I did not sleep well on Saturday night. I tried to go to bed early, but the rest of the household was still up (including two under two — guests, not family), so sounds drifted up the stairs. It probably wouldn’t have mattered regardless because I was fraught with anxiety and so tossed and turned. I had set the alarm for 3:00 again, and I rose before it, again. What else could I do? So I puttered around the quiet house. I found a banana and later a bagel with peanut butter. I drank some iced tea (unsweetened, of course). I got online and surfed around a bit. I checked the page for the marathon for any updates (none). I dressed partly in the kit above but waited to suit up completely. I stepped outside to gauge the temperature — and decided it was warm enuf to start without my throwaway jacket.
Gun time was at 7:00, but we wanted to get there by 6:00 (to use the Porta Potties and find our wave and generally walk around to dispel the nervousness). Slowly the household woke. I finished dressing, including pinning eight packs of GU to my waistband. I packed the bag my wife would carry when she met me on at several points on the course. (extra GU, lip balm, extra socks, M&Ms, Tylenol, a bottle of Gatorade) We got ourselves together, and Adam’s wife drove us to the start. It was dark when we arrived, but the start area downtown was already packed with people. Adam and I milled around. I made a few lame posts to Facebook to pass the time. We eventually found our way to my starting corral. (Adam’s pace secured him a spot in an earlier corral, but he stepped down to be in mine.) We waited in line to use the Porta Potties (again) and mostly just waited.
Eventually the announcer began talking up the crowd, the National Anthem was sung, and waves were herded to the starting line. As I said, gun time was at 7:00, but by the time my wave was herded to the start, twenty minutes had passed. This wasn’t really a problem since we were chip timed, so when we crossed the starting mats, our individual clocks started.
With a lot of miles to manage, we chose to head out slow, which meant hundreds of people were passing us. I’ve gotten comfortable with that. The course wove us around some downtown blocks and then toward a major north/south street, taking us south and, at around four miles, just a couple of blocks away from Adam’s townhouse. Our wives and several friends were waiting for us when we passed. It might have been nice to stop and visit, but we were on a sweet downhill stretch, and it didn’t seem like a good place to halt the momentum. (Mile 4 turned out to be my fastest mile.) Soon we were back on that north/south street, heading north. There were still plenty of runners going south, which meant there were plenty of runners behind us in this little endeavor. (And I understand there were hundreds of people who intended to walk the entire 26.2 miles.)
Something happened around mile 4 that I wish hadn’t happened. My left IT band began hurting. It was a minor pain on the side of my knee, and I hoped I could just run through it and it would go away. I kept running, walking through the water stations to grab some rest on the move, and I felt good otherwise. My lungs were in the game (usually my most reluctant parts). I wasn’t feeling any more fatigued than I should at that point. My double-faced tape solution to my insole problem seemed to be working. Adam kept up the chatter. And we kept moving.
We were to stay on this north/south road for another six miles and then turn around and run south on it again to the breakaway point where the half marathoners would keep going straight and we full marathoners would turn to the west to begin a really long climb to the highest point of the whole 26.2 miles. But first we had to run that six miles north then turn around and run much of it back to the breakaway point. This stretch was through a heavy industrial section of Portland. It wasn’t very scenic, but there was some live music, a couple of water stations, and pirates. Apparently there is a local pirate club that dresses up in costume, waves swords, and says “Arrrr” a lot. Why not?
Sometime along here, my right IT band started hurting too. My left had never let up with the ouch, and now the other one was joining the chorus. This was not a good thing; we weren’t even half way through the marathon and I was having major mechanical issues.
The pain never let up. I was eating my GU every three miles, drinking water and Ultima at all of the aid stations, managing my pace and doing everything I knew to do it all right. But the pain never let up. I swallowed some Tylenol (that I carried in the tiny back pocket of my skimpy running shorts). And I kept hoping that I could run through the problem.
At the breakaway point, I was still believing that the “90% mental” part of this effort would be enuf, that I could overpower the pain in my knees — and soon in my hips because my stride was being affected. The rest of me was in pretty good shape. But every swing of my legs forward hurt. It wasn’t a searing, crippling pain, but it was sharp and very present, and I could expect to experience it another ten thousand times before I was done. To get a break from it, and to give it a chance to abate just a little, I started walking for short distances. Going from a run to a walk made the pain much worse for the first few steps, but then it hurt much less — though never not at all. I walked until my disappointment overpowered my pain and started running again. And, again, the pain of the transition was terrible for the first few strides. Adam urged me to run to some spot ahead (generally a music tent or the next water station) and I did my best.
