from mile to marathon

The journey of a thousand leagues begins from beneath your feet.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


The Portland race is an ambitious and happy marathon, eager to overcome the complicated logistics of a downtown run and to make its participants feel special. Marathons are common now; Portland still approaches this race as if it were an extraordinary thing. Maybe that is not bad at all, a reminder of how 26.2 used to be a magical number before I started to look at it as "the halfway point."

The start occurred in waves. I didn't feel the usual elation. Instead I had the opportunity to push away unwanted thoughts of insufficiency that came out of nowhere: how I had not studied the course enough; how I hadn't figured out the best way to fuel; how I hadn't come up with a definite race strategy; how I didn't have new and shining gear (I had managed new running shoes, but just happened to wear the top in which I ran my first marathon six years ago); how I wasn't fast enough; how I felt less of a runner than those around me. All the garbage.

Then the pace of the crowd picked up, we crossed the mat, and I was free to run. It still amazes me, that I can do this - run. That I can wake up way too early morning after morning to train - I, who love lingering between sleep and waking and like to have coffee in bed. That I can engage in an activity that reminds us painfully that we have a body, from the literal pain in the muscles to the urge to urinate at street corners to the impulse to throw up when the body had enough and wants to come out of the body - I, who mind that nature gave us bodies in the first place. That I can stay with it for hours, in rain and in heat - I, the indoor type, who loves books, and art, and to shut off the world. It still amazes me, that I got here. Running the Portland marathon.

My strategy, if it can be called that, was to take it easy the first six miles and then go for a negative split, running the second half of the race faster than the first. Running the first six miles slow had worked for me in South Dakota; the negative split I had only managed once, in San Francisco. The 4:40 pacer passed me very early in the race. I was tempted to follow only for a second. He was going too fast; I didn't feel like speeding up.

The feeling didn't change after six miles, so I kept going at the same even pace - I ran almost the whole race in the same cadence, smooth and steady, without variation.

Somewhere around mile seven I finally peeled off all the extra layers, the "Free Leonard Peltier" sign now visible on my back. I am still considering whether it would be more useful to wear it in front. Only one person acknowledged it, a girl who moved in next to me and asked, "Who is Leonard Peltier?" She was tall, slim, blonde, with flawless skin, and Leonard Peltier must have already been in prison for two decades by the time she was born. I gave her a ten-second pitch (imprisoned for 37 years after a tainted trial, the government doesn't let him go). She seemed bewildered, only for a moment. Then she asked: "In what country?"

Yeah. That is the point. Not in the country I come from, where arbitrary imprisonment was random and rampant. Not in some dictatorship on a different continent. But here, "in the land of the free and the home of the brave."

"Here," I said. She seemed shocked, only for a moment again. One could watch her processing this. We talked for a little while. She would write to Obama, she said when she moved ahead.

I don't know if she will, of course. But if the race had a highpoint, this was probably it.

For a long time, for the duration of ten or twelve miles or more, I ran with the insane conviction that I can run a marathon on any day.

Before it returns to downtown, the course of the Portland marathon meanders along the Willamette River; it offers stretches of unexpected beauty and entertainment of all sorts, from drumming groups to vocal singers to instrumental players to belly dancers to makeshift pirates to cheerleading squads to red dragons at the entry of Chinatown to the band that set up on an overpass, so the music seemed to come from the sky... Just kidding - music on the course is always enlivening. In one place some mischief-maker set off firecrackers; in a marathon that started by remembering Boston, the explosion freaked out several runners, and remained (as far as I know) a one-time incident.

In honor of Boston, the colors of this year's Portland marathon were gold and blue - the medal, the bib number, the finisher shirts.

I was disappointed and a bit sad that all my solid training over the summer, tempo runs included, didn't make me faster. It is true that I didn't actively strive to make this my speediest marathon ever; I had just hoped that my pace will be inherently better, by virtue of having worked harder before the race. Not that it really mattered. I knew I would finish in five hours, give or take, and as a training run for 50 miles with a 12 hour cut-off time this was good enough. I never hit the wall. Then, right before the 25-mile marker, I was beset by the sudden urge to make this a sub-5 marathon. I sprinted.

This was not only belated, but also a shot in the dark, since I had not checked the time when I crossed the mat at the start, so I didn't actually know how fast I had to be, or if I still had a chance for five hours. Nevertheless I ran that last mile so hard I thought I would break. Somehow I made it to the finish before falling apart. Two days later, reading the results on the internet, I found out that I hadn't managed a negative split - the second half of the race took me roughly three minutes longer than the first. But I ran under five hours with minutes to spare.

The Portland marathon ends in a long chute fenced off from spectators, long enough to make you feel lonely by the time you have negotiated its full length. Only in Berlin have I seen this setup before, and it made some people unhappy - moms who couldn't see their teenage daughters coming in after their first marathon. I talked myself into having chocolate milk for recovery. They gave me the medal, the finisher shirt, the cedar seedling - and also the customary foil blanket, the rose, this and that, so much stuff I started dropping things.

Our room was not ready when we got back to the hotel, so I put on something dry (the finisher shirt came in handy) and we walked out again. We bought a sandwich and cold drinks from a deli and sat in the sun next to a fountain. I didn't eat, but I watched toddlers take off their shoes and waddle into the water, and it occurred to me to do the same. The water was ice-cold. The kids didn't seem to care. This was the perfect recovery bath - about the best thing I could have done for my legs was to sit in it. I thought the adults would mind though.

The most remarkable thing about this marathon was that a few hours later, after I had showered, gotten rid of a tummy-ache, and tried to sleep for a while, I stepped out of the hotel door, dressed in clean running clothes, and ran for another hour. Someone told me the marathon was over. I knew that. I am not a fanatic, not more so than the ordinary Marathon Maniac. It's just that I am training for an ultra, and I didn't think I had enough mileage for the week. My feet were so tender, it hurt to even put socks on, but it wasn't that hard, running those extra four to five miles. Hard was shaking off the comfortable idea that I had already done enough, making up my mind, getting going.

It's the mindset that counts. And in November, on that mountain in Wisconsin, this is the mindset I am going to need.


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