Thursday, October 19, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #3: The Win

Okay, so honest truth: given the size and past results of the Portland Marathon, I knew there was a possibility that I’d be able to place in the top 5, maybe even top 3 women. However, every time I’ve gone to a race with “placing” in mind, I’ve stressed out and am almost never satisfied with the results, no matter if I live up to my own expectations or not. Therefore, I approached this marathon as laissez-faire as I could. After all, the only factor I could control was my own race, so that’s what I wanted to focus on. If I hit my time, that really was winning enough for me.

Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t want to race other women at all; I just wanted to save my competitive drive for the last few hard miles. Therefore, my race strategy—compliments of Coach J—was this: Whatever you do for the first 13 miles, don’t panic. If you run 6:35s or even slip into 6:40s, who cares? You’ll run the first half of the course uphill, so on the return trip, you can make up time. Bottom line: Don’t go out too hard. Then, get to mile 23, and in those last three miles, race.

This was a great strategy, and it worked . . .  at least for the first two-thirds of the race. I spent the first several miles cruising along comfortably, paying little mind to the fact that I was in third place. (Just to be clear: when I’m talking about “place,” I mean third/second/first place woman.) Honestly, I thought there would be more women in front of me at that point, especially considering that the half and full marathons started together. However, only one half marathon woman appeared near the front of the pack, so already at mile two, I found myself running down Natio Parkway behind just two tiny Japanese women and a bunch of men.

I was still marveling at how good my body felt—6:30s didn’t feel like work yet!—when I caught up to the second-place woman. We were somewhere between miles six and seven, just having turned onto a long, straight industrial road that would lead us to the one major hill on the course. She and I ran side by side for at least a mile, maybe more, and all I can remember thinking is, This lady is breathing way too hard for this early in the race. By the time we hit the hill, I could no longer hear her.

The next seven or so miles passed fairly uneventfully; I mostly spent them watching the pink shirt of the lead woman and the orange flag of the accompanying bicyclist bob up and down in the distance. This was the residential stretch of the race, and lots of spectators were out there cheering for me to “go get her.” It was surprisingly encouraging, especially because we all had our names printed on our race bibs, so people would shout, “Go Allison!” as if they knew me and really wanted me to catch the leader. (And, notably, this is where three of the four spectators who actually knew me were standing—so they probably did really want me to catch the leader!) However, I had no idea what that woman had in store for the rest of the race, so I was content to keep hitting my paces. If I could still see her at mile 23, I knew I’d be ready to “go for it.”

Unfortunately for me, that’s not quite how things worked out. Instead, I caught up on St. John’s Bridge, around mile eighteen, and by the time we made it back down the hill, I couldn’t hear the patter of her footfalls anymore. I was on my own. And when I say I was on my own, I was on my own. From that point through the end of the race, I think I passed three, maybe four men running the marathon; everyone else I caught up to was walking the half marathon. (The two race courses were essentially layered on top of one another—see my earlier blog post for further details.) Basically, the point is: when I got to mile 23, I had no one to race. It was just me, dodging walkers over uneven asphalt and slippery train tracks. So this is where it was easy to get defeated. Where was I going to get any adrenaline? How was I going to find the grit to finish hard when every part of my body was already hurting?

Luckily for me, I had practice in this setting. During this past training cycle, due to a wide variety of circumstances, I wound up running most of my long run workouts alone. As a result, I came up with all sorts of dumb tricks to convince myself to "keep going" when the going got tough. One trick: hypnotize yourself with a mantra. In this case, I co-opted one that had been offered by my friend T___: “Today’s the day.” Today’s the day. Today’s the day. Today’sthedayToday’sthedayToday’stheday.

Trick number two: use your arms. I originally learned this from my first coach, as advice for climbing hills when your legs are tired. My current coach took it one step further and showed me how “using your arms” actually rotated your core to generate more power with each stride. I don't often remember to focus on this, but when I do, it really works. And I remembered this time.

The last trick was arguably the hardest, but it was also the most effective, and that was ignoring my watch. At this point in the race, seeing a 6:45 mile wasn’t going to help me adjust my pace any more or less than seeing a 6:15, other than to make me feel defeated and give up on the PR I wanted so badly. Now was the time to buckle down and pour out whatever I had left; however that showed up on the clock was how it would show up.

