“Come to Portland for Father’s Day,” my son said. “We’ll run a half marathon together,” he said.
I have to confess that most of this run is lost to me in a blur of delirium, fatigue, rain-spotted glasses, and probably life-saving forgetfulness. But what a run it was! In many ways the best run of my life.
My wife and I had traveled to Portland where my son Adam and his wife, Nina, live for his graduation from residency into “official” doctorhood. (Adam rightly points out that he had been an official doctor since he entered residency, and this is true, but I’m casting about to find an easy way to express this latest gradation, and this is how his program director described it when she conducted the ceremony. Anyway, you get my intent. I hope.)
The ceremony was on Friday night. (Nina’s was the week before. Her parents had come up from LA for that, and our visits overlapped by a day, so we got to visit with them, which is always a warm and enriching time. Adam and Nina now begin fellowships in oncology; Adam’s will be in pediatric oncology.)
But that was on Friday night, and with that accomplished and behind us, the main event looming was the Vancouver USA Half Marathon on Sunday morning. If you read my post about the wicked, wicked Striker Life Half Marathon that I had barely survived two weeks before, you might have a sense of my anxiety going into this one. But I felt rested. I had prepared for this run as well as I knew how. I had experience and training. I had even driven most of the course with Adam and my wife the day before (which is always both a good and bad thing). I would be crossing the starting line with all of the mental toughness (and withering self doubt) I could muster. What was left but to lace up and face the thing?
And so we did on Sunday morning. Adam’s running buddy, Nate, picked us up about an hour and a half before the 9:00 a.m. start; my wife and Nina would make their way later to the chaotic finish area to watch us come blazing in. I was dressed in the kit you see above. I had only picked up that green shirt the week before on National Running Day, and I knew when I saw it that I would be wearing it for this run. (You see my usual long-run gear there, but those three dots on the lower left are Advil in a small plastic bag. My doctor family members had strongly cautioned me against taking those in a potentially dehydrated state.)
Adam, Nate, and I got to the start about an hour early, and that gave me plenty of time to fret. The sky was overcast, and the chance of rain had increased in the forecasts through the week. But having done some running in the rain in recent weeks, I wasn’t concerned about that. The temperature was in the mid-fifties, which left us a little cool as we milled about before the start, but I knew that would change as soon as I got my running engine running. We used the PortaPotties even though we didn’t need to. (This is pretty much standard running advice.) We wandered around the park where the expo was held. The local farmers market was across the street. Booths for both venues were waking up as we waited. Other runners and their support crews were gathering. Airplanes from the nearby Portland airport passed low overhead. The start/finish arch beckoned.
Eventually the time passed and we needed to get ourselves over to the starting corral. There were nearly 2,000 runners doing the half; the nearly 1,000 full marathon runners had started two hours before. We would be let go in three waves, and since Adam and Nate are faster runners than I, they milled up to the second wave. All of the usual formalities of a start were observed, and then the first wave soon took off to conquer the course. After ten minutes, the second wave was let fly. And ten minutes after that, my wave was afoot.
I’d had some problems with my running watch earlier in the week. On Wednesday it took forever to capture a satellite signal, and on my run then it reported that I had run a 2:67 mile. (I’m still waiting on the designated sports authorities to recognize my record-breaking achievement there!) And so I worried that my watch would go wonky for this run. I had done a factory reset of it two days before, but without knowing the reason for its erratic performance (getting wet from my rainy runs? a larger-than-normal solar flare that week?) I worried that it would fail me once again on this run. I did have to try twice to grab some satellites, but seconds before I crossed the starting mat, it did find the signals it needed and I managed to press the START button simultaneous to crossing the mat.
And I was off, elbow to elbow with hundreds of other runners. My ultimate goal was, of course, to finish the half upright. But I had a secondary goal, which was to run at least nine miles without stopping or walking. If I did, that would be the longest continuous distance I had ever gone without taking a break.
Unfortunately, the first three miles of this course were a gradual uphill. “Gradual” makes it sound manageable. “Three miles” makes it sound horrible. A lot of runners I know like running hills because it makes them tougher. But toughness doesn’t come through ease. Three miles of uphill were going to be a challenge for me, especially since the first mile of any run is the worst as my engine warms and my mental toughness battles with my self preservation. (I’ve become a believer in warm-up runs, but with 13.1 miles to deal with, I had decided to hold on to all of my energy and spend it on the actual course, the first couple of miles serving as whatever warm up I would get.)