The route after the breakaway point took us on the approach to the St. John’s Bridge, which was the highest point of the run at mile 17. We trotted through a residential area where our wives were waiting for us with cameras in hand to document our misery (well, my misery). My wife had my support bag, but I didn’t really need anything from it so I just waved as I kept going. The residential stretch didn’t last long before we were headed down a steep hill and spilled onto a busy street. This stretch was through more industrial area, and we runners were on the shoulder and one lane of the road (decent pavement), with oncoming traffic just a few feet off to our right. Never once did I feel in danger — Portland seems to be a runner-friendly town — and many of the drivers honked and waved but the exhaust from the big trucks that constantly passed can’t have been good for a runner’s lungs.
A long hill lead up to the St. John’s Bridge, and at the base was what they called Checkpoint Charlie. It was manned with actual uniformed soldiers who looked for official bibs on all of the runners. Those without bibs were not allowed to pass this point. I’ve never seen this in a race, though I had never run a marathon before. Their job was to prevent anyone who was not officially entered and wearing a bib from going on any farther. I’m not sure why that was necessary or why they needed to wait until mile 16 to do this. I saw many people running with us up to that point who did not have a bib but who were accompanying friends as support. (And I saw this companion running again after we had crossed the bridge and were running in a nice residential section of Portland.) I suppose there is a reason for it. Adam and I were passed without slowing down, but slow down we did because we came to that long, steep hill that lead to the bridge. We walked up this hill as did nearly everyone else. My knees were grateful for this respite, and I even walked backward for a while to use different muscles. That actually felt very good. Many people were stopped at points up this hill to stretch muscles. Aside from my knees, my legs were doing surprisingly well. I had brought seven Tylenol with me (don’t know how I’d gotten an odd number) and I still had three left at this point (I think — math was never my strength, and on a long run I lose the ability altogether). Adam had cautioned me against taking Advil in a potentially dehydrated state, and he would soon begin cautioning me against taking more than the daily recommended dose of Tylenol, but my knees would override his good advice.
The St. John’s Bridge rises to a peak in the center, and, sadly, I needed to walk to that peak. But after this I was running again. I did this in part because I knew there would likely be a photographer ahead and in part because Adam’s wife had texted him that she and my wife were waiting on the far side of the bridge for us. We had to look good for these witnesses. Running down gentle hills like the far side of the bridge is great. My knees were still stabbing me with knives, of course, but otherwise is was pretty glorious to have gone the longest distance of my humble running career and still be mostly upright. (My longest training run had been only 17 miles, which, let me tell you, ain’t enuf for this kind of endeavor.) From the top of the St. John’s Bridge we could see Mt. Hood in the hazy south, Mt. Adams over the horizon to the east, and grumbly Mt. St. Helens to the north. We spotted the photographer and improved our strides, I wiping the death mask from my face, and then we spotted our wives ahead of us at the bottom of the bridge. They had their cameras out again, documenting our progress. Adam may have stopped for a kiss. I don’t recall. I just kept going, wearing my brave face. A few turns later, though, we faced a steep downhill, which is hard on the knees even under good conditions. With my knees in violent revolution then, I didn’t attempt to run down that steep hill at all. I slowed to a walk, again feeling the worst of the pain during the transition. Adam was with me. And then we were ambushed.
Adam’s wife had run after us — with camera in hand — to continue documenting our progress as we walked. Whatever she caught on camera, however, would show nearly every runner around us also walking. Nonetheless, we picked up our pace and continued — uphill at this point — until she was out of sight, whereupon we walked again. Having driven this course the day before, we knew this hill was here, and we had planned then to walk it. I think we were at mile 18 by this point, and I took the comparatively slower pace as a chance to post to Facebook that I wanted to die. (I had signed up for automated posts to Facebook that would be triggered when I passed sensors on the course that would read the chip on my shoe. This worked pretty well, though my wife reported that they showed up both before and after I was at these points. I’m not sure how that is possible, but delirium had pretty much taken over and reason was left behind.)
Aside from the hill just after the bridge, the rest of the course, a mere EIGHT MILES, was all flat or downhill (except a brief ascent to the bridge back into downtown Portland). I really hoped that I could run most of this, but the knees. The KNEES! I was in constant pain. I had only one Tylenol left at this point, and while those little white pills seemed to help, it never lasted. Adam kept up his encouragement and his challenges to get to the next random landmark, and sometimes I could run that far. Just as often, I could not. I fell back to my hill-climbing technique of holding my head down (actually not a good running stance) and concentrating on the three feet in front of my two feet. That seemed to help. I seemed to be able to go a little longer that way. I can remember being gruff and apologizing a lot for ruining Adam’s run, but he confessed that he was in some pain as well. At mile 21 I posted that I was pretty sure I was already dead.
We ran. We walked. We hit all of the water stations. I ate my GU on schedule. I took Gummi Bears when offered. And pretzels. (At one station they had run out of pretzels and were offering greasy potato chips. No thanks at that point in my misery. I wasn’t having any dehydration problems. Even with the sun out, Portland was comparatively mild. I wasn’t sweating excessively, and I was dutifully drinking at the aid stations. So the added salt of some potato chips did not seem worth the risk of violent vomiting from the grease on my stomach during my trauma.)
I had no time goal for my first marathon. All I wanted was to finish upright. But there was one clock I wanted to beat. The good people of Portland seem to respect the running community, but asking them to tolerate closed major streets for too long is a lot. At about mile 22 there was to be another breakaway point. If the runners had not reached this point within six hours, they were going to be shunted off the main course and on to sidewalks of an alternate course to bring them to the finish. I wanted to get to that breakaway point before the six hour mark. I really wanted to run the official course. And I did beat that clock. I got to that point with something like two hours to spare. That was gratifying, and maybe it put a little more spring in my step. It didn’t take away any of the pain in both of my knees with each springy step, but I think it lifted my heart a little.
These last miles are mostly lost in delirium. I remember moments. I remember a long, long, gentle downhill stretch, and I think I managed to run most of it. I remember seeing a woman collapsed on the side of the course. Her friend was with her as were two course officials. She was talking, but she looked all in. I had worried that this might happen and that Adam would have to stop to help her (he being a doctor), but she had official help with her, so we pushed on. I remember seeing signs promising beer ahead. By the time we got to that point, though, all that was left was the smell of beer. I’m pretty sure it was an unofficial aid station and that they had run out of that sweet beverage then packed up and left. There was a wet patch on the pavement, and I think that was what I was smelling. Just as well. A beer about then would have probably had the same effect as greasy potato chips. I remember ugly stretches under bridges and past grain elevators and warehouses. And I remember pain.
We were coming back into the central part of Portland at this point, having completed our long journey to the hinterlands, the St. John’s Bridge being the farthest point. Adam pointed out the bridge we would soon be crossing to finish the last mile and a half. I was astonished, not because the bridge looked so very far away but because I was within a couple of miles of having run an actual marathon! I had truly not believed this would ever be possible for me two and a half years before when I had begun trotting around the dog park with Flike. When the idea of even a simple 5K looked beyond conception. And there I was, within striking distance of a marathon. A marathon! Me!
But there were still miles to run. And pain to manage. The knees never let up their assault (though I’m sure they felt it was the other way around). I ran. I walked. I watched for photographers so I could try to look semi-alive for them. We passed people. People passed us. We kept on.
The bridge back across the Willamette River was peaked, and I walked to the peak then began a long run with gritted teeth and determination I dredged up from somewhere deep inside me. I think we still had a mile and a half to go at this point, but I was determined to run most of it. And I was determined to run across the finish line. We pushed. Adam stuck with me the entire way. We came back into the downtown area, running again on some of the same streets we had covered at the start, which seemed like a lifetime ago. We covered the distance. And with the last few blocks visible ahead, I chose to walk one final time so I could have something in the tank for the end run.
When we rounded the corner for the last few blocks, I started running again. Our wives were on the sidelines cheering us. (I later saw the video they had shot, and I looked deceptively alive in it. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t though.) There were crowds cheering all of the runners. The sun was shining. I may have been smiling. There was one turn left before the last two hundred feet to the finish arch. This was going to happen!
But there was one surprise left.
As I rounded that last corner, digging deep to find a last kick of energy, my right thigh muscles seized in a terrible, terrible cramp. Forget the knees. Suddenly I became no more than cramping thigh muscles. One big muscle of pain. It was blinding. Unexpected. Hateful and horrible in this last bit of the most amazing thing I had ever done. Evil.
And I ran through it. I just kept going. I don’t know what my stride looked like. Some part of me was bigger than that part of me, and I just ran for the finish. Adam, of course, stayed with me. As we approached the finish, the announcer called out our names, and I grabbed Adam’s hand, raising ours over our heads to cross the mats in something like euphoria. That got the announcer’s attention and he commented on it. It also got the photographers’ attention, and I could see them pointing their cameras at the father and son finish. (I hope they got some good shots.)
I crossed the finish mats, and then my knees and that twisted thigh reminded me that they had crossed with me. I was frozen. I could not take another step forward. I must have looked terrible because a couple of workers hurried over to me and put my arms over their shoulders. I felt silly. But I also felt grateful because there wasn’t the slightest hesitation on their parts to assist me. I told them I was fine and that I felt embarrassed, and I freed my arms then tried to step forward. And I seized up again. I think I was worse off than I realized. But I could see my medal being offered just a few feet ahead of me, and I was determined to hang that on my neck. So I tried again. The knees seemed to cooperate. And the thigh screamed at me but let me stagger those few feet.
I took that beautiful, beautiful medal and draped it around my neck. Then I staggered a few more feet for the one-time-wear finisher’s jacket I had just earned. (Generally, runners on these epics are handed a “space” blanket to keep warm after they finish and their bodies are vulnerable. But the Portland organizers had found that something like 80 percent of these are discarded right away. So they gave us jackets made out of something a little bit more substantial than paper that we could wear during our recovery, but they wouldn’t hold up for repeated wearings, and I’m sure they would dissolve in the wash.)
I loved the chute after the finish at this run. We had four or five blocks that were dedicated to us runners. No crowds of family and friends in our way. No dogs on leashes. No strollers. No well wishers. Just runners and a block-long lay of fruit and CHOCOLATE MILK (I drank two) and salty snacks and candy bars (I ate two) and water and replenishing drinks. And roses. All finishers were given a rose, Portland being the Rose City, don’t you know. We rounded a corner and collected our finisher shirts, which are nice, long-sleeved tech shirts that I can run proudly in. After this we were given our tree. Each finisher also got a tree seedling, which
I think is a Western Red Cedar Norfolk pine. I intend to plant it at my cabin (even though it is not a native). Then we stepped up to the official photography station and had a joint photo taken of us. Kind of cheesy, but maybe it will turn out nice.
We still had two blocks to stagger to get to the family reunion area, and my right thigh was still tight, so I stopped at the First Aid station and asked if they could do anything for me. I must not have looked too bad because all they offered was a squirt of balm that I rubbed onto my leg. The medic said I would feel the heat from the unguent but I never did, and he half confessed that the real benefit was from the rubbing itself, which would stimulate blood flow to the area. I managed to rise from the chair unassisted, and Adam and I continued the rest of the way to the reunion area where our wives were waiting. And there they were, cameras still in hand. We presented them with our roses and kissed through the fencing then stepped to the exit gates. Once we passed through those, our official participation in the Portland Marathon 2014 would be finished.
There was supposed to be a beer festival nearby, but we couldn’t spot it, and all we really wanted to was to get back home and get our of our plastic clothing and into hot showers. So we walked (slowly) the few blocks to the car. I managed to get in without cramping (this has happened in the past after big runs) and we drove home, using some of the same streets I had run that lifetime ago when the race was still new and my knees didn’t know what was coming.
There were 32 steps waiting for me at Adam’s place. 32 steps between me and a hot shower. I took them one step at a time and managed the ascent.
Surprisingly, after a shower and real clothes, I felt pretty good. We folded ourselves in the car again and headed back downtown for a late lunch at Kenny and Zukes, where you just remove the word “cholesterol” from your vocabulary. It was actually difficult to finish a whole sandwich, but like running with angry knees, I braved my way through it. As we sat there, we speculated that there might still be people out on the course, still finishing the 26.2 miles.
So I finished the biggest personal challenge of my life. I hurt in places I didn’t know were places. But I still have all of my toenails. And I have a new reservoir of self respect.
And I’m going to run more marathons in the future. I figure one a year is reasonable. And I’m going to do better. I’m going to learn the exercises and techniques for controlling my IT band issues. I’m going to train better. I’m going to do better.