So with my mantra and my arms, and without my watch, I bobbed and weaved my way through those last few miles. When I finally made it to the finish line, it was almost exactly like any other marathon finish I’ve ever experienced. I saw the time on the clock, I passed under the banner, and I felt that gush of relief that it was all over. There was no tape to break, no flashing lightbulbs, no paparazzi. I wobbled along on unsteady legs, up to volunteers who wrapped me in the standard finisher’s poncho and hung a finisher’s medal around my neck. A  few moments later, a woman came up to me and led me over to a photographer who took a picture of me shaking her hand (which, ironically, never made it onto the race website or into the Portland newspaper article, although the men’s winner and both half marathon winners are on there!). Then she handed me a surprisingly heavy black box containing a glass trophy, asked me whether I had someone waiting for me in the reunion area, and sent me on my way. And so I went on my way, almost as if nothing had happened: one more day, one more marathon. That's the irony of it all—life is very much the same, glass trophy or not. There will be a new PR to chase soon enough.

2017 Portland Marathon Race Results

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
(F 30-34)
26.2 mi
14 / 2,927
1 / 1,460
1 / 234

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #2: Irks and Quirks

The Portland Marathon is one of a kind . . . and I mean that in the best and worst ways possible.

First of all, it almost didn’t happen.

Second of all, despite this being the race’s 46th year, there were some definite issues that the organizers need to figure out before I can recommend this race to any other runners. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • The course took an extraordinarily long time to be finalized. As in, we didn’t find out where we’d be running until a month before the race. Apparently, the reason for the delay was that the race organizers were having trouble securing a permit from the city . . . which none of us knew about until Runner’s World published an article claiming the race might be cancelled. I have two words for that: poor communication.
  • Along similar communication-related lines, I received more emails from the Chicago Marathon—which I wasn’t registered to run—than I did from the Portland Marathon. This is not only a lost opportunity for Portland (after all, they’re the hometown of running apparel behemoths Adidas and Nike . . . neither of which sponsors the race!), but also a point of stress for runners accustomed to bigger races with lots of professional communication. It’s okay to be a little slow getting the details of the race together, but please, be more communicative next time (so us runners don’t go into full-on panic mode), okay?
  • Next up: nutrition. Now, I understand that this is a small and only moderately sponsored race, but if you’re going to provide something other than water on the course—which is very important in a marathon, and for which I am certainly grateful—why in the world would you choose a beverage that has zero calories? Marathoners need calories! 
  • Then there's the course itself. It’s an out-and-back route, which would not be a problem, except for the fact that the half and full marathon courses are pretty much on top of one another and start at exactly the same time. This means that any marathoners who run under four hours wind up colliding with the half marathoners who are walking on the “back” part of the out-and-back course. Speaking from experience, this turns into one big game of Frogger, but a whole lot less fun, given that everyone is fatigued and therefore much less agile than they might otherwise be. Let me tell you: there is no turning on a dime at mile 25.  And if you add in some rain and uneven train tracks . . . collisions will happen. (Luckily, Portlanders are really nice about this sort of things; see below.)
  • Speaking of train tracks, my final grievance is based on something that didn’t even happen to me, but it is the primary reason I cannot recommend this marathon. My friend L___ was on pace to run well under 3:30 when she came to one of several sets of train tracks at mile 25. However, she couldn’t carefully step over these tracks because . . . there was a train on them. She and all of the runners around her had to stop and wait—again, at mile 25, when they were all sore and fatigued and dying to be done—for a train to pass by. L___ still ended up running under 3:30, but who knows how much time that interruption cost her? I'm pretty sure I'd have thrown a fit.
So that’s it for grievances, other than the fact that there was no tape to break at the finish line (a very minor grievance in the scheme of things, but it would have been nice!). Now, on to accolades. (Because Portland really is a lovely place to run a marathon!)
  • The people. And not just the spectators—who were wonderful and supportive, don’t get me wrong—but the runners, too. Because the course was out-and-back, I found myself facing a lot of other runners after I turned at the halfway point and began retracing the course. Not only did these other runners smile at me, but they actually cheered for me while they were running their race. I was astounded. These people had no idea who I was, but nevertheless were shouting, “Go girl,” and “Stay strong,” and “Go get her [the lead woman].” It was amazing support and kept me smiling for a vast majority of the race.
  • The swag—the tree seedling in particular. Every marathon gives its finishers a medal (which typically gets put in a shoebox) and a T-shirt (which eventually gets thrown away), but how many people can, twenty years down the road, point to a giant tree and say, “See that? I won that in a marathon!”
  • The weather. Of course this varies year to year, but the 2017 weather was perfect: fifty degrees and overcast. We had a sprinkle of rain about an hour into the race, which made the footing a bit slippery, but a short shower was by far preferable to torrential downpour or blistering heat alternatives.
  • The terrain. Apart from my grievances (above), the course actually played to my strengths. Being forced to run generally uphill for the first half of the race forced me to stay controlled and attentive, and running downhill for the second half made it that much easier to negative split (my preferred way to race). Also, while a good chunk of the race follows empty industrial roads (read: no spectators and no scenery), these roads are straight (i.e., no turns, no tangents) and they’re fairly well kept. Ultimately, I’d say that any runner who has run and enjoyed the Brooklyn Half Marathon course would like this course, too.
In spite of the negatives—and thanks to the positives—I did manage to run the race I had planned . . . which is obviously a huge positive. So I'll spend my final blog post dwelling on that. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Portland Marathon Recap #1: A Long and Uncertain Road