And yet, I accomplished those first three miles, through some commercial and residential sections of Vancouver, without too much struggle. Mostly I told myself that I had a long way to go and that I couldn’t flame out so pathetically early, but I also kept reminding myself of my nine-mile personal goal. And, of course, once I crested that three mile climb, I had a nice, long stretch of comparatively flat and even downhill running before me.
Vancouver, Washington is a pretty town, or at least the course they selected for us took us through the finer parts. I ran past nicely kept homes, past all kinds of businesses, past lovely parks and community gardens, and along scrupulously clean streets. Part of the course took us into the Fort Vancouver historic site, which had a welcomed downhill stretch past old and well-maintained homes and barracks and beside open meadows that were like parks themselves. Very nice for finishing off the first third of the run.
And I was feeling good. My lungs had gotten over their initial shock at being asked to work so hard (which I knew they would). My legs felt fine, as though they still had a lot of miles in them. Mentally I was doing well, and I was still hopeful that I would hit my nine-mile goal.
But then three things happened.
In the elevation map for the course, there is a spike where we had to climb a hill, run along its crest for a short distance, and then run down the opposite side. (You see that early gradual climb to mile three. Then the wicked spike. And finally a nasty hill right before the finish.)
Having driven the course the day before, I knew I was approaching the spike. It came as a physical challenge so close before my nine-mile personal goal that I felt sure the running gods had done so deliberately to test my faith. I had a long argument with myself as I ascended that spike, saying that I couldn’t stop, that I had to grind up it and not give in. Plenty of other runners were walking up this hill, and that is considered an honorable strategy for managing the rigors of distance running. But as you know, I have no honor. I told myself I had to run up that entire spike or be a quitter forever. And as it turned out, that hill wasn’t so much steep as long, which is much harder.
But the spike itself was only one of the challenges I faced at that point. A second was that the thick blanket of clouds overhead decided that then was a perfect time to begin sending down a mist. I was warm enuf by then, so the mist didn’t make me feel cold, but it did make the pavement below my feet feel slick. Not slippery but slick. I could feel a change in mechanics as I pushed off from each footfall. It was not profoundly different or challenging, but I was only about halfway finished with the run, and now I had this to manage as well.
The third challenge, the worst challenge, was that my left knee was beginning to hurt. Right on time. In two of my past half marathons, my left knee began to hurt at about mile 6, and it was a sign that my IT Band on that leg had had enuf. When that had happened those two times, the only relief I got was to take a walk break. This. Was. Bad. I still had about three miles to go in order to achieve my personal goal (and much farther to finish), and with the rain and the climb, I really feared that I wasn’t going to make it.
(As bad as that Striker Life Half was, my IT Band had not acted up then. That course was flat, and I suspect it was the various hills I had to climb — and descend — on the others that affected my knee.)
My hill tactic is to stop taking in the scenery and just look at the pavement directly before my feet. I pull my cap down so the bill is close to my eyes, and then all I can see is a few feet ahead. Hills and impossible distances don’t seem so bad then; I’m in the moment only, and I manage. So that’s what I did. I narrowed my focus and ground up the hill, doing little more than a fast walking pace. But run on I did.
And then, after an unending grind I was at the top. I knew this because I could feel the change in my legs and lungs. I looked up and saw a course monitor directing us to the road that would then take us down the other side of the spike. A lot of runners like to open up on a downhill stretch, increasing their pace and glorying in the ease of the running. With the slick pavement, and the intermittent mist-turning-to-actual-rain, and with my aching (and increasingly aching) knee, which was sending pain up the outside of my leg, I was not going to start running faster. In fact, running down a hill is usually just as pain inducing for me as running up one, especially with my IT Band in full-on protest.
But I did have two things in my favor. I was approaching my nine-mile personal goal still alive, and I had those three Advil in the tiny back pocket of my skimpy running shorts. I had been faithfully hitting all of the water stations, and I had been eating my GU energy gels according to my schedule (miles 2 and 4, and then at miles 8 and 10). I didn’t think I was dehydrated enuf that the Advil would take out my kidneys. So if it came to that, I would dry swallow them and push on. Eventually, I did exactly that.
It was tough. I had to do some serious self talk to get myself to mile 9 without taking a much needed break. I had to be harsh with myself. I’m surprised that my self could withstand my self. And yet, when I did reach mile 9 without having stopped or walked, when I took a moment to give myself a congratulations, I found that I was still running. I didn’t take this permitted opportunity to stop or to walk. I just kept going.
