Drove up to Portland on Friday, arriving in town about 11:00 at night, found a (sort of) cheap hotel. Asked if I could have a later check out, so I could take a shower after the race. That's an extra $40. Forget it.
Somehow, I thought the race started at 8:30 instead of the actual start time of 8:00. Glad I got there early! Managed to do a little stretching and made my way over to the start area. Just before the gun, I realized I hadn't put my pack of peanut butter in my pocket. Oh well, I could probably do without just this once.
Going into this race, I had two goals:
2. Finish in under three hours.
This was the flattest course of all the Coastal Trail Runs, so if #2 was ever going to happen, it was going to be today. Taking a look at the out-and-back course, I saw that it was mostly uphill on the way out, and mostly down on the way back. I figured as long as I reached the halfway point in about 1:30, I had a chance. I'd be getting tired at the end, but I'd also be running downhill.
The course was in Forest Park, right next to a road called Skyline. My eye twitched. A select number of 2006 Texas 4,000 Sierra riders would remember that hill as the tough one that wiped us out at the end of a long day into Portland. Maybe the course is harder than it looks on paper? Would it be as hard as it seemed back then?
Right off the bat, a muscular guy took off up the hill, shot out of a cannon. He was dressed in all black, like me, only he was wearing knee-high black-and-white camouflage socks. The start line had been changed from its normal location, so the course now included an out-and-back that was basically a climb straight up a hill and back down. I'm a decent climber, but I couldn't believe how fast this guy was getting up the hill. I saw him run through a patch of sunlight and noted the time, then looked at my watch when I got there. 30 seconds had elapsed. Only three minutes into the race, and he was already 30 seconds ahead. Damn.
I came around a corner and saw Knee-High standing on the trail next to a cone.
"Is this the turn-around?"
I looked at the cone. It definitely had a sign on it that included the words "turn-around." But it was off to the side of the trail, and it had a yellow ribbon on it. Having run many races with Coastal Trail Runs before, I knew that yellow was never used for the marathon; it's almost always reserved for the 10k.
"Nah, I don't think this is it. Keep going!"
I felt bad that the guy just gave me a free 10 seconds. But it was unlikely that either of us would beat the other by 10 seconds or less.
A quarter of a mile later, we found the real turn-around and headed back down the hill. I think I actually managed to gain on Knee-High on a downhill. Not common for me. I suddenly liked my odds.
Two miles into the race, headed back uphill again, it was clear that Knee-High wasn't just a fast starter, but a force to be reckoned with. I finally passed him 2.5 miles into the race, slowly, on an incline. It took effort. I couldn't tell if I was foolishly letting my competitive side get the best of me, or if I was doing a good job of using my best abilities. Time would tell.
The course was heavily wooded, to the point that no sunshine made it through to the forest floor, even though it was a bright, sunny day. Probably a good thing, since it wasn't that cool out. Had we been in direct sunlight the whole time, it would've felt pretty hot. As it was though, nothing but green. Lots of it. Dense canopy and thick undergrowth. A beautiful course, even if there weren't really any views. It reminded me of Big Basin.
In fact, the course itself wasn't unlike Big Basin either, due to all the micro-hills. Aside from the initial out-and-back climb, there weren't really any big hills, but the course just rolled and dipped constantly. You really had to be paying attention. The difference was that this course was the opposite of technical. Firmly-packed dirt the whole way, hardly any rocks or loose gravel in sight. A perfect surface and a not-horribly-challenging course. This was going to be a good day.
Had to climb a short out-and-back hill to get to the first aid station. I downed some Clif Shot and asked the volunteers what mile we were at.
"7.2. It's 6.7 to the next one."
I looked at my watch. It showed 6.3. Clearly, it wasn't working very well. No wonder it thought I was running eight-minute miles; it doesn't think I'm going as far as I actually am.
Immediately after leaving the aid station, Knee-High was there. I finally noticed that he looked familiar. Maybe I've seen him at one of these races before? Every time the trail made a switchback or hairpin turn, which was often, I looked back and saw Knee-High not far behind. My lead was probably only about 10-15 seconds. At some point, his shirt came off.
