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I have completed my first—and last—marathon

Last weekend, I ran (along with about 7,000 other entrants) the Portland Marathon. This was my first ever marathon, and also my last-ever marathon. I finished, in 4:12:53 (1,365th place, of 4,295 finishers), which is about how long I thought it’d take me. What follows is a brief look back at how I got to the point where I willingly chose to run 26.2 miles; you may find the information useful if you’re contemplating running a marathon yourself someday.

About the race

The Portland Marathon is a great race, now in its 45th year. It’s actually two races in one, as there’s a half-marathon with the same start and finish points. As seen on the course map (caution: 2.8MB PDF), the two races share the same course until the 11 mile mark. At that point, the half marathon returns downtown for the finish, while the marathon heads into Northwest Portland, then loops up and over the St. John’s Bridge, which would typically provide some amazing views. Of course, it was pouring rain and cloudy all day, so the views weren’t quite so good for us.

The course then follows along a bluff (again, typically scenic) overlooking Portland before descending down into the east side industrial area (running right along the rail yard), then returning to downtown (over the much less scenic Broadway Bridge) and on to the finish.

Why did I decide to run a marathon?

When this year started, I had no thought of running a marathon. I have thought about it in years past, when I was running regularly—and my dad had run them when I was younger, so they intrigued me. (My dad was quite fast; his best was a 2:40, which is an insane 6:08 a mile for 26.2 miles!) But as of the start of the year, it’d been roughly four years since I was running on a regular basis, so running even one mile seemed ludicrous.

To force myself to get in shape this year, I set a pretty ridiculous goal: I decided I’d walk or run 2,016 miles in 2016. This meant averaging 5.5 miles a day, every day, for the entire year. From someone who had probably ran a total of five miles in 2015. Yea, it’s a pretty insane goal.

So far, though, I’ve managed to stay slightly ahead of it:

As of October 11th, I’m 349.7 miles from the goal, or 4.32 miles per day for the rest of the year. So close, and yet so far to go.

Given I hadn’t been exercising regularly, I started by walking slowly for 80 minutes a day (two 40 minute treadmill sessions). This then progressed to jogging slowly, which eventually progressed to running (still slowly) for that same 80 minutes. Eventually, I found myself running eight or nine miles in that 80 minute window. That got me thinking about trying a half marathon, so in June, I entered one, and found it to be not nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.

When I finished that race, I decided that if I was ever going to do a full marathon, it should be this year: I’m not a young person any more (52 this year), and I will definitely not be doing this much running going forward (no 2,017 in 2017 goal for me!). So I entered the Portland Marathon, giving me about three months’ prep time. Once entered, I was committed—it’s not an inexpensive race to enter, and I wasn’t going to let the money go to waste.

Training for the marathon

I read a bunch of training plans, but honestly, most of what I read would require a huge time commitment, and seemed to be targeted at much younger, more intense marathoners. I talked to a relative who is a serious marathoner, and she suggested I just keep doing what I was doing, but add in some longer runs once or twice a week.

So that became my plan for the three months: I’d run five to six days a week, with four or five of those days in the six to 10 mile range. Then on a weekend morning, I’d run a long run. And I’d take one or two days off each week.

At first, the long runs were 13 milers. Then 15. Then 18, a couple at 21, and finally, three weeks before the race, I ran a full marathon distance. (My long practice runs were around a 4.36 mile loop—six laps for the full marathon—so I could stash food and drink to replenish during my laps.)

During the last three weeks, I cut way back on my distance, and only ran three to four times a week. My long runs during this time were only 10 miles, while daily runs were almost always just six milers. Come race day, I felt as ready as I thought I could be, given my training, age, and general lack of speed.

It’s race day!

The weather the day of the race was not good. It was going to be 60F, which is a very nice temperature, but Portland was expecting 1″ to 3″ of rain during the day. Sure enough, I woke to rain. Rode the light rail in to Portland in the rain. Waited for the start in the rain. Actually, that’s not true; many of us cowered in a parking garage near our starting bin, instead of standing in the rain.