I was not myself by then, though. I think something approaching actual delirium was descending upon me. I was running with a group of people, and I grew familiar with the colors of their shirts, their bobbing pony tails, the brand of their shoes (it’s a runner thing). But then I would look up, seemingly moments later, and find myself among a completely different group of runners. How did that happen? One woman kept passing me. When the fog cleared briefly, I asked her how that was possible, and she confessed that she was stopping/walking a lot by that point. Apparently I was passing her too. Along here one of the people on the sidelines looked directly at me and said “You can do this, Fred!” Something about her words didn’t seem right. Then I remembered that my name was printed on my bib, and I literally looked down at it to see if Fred was my name. (Turned out it’s not.) My left hand kept striking some annoying thing as I ran. I had no idea what that was and I had to watch one time to see. My hand was striking my hip. I could feel it in my hand and in my hip, but I was not making the connection in my head. Along this stretch the course took us along a promenade beside the awe-inspiring Columbia River. Some part of me knew this and thought I should take in the view, but though I tried, it was lost on me. The rain was coming down then. My legs seemed to be operating on their own will. I’d lost interest in the distance reported by my watch. I was in a bad place.
But I was running. And the pain in my knee was abating. And somewhere around mile 11 I knew that I was going to finish the entire half marathon distance at a run.
In that elevation map above you can see the slight climb near the end. This was back inside the Fort Vancouver Historic Site. I met this hill with renewed determination because I knew I was going to run the whole damned thing. Dammit! This climb was not particularly difficult, though I suspect it was this way because I could no longer feel anything. I was shot. I had the fuel to keep going, and I had the delirium to allow my to ignore reality, but my body was in bad shape. I did know that much at this point. But it was a good, bad shape. I had earned this bad shape. I could be proud of this bad shape. I could relish this bad shape, knowing that it came from effort and accomplishment. And I could chuckle a little because this hill happened to pass close to the stretch we ran when we first entered the Fort at around mile 4. And over there, at mile 4, were a pair of runners still on the outward bound path. Nearly two hours behind me but apparently determined to do it too.
I don’t know much about the last couple of miles. We re-entered downtown Vancouver. The sideline crowds picked up a bit, though this late in the run they had thinned. I was running through tall buildings again. The course turned and one woman told me the end was near. (I tried to figure out the implications of her words.) I dug deep and found some energy to finish well. I picked up my pace. I threw my head back and opened my mouth wide to catch as much oxygen as I could. I ignored reality and begged my legs to keep going. I don’t know if my knee was still hurting then or not. I think I may have been passing people. I think the rain had stopped. And with about a half mile left, I heard my son Adam cheering me from the sideline. He had come out to meet me and run on the sidewalk beside me to the finish. I may have waved to him. I think I did. I was giving it all I had. I was so close to finishing the half marathon at a run the whole way that it was all I could think of. If it was even thinking I was doing by then.
And then I rounded the last turn and saw the finish arch ahead. The most beautiful thing in my tightly focused world.
I crossed the mats. I remember turning off my watch. I ran out my speed. And then, apparently, I staggered. Adam reported that three or four volunteers hurried over to me, and I can remember one man holding me around the shoulders to keep me up. Someone shoved a cup of water into my hand. And then someone put this thing around my neck:
Evidently I had run/staggered past the medals and the young woman had to run after me to give it to me. That was nice. After a few minutes, and after telling the man holding me upright that I was okay several times, I began to feel my self returning to my body. I wandered in some direction that I thought was toward the exit, and there was my wife on the other side of the fence. She was joined moments later by Nina and then Adam. And they all said, “Well?”
I didn’t understand at first, but then I realized they wanted to know if I had run my best half. Oh yeah, that. So I looked at the numbers my watch reported, knowing that I didn’t remember the exact time of my best half so far (Rock the Parkway). But the time I had run this one was so much better that I didn’t need the exact times. It looked like I had bested my best by six minutes! (Later confirmation showed nearly a six minute gain. That’s huge for this kind of thing. At least within my humble abilities.)
So I got a PR. And then we staggered to the rehydration area in the park at the start/finish. My bib got me a free entry and a free beverage at the craft beer festival being held there. What a coincidence.
It was a big day and a big deal for me. And without hesitation, I told myself it was time to find another half marathon to run.