There are so many stories to tell about the Portland marathon, it’s hard to choose just one . . . so I guess I’m going to tell several. Bear with me. Because there was a time when I wondered if this marathon would even happen at all.

There's a pretty view out there somewhere. . . .
Late last year, when I went looking for a 2017 marathon, I decided that I wanted to travel, but I didn’t want to leave the country like I had for Berlin. A teammate recommended the Portland Marathon, so I took a look. At first glance, the course didn’t look too hilly, and I had friends in Portland who would be fun to visit . . . so I signed up.  Then, as luck would have it, those same friends invited me to their wedding, which was scheduled to happen exactly a month before the marathon. Perfect, I thought. I’ll use my long run that weekend to check out the course. Yet as time passed, the 2016 course remained stubbornly up on the race website, with no sign of being updated. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’ll just follow the old route and hope it doesn't change much.
Then, in June, Runner’s World published an article that made me second-guess my whole plan. It started with the sentence: “One of the country’s oldest marathons is at risk of being canceled this year after failing to secure permits from the city of Portland, Oregon.”

Um, what?

Feet are also having some
bad luck
Fortunately, the race organizers did eventually work things out and, one week before the wedding (less than six weeks before the race), the course was published. Whew! Crisis averted.

Or at least crisis number one. Because when my fiancé and I arrived the Friday before Labor Day, we found the Pacific Northwest blanketed by a haze of forest fire smoke. Is it even safe to be running in this? I wondered as I laced up my shoes. What if conditions got worse? However, two weeks later, the fires calmed down, and my Portland friends assured me that rainfall was taking care of the ash in the air. Good. Nothing left to do now except finish the training cycle.

Or so I thought. A week later, I returned from a long run to find a voicemail from my sister: “Hi, Allie? Don’t panic, but mom’s in the hospital. Call me back.” My mother had had a heart attack. Six hundred dollars and twenty-four hours later, I was in Pittsburgh, watching with relief as they wheeled her out of surgery, alive and intact. After a day or two, I started looking at my transportation options home . . . a plan that was quickly aborted when I found myself driving my father to the emergency room of a different hospital. He was also suffering from heart failure.

Thankfully, both of my parents were released from their respective hospitals within a week, and, thanks to the incredible generosity of two friends, I flew home to New Jersey feeling shaken but relieved. Surely that was the final hurdle I’d face before this marathon . . . right?

Pre-race pasta dinner (photo and apartment credit: Lisa!)
Finally, it was the night before my flight to Portland. As I lay in bed trying to will my eyes shut, I realized that I hadn’t received any alerts about checking in for my flight. Wow, that could have gone badly, I thought as I picked up my phone and opened the app. I was about to swipe right to check in when I did a double-take. Surely that didn't say . . . I couldn’t have. . . . But there it was, glowing right before my very eyes: the flight that had I thought was scheduled for 6:40 pm was actually taking off at 6:40 am—exactly 6 hours from that very moment. And I wasn’t even packed.
In the end, everything worked out. I not only made my flight with time to spare, but the plane was so empty that I was able to move back to the emergency exit row. (Extra leg room!) I stayed with my friends as planned, ate lots of pasta, and showed up at the starting line feeling as good as I could hope to feel at the end of such an uncertain marathon cycle. But the Portland Marathon wasn’t done with me yet. Stay tuned for the "irks and quirks" that awaited me along the course. . . .

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Pre-Portland: Fall 2017 Season Recap

After a few crazy weeks and a nearly-missed flight, I am finally in Portland . . . so I guess it's time for the annual pre-marathon self-pep-talk/season-review.
Posting a goal time (that I will fail to achieve) at the Strava mile.

The Challenges
The biggest challenge this season has been adjusting to a new coach. Trusting someone brand new is hard, and no matter how badly I want to fast forward to the point where I blindly believe everything he says, I'm simply not capable of that . . . at least not yet. But looking back at my previous coaching relationship, I recognize that I am capable of that level of trust, it just takes time, and certainly more than one full training cycle. So as impatient as I feel, I have to accept where I am and how far I have to go, and give it the time it takes.

The long and lonely road . . . crossing train tracks
on my 3hr long run in Portland.
The next big challenge has been learning how to fail, although truthfully, I don't think I've learned this lesson yet. I failed in my last two long runs leading up to this marathon, and I'm not talking about just running "off pace;" I'm talking about quitting entirely. The hardest thing about these failures has been knowing, even as they're happening, that the stumbling blocks are mental, and succumbing to them anyway. The perfectionist in me wants to scream, Weakling! How will you ever get through this race if you can't even finish a workout? But I'm (hopefully) learning to reign in that voice, and to keep the punches from flying when I'm down.

The final challenge this cycle has been (re)learning how to train alone. When I ran my first marathon, I trained pretty much by myself; I had just moved to New York City and didn't know very many people, never mind runners. Now, things are different: I know tons of runners and have had the luxury of running with many of them for my last few training cycles. This year, however, that luck ran dry. My old training partners were taking breaks, and my new ones were focusing on the mile, meaning that they had zero interest in doing a ten-mile workout on Tuesday and another twenty-mile run on Saturday. Having had company for so many previous seasons, I kind of forgot: training alone is hard. There's no one to inspire you to get out of bed, no one to pace off of, and no one pull you along when you're having a crappy day. If nothing else, it makes me that much more grateful for runs where I do have company. Silver linings, right?

The Triumphs
If most of my challenges this season were mental, most of my successes were mental, too. For starters, I consider it a success that I finally stopped worrying over whether I was doing "enough" training. Frankly, it's scary to go from increasing mileage every single season to suddenly scaling it back, yet still with the goal of running faster than ever before. It's scary to abandon track work altogether when I've gone to that same oval every single Thursday for the last three years of my life. But sometime in the midst of training, I decided to put my own fears aside and just do my best with what I was being given. My new coach's approach to preparing for a marathon might seem gentler, but I chose this coach, with this approach, for a reason. I owe it to myself to see it through.

Teammates really are the best
The other triumph this season was learning to read my body. I've had to face a hard truth this year: I'm not 25 anymore. I can't just roll out of bed, throw on some shoes, and expect to start running at 6am. I also can't expect my body to recover like it used to. Case in point: about a month ago, I took a trip to the west coast for a wedding. While I was out there, I was scheduled to do my longest run of the training cycle. The next day, I felt fatigued, but certainly not "wrecked," so I was pretty upbeat about the workout I had coming up. However, two days later, I found myself a mile into the workout, straining mightily, and still not coming close to the pace I was meant to hit. At that point, I had a decision to make: try to grind through this workout feeling like crap and very obviously failing, or throw in the towel, jog back, and attempt the workout again the next day. I went with Option B. The next day, I found a middle school track and did all nine miles there--and nailed them. Now let me be clear: this is not a triumph because I nailed the workout. It's a triumph because, instead of berating myself for "failing," I recognized that my body had not yet recovered and gave it a chance to succeed on another day. I showed myself compassion and, by doing that, was able to make a smart choice. This is not something my 25-year-old self would have been capable of doing, but my 31-year-old self did it, so I am ready to call that progress.

The Bottom Line: I know I can do this. I can run this marathon the way I want to. Whether I do or not remains to be seen. But I did everything I could to give myself the best shot, and really, that's all any of us can ask of ourselves.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best sorts of novels are hard to categorize. (My theory is that’s why they get called “literary.”) An action novel would have a guy on the lam, running from an ugly past. A coming of age novel would show a misfit teenager trying to interact with her peers and manage her feelings for a boy. A family dynamics novel would portray a husband, daughter, and grandmother all grappling with the death of their wife/mother/daughter.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has all of these elements, and more. It includes a fraught friendship between two men. A challenging yet beautiful marriage between a woman trying to escape her home and man trying to find one. The difficulties of parenting alone. How to live as a perpetual outsider, and the delicate balance between the need for privacy and the natural urge to form human connection.

Nothing I can write in a few paragraphs will do this novel justice. If rock solid character development and unwavering attention to the details that make us human are what you look for in a novel, then Twelve Lives may soon be your favorite.

View all my reviews