Amazingly, the actual start was dry—7am was when the fast group went; my much-further-back group reached the official start line about 12 minutes later. The first five or so miles were fine; either dry or just a light mist. But after the fifth mile, the skies opened up, and it rained constantly, with just a couple of breaks, right through the finish.

I’ve run in the rain before, but never for such an extended time in constant rain. By mile nine, everything was soaked. The wet shorts and shirt didn’t bother me much, but soaking wet socks in soaking wet shoes is a recipe for blisters—plus they’re incredibly heavy and uncomfortable. I slogged on, though, vowing to stop only if I absolutely positively couldn’t continue.

The marathon is both a mental and physical challenge. Of course, there’s the overall mental challenge of just keeping yourself interested in (distracted from?) running for 26 miles.

For me, music helps a ton with this, especially if it’s paced properly for my running speed. I experimented a lot with different artists during my training, and I discovered that the tempo of much of Bruce Springsteen’s music was a very good fit with my pace.

So I listened to the March 2016 Moda Center Springsteen concert while I ran…at least for the first few hours of my run. After that, my playlist transitioned to a general mix of stuff I liked.

The next big mental challenge came when passing the halfway point. To my brain, that was as far as I’d ever run in a race, and it was when it really sank in that I now had to do another 13.1 miles to finish. This was a very difficult moment, much tougher than I had thought it would—the realization that I’d done so much work already, yet I was only half done (mileage wise) was tough.

On the physical challenge side, there are obviously many to overcome. You need to train well, first and foremost, but as I discovered, even what you think may be sufficient may not be sufficient.

My first real physical challenge in the race itself came between miles 15 and 17—that’s where the race climbs up to the St. John’s Bridge. It’s not a huge climb in terms of vertical feet—150 feet or so—but it was also into a breeze. Into the wind, uphill, with the rain pelting you in the face. For two miles.

And for many of those two miles, you can see the bridge, sitting ahead and above you, filling my mind with thoughts of “you’re going to go up there?” I actually think I blurted out an “oh sh*t” when the bridge first appeared in the distance.

But I did get up onto the bridge; the photo proof at right was snapped near mid-bridge. But those two miles were tough, and they took a lot out of me.

From miles 17 to 21, I felt fine. Not “sitting at home relaxing with the kids” fine, but “I’ve run 20 miles, and I’m still going” fine.

Then, within the span of about a half mile, everything changed. I passed the 21 mile sign, and though fine aerobically, my legs decided they were done. They were moving, but much slower than before, and I couldn’t seem to command any more speed from them. It was startling how quickly this happened, from ‘feeling fine’ to ‘omg i cannot move!’ in a matter of minutes.

From mile 21 to the end, the race was a real struggle for me. It shows a bit in my times (2hrs 4mins for the first half, versus 2hrs 13mins for the second), but it felt much worse than that. It honestly felt like I was barely moving, like the air had become molasses, and every step forward was a battle.

I eventually found that if I walked for 30 seconds or so, I could then “run” for another few minutes. I kept doing this, over and over, looking as far ahead as possible to see each upcoming mile marker as motivation to keep moving. These miles were incredibly, brutally difficult. I never quite felt like quitting, but I did wonder how long it was going to take to get to the finish line, and whether I’d be walking or crawling at that point.

Once I reached the 24 mile marker, though, I got a second wind of sorts—I still wasn’t running fast, but I no longer needed the regular periods of walking. I knew that, with only 2.2 miles to go, I was going to reach the end, even if it did take a while.

Mile 25 further lifted my spirits, if not my actual speed. Only one mile to go, plus that annoying extra 0.2 miles at the end.

Finally, the end was approaching. I honestly don’t remember if there was a marker at mile 26; I just knew that I only had a couple more corners to go, and I’d be done.

Around one last corner, and there it was, the finish line. How tired was I? Apparently very tired: When I saw the photo at right on the photo site, I was surprised I had raised my arms, as I have no memory of doing so! The feeling, though, I do remember: a tremendous sense of both accomplishment (I finished!) and relief (I’m finished!).

And it’s probably a good thing it was 26.2 miles, not 26.3, because I’m honestly not sure how much further I could have gone!

Stuff you might need

I am clearly not a professional at this, so this advice is worth exactly what you paid for it! But here are some things I found useful in my training and race. This is the full list of everything I used during my long runs, excluding the basics of shoes, socks, shorts, and a shirt…and an iPhone or similar electronic device.

  • Sony sports headphones: These were a Wirecutter pick a while ago; sadly, they’re out of production now. But they are the best waterproof headphones I’ve ever used. They have never fallen out of my ears, the cord echo effect is minimal, the music quality is very good, and they put up with any weather, including four hours of solid rain! I like them so much that I just bought a backup set off eBay, in case mine ever break.

  • Running hat: A mesh hat with a sweatband in the forehead and a wide brim. This helped keep sweat out of my face, vented heat out the mesh top, and (most importantly!) I could keep the rain out of my eyes by just tipping my head down a bit. Mine’s a Saucony, but find one that’s comfortable and light, and get used to wearing it before you race in it.

  • Original SPIbelt: This is a flexible-fabric pocket on a stretchable belt, designed to securely hold your cell phone in place while you run. This belt is amazing; once the phone is in and the belt secured, I almost forgot it was there. There’s no jostling or movement of any sort. I also had room for a plastic bag with my ID, credit card, and a $20 bill, just in case.

  • A fanny pack: I kept my energy food and drink (see next item), along with my car key, in a fanny pack. So the SPIBelt was in front, and the fanny pack was in back. When I needed nourishment, I’d spin the fanny pack around, pull out the food, then spin it back. This system worked very well for me.

  • Energy food and drink: The course will provide aid stations. But you may want more than they offer, or different than they offer. For that, you’ll want to stock up on energy food and drinks. My approach was to try to not carry beverages, because they’re big and heavy. So I had a fanny pack that I filled with energy chews, plus one electrolyte drink, just in case.

    What you don’t want to do is go grab a bunch of energy foods at your running store the day before your race. Buy some to use in your training runs, to find out what you can digest and what seems to work for you. For instance, I was told that people loved these “gu” packets that are like, well, goo. But when I tried them, I hated how sticky they were, and how long the taste lingered in my mouth. I found that I liked gummy-bear-like chewables much more, so that’s what I used.

  • Personal care items: When you’re running for a long time, chafing and rubbing can be a major problem. After my first few longer runs, I noticed that my nipples were chafing (to the point of bleeding!) against my shirt; the hilariously named Mr. Nipple solved that problem. These things stay in place through anything, including the four hour rainstorm, yet come off relatively easily when you’re done.

    I also used ChafeZone liberally on my inner thighs prior to starting. I probably should have put some on my toes, too, as I read (after the fact) that this can help prevent blisters. The stuff worked wonders, as I had no chafing issues even after all that time in the rain (rain can accentuate chafing issues).

That’s a lot of stuff, but all of it was important to my ability to finish the marathon.

What I learned

  • First and foremost, I learned that I am not a marathon runner. Some people run their first, and they’re hooked. That’s not me. I was pretty sure it wasn’t me going in, but now I know for sure. I’m a “one and done” marathoner.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am very glad I did it. But I am equally as glad that I will never do another one.

    The marathon is just too much distance for me. It’s mentally really hard for me to run that long, and obviously, it’s physically hard. Marathons are also really hard on the body, and I’d rather save my aging knee cartilage for more frequent shorter races.

    So from here on out, I’ll be running half marathons and 10Ks, which are both distances I enjoy running.

  • I learned that, despite all my running, I hadn’t trained well enough for a full marathon. