I’d had several spectators cheer me on by my nickname, but we’d just passed the security checkpoint with the Army volunteers. Anyone without an official racing bib was turned back so there were no spectators to cheer me on. Just my hamstrings that were so relieved now my thighs and calves were doing all the work. Having an incline meant using different muscles, which felt so good after all that flat boring road. And it was shady. And at the top was the glorious bridge we got to cross. I got to the top and had to stop and wait for Jason and Jen. I guess I’d gotten so excited I’d just flown up the hill.

Victory! I've reached the top of The Hill, although this picture really can't portray how long or steep it was

Victory! I’ve reached the top of The Hill, although this picture really can’t portray how long or steep it was

Mile 17: St. John’s Bridge. It was beautiful. Suddenly the past 5 miles of boring were worth it. I got great pictures. I even took a selfie to prove I was still alive at this point in the race. This was quite an accomplishment considering my fatigue and tiny T-Rex arms. My joints again started aching on the cold concrete.

We got to run across this after conquering The Hill. It was a very memorable marathon moment

We got to run across this after conquering The Hill. It was a very memorable marathon moment

Mile 17.5: This is where the trio split – Jen was ready to fly, I was ready to listen to my music, and Jason wanted to go slower. So we mutually said our good lucks to each other and we’ll see you at the finish lines. It was sort of bitter sweet, but for me it was a nice break. I’m used to running by myself and there was something fulfilling to me finishing the race by myself. It was reflection time and right when the marathon started messing with my mind.

Mile 18 – 20: I turned on my iPod shuffle only to be assaulted with blasting My Chemical Romance’s “Black Parade.” I have a 3rd generation iPod shuffle which means it’s a stick without any controls but the on/off button. My headphone controls weren’t doing anything! I finally got the volume down after 1/4 of a mile of running awkwardly messing with my headphones. But now my iPod was stuck at one volume, which wasn’t blasting anymore, thankfully, but wasn’t quite as loud as I would have liked. “Eye of the Tiger” came on and I got PUMPED. I don’t care how overplayed this song is, it’s a running theme song that gives me the energy I need every time.

Here's my selfie taken on the bridge. Not a great photo but remember I'm taking this with my T-Rex arms

Here’s my selfie taken on the bridge. Not a great photo but remember I’m taking this with my T-Rex arms

My journey became a musical mush of madness. After awhile, not only were the volume controls frozen, so was my skip button on the headphones. I COULDN’T CHANGE SONGS. Luckily, my iPod shuffle had lots of my favorite running songs. The night before the marathon, I made sure I had plenty of songs to last me through the whole race. My iPod now had roughly 20 hours of music on it. But sometimes songs you like just aren’t what you need when running, so it was interesting what I got stuck listening to.

The race became more scenic. The road had houses on the left and dropped off the right. There was a breathtaking view of Portland – the fall trees, the mountains, the unique buildings. Literally breathtaking as breathing was barely happening. But I kept taking in…out…in…out. Thud…thud…thud. I had to keep moving. And I was starting to feel better. The music and the scenery meshed, making a magical journey, alliteration included:

“I’m waking up…to ash and dust…I wipe my brow and I sweat my rust…this is it…the apocalypse….”

“I don’t want to go through the motions…I don’t wanna go one more day…without your all consuming…passion inside of me…I don’t wanna go through my whole life…asking what if I’d given everything…I don’t wanna go through the motions…”

“There’s gotta be more to life…than chasing down every temporary high…to satisfy me…cuz the more that I’m…tripping out thinking there must be more to life…well it’s life I’m sure…there’s gotta be more …than wanting more…”

“Something has changed within me…Something is not the same…I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game…I’m through accepting limits…cuz someone says they’re so….it’s time to try Defying Gravity…I think I’ll try Defying Gravity..and you can’t hold me down”

Those songs stuck out in my head as ones that really motivated me to keep going. I also had some upbeat pop songs (Backstreet Boys! cuz I’m old school like that) and a few of my favorite kick-some-butt Linkin Park songs too:

“I bleed it out digging deeper just to throw it away” became in my head “I run it out digging deeper just to keep it away,” thinking about how I would beat the pain.

Another song I don’t remember if it came on or not that I find very inspirational for anyone is Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” I frequently think of these words: “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity only comes once in a lifetime”

I hoped this marathon wasn’t my only chance, but I was going to give it all I had. And right now all I had left was one more energy gel, strawberry with 25mg of caffeine, and it was enough.

Mile 20: I hit it at 3 hours and 40-some minutes with only 6 miles left. I can do this. I can do this. Suddenly, I knew, without a doubt, that I was going to finish this thing.

Mile 20-23: I started getting randomly emotional. I’d get choked up or almost cry thinking about what I was doing. I’m not one who cries easily, but this race meant so much to me. I started remembering all I’d overcome to do this race. How in 8th grade my cross country coach wouldn’t let me run our first meet because she thought I was too slow. Or how my high school cross country coach always seemed to push me hard and get annoyed that I also had marching band commitments during the season. But then she nominated me for the senior female Athlete of the Year award and I won it, even though I wasn’t a varsity star runner breaking records – I was just a student passionate about running and spread that to the rest of my team.

I thought about how in college after my freshmen year my knees were so messed up I couldn’t run. I took two years off going to the chiropractor and learning how to weight lift, unsure of if I could run again. But I did. Because I wanted to and no one was going to tell me I couldn’t.

How running changed my life because that’s how I met Jason. We stupidly trained for the KC Half Marathon in only 4 weeks. But we pulled that race off and came out of it in a relationship that’s still going. I knew we could pull this off too.

Most people were walking by now, but not me. I don’t like to walk during races. That’s why I pace. I will keep running no matter what. I understand some people need to walk, but at this point, I just wanted to finish. And as soon as possible before my body completely hurt like hell. I started slipping…

Mile 23: Only a 5K left. Only a 5K left. Only a 5K left. That’s 30 minutes. Maybe. Maybe 24 minutes. Maybe. It’s only a 5K left. God, I hurt.

Mile 23.5: Hurting. A lot. Only 2.5 miles left. This is the longest 2.5 miles of my life. There’s people! Lots of people! With beer! OMG you’re my new best friends! I took a Dixie cup shot of beer. It was DELICIOUS. I normally skip the jello shots during the Wesport St. Patrick’s run, but this was different. I was running my first marathon, and hell, you only live once. I took the shot down with a hearty thanks.

This bridge was cool looking but at this point I was pretty over the scenic aspect of the marathon. I was ready for the finish line aspect

This bridge was cool looking but at this point I was pretty over the scenic aspect of the marathon. I was ready for the finish line aspect

Mile 24: Broadway Bridge. Another good photo opp. But damn, I fucking HURT. A LOT. Before I hurt, but it was bearable. Mostly my feet and knees felt worn. But now. Shit. Now I HURT. Like my everything below my waist is just ready to quit. I just want to finish. The photographer. He focuses on me. I smile. It’s probably the most pained forced smile. It’s a grimace. But I smile. Because it makes me feel stronger. And reminds me that I’m going to do this. Amongst all these walkers, I’m still plugging along. My feet. My ankles. My lower back. My knees. My joints. Ah, my joints.

I remember Backstreet’s “Beautiful Woman” song coming on (it’s a deep track off their Never Gone album). And trying to think the song was about me, this beautiful strong woman who wasn’t going to be stopped by temporary physical pain. Thank God for Body Glide.

Mile 25: Last. Mile. Hurt. So. Bad. I realized until about Mile 24, I was fine with the discomfort and pain, but now I just wanted to finish. And to have it over with. We were just winding around downtown, trying to make that final couple of miles. People kept telling me I could do it. That I looked strong. Maybe it’s because of my giant Wonder Woman thighs, I thought. Some weird angsty Avril Lavigne song came on. I suffered through.

Then, weirdly, a Celine Dion song I don’t remember putting on my playlist,

“A New…Day…Has…Come…For a miracle to come…Everyone told me to be strong…Through the darkness and good times…I knew I’d make it through”

After that, I turned off my music.

Mile 25.8: Running in silence. There are lots of spectators lining the streets. Lots of signs. The best one: “You’re running better than the government” Ha ha. Hope my body doesn’t shut down too. Lots of walkers now. But no. I’m still running.

Kind of a tease but hilarious. So close! So close!

Kind of a tease but hilarious. So close! So close!

Mile 26: There’s a giant sign with a fat Viking Lady and opera music blasting. It says, “It’s almost over.” Ha ha.

Around the corner. It’s now quiet. No more spectators. Trying to sprint strong like I always do but knowing my sprint is probably barely reaching 10 min miles. But I see it. The finish. And I do. I finish.

Mile 26.2.: I stop. OMG. I stop. And it kind of hurts to stop. But it’d hurt more to keep going. A little girl offers me a rosebud. It’s small and pink and kind of wilted already. I think about asking for a new one. But this one suites me because it looks how I feel. After a bit I walk over to the table and ask for a different one. I get a white one.

The rose is also looking pretty edible at this point

The rose is also looking pretty edible at this point

Then I get a Popsicle. I’m not really hungry. But I know I need to eat. And keep moving. And the popsicle reminds me of the Hospital Hill Half Marathon 3 years ago when it was hot as hell. It was one of my worst races but I managed to finish under 2 hours anyway, and when I got done, they handed me a popsicle. I’ve never loved popsicles more than I did then. This brings back memories and again the emotions start to overwhelm me. I FINISHED.

I then move on to a banana. I have to ask the girl to peel it for me. It’s just a small section of a banana, but all my coordination is gone. Not that I had much to begin with. Just ask my racquetball partner. I also find a small quarter of a PB sandwich, but it’s hard to choke it down without a drink. I find out the water is back down the street by the finish. I wonder like a zombie to the water.

I’m trying to think straight. I’m trying to recover. I have my phone. I got a text to go to the family meeting area, but that’s two blocks away. While wondering, a lady hands me a small bag. “Here are your coins and pendant, dear,” she says. Oh yeah. We get a commemorative coin and a small pendant that looks like the finisher medal. I look down. I have a finisher medal on. Ha. Awesome. I finished.

The Hill Master just blinging blinging with my Finisher Swag

The Hill Master just bling blingin’ with my Finisher Swag

I also get my photo taken. In the picture I’m smiling, but my eyes say, “AHHHH! I need a nap!” I also find the table for the finisher shirts. I get mine. Wondering if I should get a small now instead of a medium because I think I just lost 10 pounds running that thing. Then realize I’ll probably gain it all back with Voodoo Doughnuts and craft beer anyway. I see a rose on the ground. I go to pick it up and realize if I bend down, I might not come back up. A photographer sees me, rushes over, and picks up the rose. I incoherently thank him for his kindness. I can’t explain how much this means to me.

I’m almost out of the two blocks of finisher chute when Jason calls. He’s finished and he wants a picture with me. Since our relationship started with running together, and he’s the one who roped me into this mess, I hobble back and find him. We take a cute picture together that I still need to go and buy for way more money than I’d like to pay. But I want proof we finished our greatest race to date.

The Finisher Chute is two blocks with only runners and volunteers. It's peaceful and quiet but the end of the race is anticlimatic. We turn a corner, there's no more spectators, and we finish the race in silence. No Chariots of Fire music here

The Finisher Chute is two blocks with only runners and volunteers. It’s peaceful and quiet but the end of the race is anticlimactic. We turn a corner, there’s no more spectators, and we finish the race in silence. No Chariots of Fire music here

We make our way out of the finisher chute to the family reunion area. We find Jen and Jon and Jen’s family. We also find Darth Vader. I get a picture and realize this is the best racing photo I’ve ever taken. I just ran a marathon and got congratulated by Darth Vader. Who is freaking awesome. I have a cardboard cutout of him in my living room. It’s like it’s all coming full circle.

We limp our way to the Tri Met to go back to our hotel. I look forward to a shower. To a nap. And to lots of beer. But mostly, I look forward to moving on with my life. Now that I’ve done a marathon, I feel like I can do anything. Like get married. Ha ha. Seriously, this marathon was a huge part of why our wedding planning wasn’t as on schedule as we’d hoped. But that was fine.

Just chillin' like a villain with my good homey, Darth Vader. He came from far far away to congratulate us!

Just chillin’ like a villain with my good homey, Darth Vader. He came from far far away to congratulate us!

Because that too is going to be a long journey. Something we can’t go into at Warp Speed. We’ll have to pace. And take it on together. Knowing there will be trials and tribulations and other alliterative things to get through. But we can do it.

My official final time was 5 hours and 2 minutes. My Garmin showed I finished at 4 hours 50 minutes because I stopped it when we stopped at aid stations. But the coolest thing was the race results show I passed 192 people in the last 5 miles, and only 20 people passed me. The Pacer. That’s right. I paced, I raced, and I finished with an average 11:30 minutes per mile pace. Wibbly Wobely Timey Wimey. The three companions. We finished in 5 hours, but it only felt like mere moments strung together by our love for running. I’ll never forget you, Portland Marathon. Thank you.

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