Just before the turn-around (the course was an out-and-back), a big hill. Switched to shorter steps for the first time in the race and plugged away. This was where I could separate myself. Made it to the aid station in 1:37. I now had to just as far, minus the initial out-and-back, in 1:23 if I wanted to break three hours. It was a net downhill. Sounds do-able!
As I ran back down the hill, I made a note of how much time had elapsed since I left the aid station. Knee-High showed up 1:30 later. I had a three-minute lead, which I'd opened up in about six miles. I'd been gaining about 30 seconds per mile. Solid! Of course, if I could do it to him, he could do it to me. And with half a marathon to go, he would only need to gain 15 seconds per mile to catch up. Now is not the time to get complacent.
Knowing that a win and a sub-3:00 marathon were both possible, but not easy, I posed a challenge for myself: never "tap the brakes" running down the hills. Run through the downhills in all cases, use the terrain to your advantage. I wound up still having to slow down for some of the switchbacks and hairpin turns, but I felt like I did a pretty good job using the descents on the way back, better than I normally would.
Since it was an out-and-back course, I had to pass a lot of people headed the other way on the way back. Just about everyone was great at sharing the trail. Seemed to be a popular trail, since I also saw a lot of people not wearing numbers. Hey, if I lived in Portland, there's a good chance I'd be running there too. What a great place to run.
At one point, I was charging up the hill and came across a middle-aged couple walking their dogs. When there's a dog involved, especially when there are two people, it can be hard to go around just by moving to the edge of the trail. Dogs can just be unpredictable sometimes. They moved their dogs off the trail at the last second. As I passed, the man called,
"Pedestrians! Yield right-of-way!"
You wanna tell me exactly what vehicle I'm driving? I'm a pedestrian too. I'm just faster.
My watch was now showing that I was running each mile in at least 10:00. I knew that was impossible; it was probably closer to 7:00. I kept not seeing the turnoff for the aid station. I knew there were 6-7 miles to go after that. I would need about 45 minutes to work with in order to finish the race in under 3:00. When I saw the turnoff, looked down at my watch, and read 2:19, I concluded that it was still technically possible, but unlikely.
I panted between gulps of water and managed to swallow a sticky Clif Shot. Just as I was finishing, a volunteer told me,
"5.6 to the finish!"
"Rock and roll!"
I had 40 minutes to finish this thing. Did some math in my head as I headed down the hill leaving the aid station. If I could run 7:00 miles from here on out, that'll do the trick. And it's mostly downhill. I smiled. This thing is happening. I reached the point where the aid station turnoff re-joins the trail. Knee-High was nowhere to be seen. I was still at least three minutes ahead; he hadn't gained on me at all. I smiled bigger. A win was in the bag.
My watch had completely stopped working. I was stuck on 17 miles permanently. I charged down the hill, unsure of how far I'd gone, how fast I was going, and how much distance needed to be made up. At least the time function was still working (obviously, you don't need GPS for that). The thick canopy cover, great for keeping us cool, must've made it hard to get a satellite reading. I was never sure if I needed to pick up the pace to make it, or if I should play it safe and run comfortably. Without knowing how far it was to go, it was impossible to make that call. I just tried to hold a strong pace.
I was finally starting to get tired. I kept looking at my watch, pretending I would finish in exactly 3:00. When the watch read 2:41, I'd think "Just hang in there another 19 minutes, c'mon, you can do this for 19 minutes." Five minutes later, when it read 2:46, "You only have to run for another 14 minutes. What is that, two miles? You can always do another two miles." Helped me get through the last half-hour of the race.
With less than five minutes to go, I started getting nervous. I tried looking through the trees to see houses, or flat ground, or any sign that we were near the finish. I could never see it. With each minute that ticked away, I got more and more desperate. How far is it?? Should I just start sprinting? How long could I maintain that? I can't remember, is there one last hill? I finally decided to stop worrying and just run like I run.
Just past 2:58, I finally heard the noise of the finish line. It didn't sound close by. Only 10 seconds later, I came around another hairpin turn, still heading sharply down the hill. And there it was! I was never so happy to see the bright colors of a flag and a canopy tent. Elated, I practically sprinted through the finish line with three fingers in the air.
There were still a lot of half-marathoners at the finish area (they started a half-hour after the marathon). Slowly, people started noticing that my bib number was different. After a while, about every 30 seconds, I heard "Wait, you finished the marathon?" My neck got tired from nodding.
While getting some water and snacks, I met a nine-year-old girl that finished her first half-marathon. Not only that, but it was a trail marathon, not an easy course! And her time was respectable, regardless of age, sex, or trail conditions. Holy smokes! Just imagine being a strong, college-aged young man, thinking you're tough for finishing a hilly half-marathon, and you see a nine-year-old girl already done when you cross the finish line. Kids like that rock. Parents that allow them to pursue tough goals like that (without pushing them towards it) are almost as cool.
I waited around at the finish area for a little while, wanting to see Knee-High finish. 15 minutes later, there he was. We shook hands and congratulated each other. He laid in the grass; I ate more. When the results came out, a familiar named jumped off the page.
"CHUCK! That's the guy who beat me at the Golden Gate Trail Run in February!"
At the time, when this guy beat me by 15 minutes, I figured he was on another level that I may never reach. This time, I beat him by 15 minutes. I shook hands with him again.
"Now we're even!"
"Don't say that. I hold grudges!"
I laughed. "We'll see what happens next time. Great race."
"So you do a lot of trail runs?"
"I do now, I guess. I do most of the ones with these guys."
He shook his head slowly, "You can have 'em." He started taking off his knee-highs, "I'm not a trail guy at all."
He sure could've fooled me.
When I took a second look at the results, something else jumped out at me. Chuck is 42! He looks my age, for crying out loud! I hope I'm as handsome in 14 years. Not to mention that badass. Damn, man...
Since the race was in Portland, I had some wild fantasy that a rep from Nike would be there and immediately offer me a job on the spot as a high-level trail running consultant. No such luck. :)
After hanging out and eating for almost an hour, I finally made my way over to the shuttle pick-up to head back to my car. By now, there weren't many people around; the half-marathoners had already left, and most marathoners were still running. I found an entire school bus trying to turn around on a small residential street, with cars parked on both sides. It wasn't moving very fast. I made my way to the door, hoping the driver would let me on. The door opened.
"Can you check me, mon?" He had a Caribbean accent.
I walked behind the bus and helped wave the guy into position. He was now blocking all sides of a T-intersection. No one seemed to be coming anyway. I climbed on the bus and plopped into a seat two rows back. The driver waited for other passengers. A few minutes passed. No one else came.
"How many miles?"
I looked up. He was looking at me in his mirror. "26."
"Hoooooo!" he let out in a high tone. "I would die on the way home!" He shook his head. I grinned. "Is the race on a course around the city?"
"No, it was in Forest Park, on the trails."
"Oh, I see. And you pay to race?"
"Yeah, only about $50. It's not bad."
"Is there some incentive you get for racing?"
"Well, I got a medal!" I pulled mine out. "Actually, I got two medals."
"Two medals? Why do you have two medals?"
"One everyone gets for finishing, and I got another for winning."
"Winning? You won? What do you mean by you won?"
It seemed pretty self-explanatory. "I mean, I finished first."
"First place?!? You won the whole race?"
"Hoooooo!" he exclaimed again, with a big, incredulous smile. "They should be paying you millions of dollars, mon! I see these Kenyans winning races and you are like them! You must be a rich man!"
I laughed. "No, I'm not quite like that. Not that good."
He fired up the bus. I was still the only one on it. "We gonna take the champion home!" I leaned back in my seat and smiled again.
I got back in my car. No shower. Very little change of clothes. 627 miles to Berkeley, CA. Let's do this thing.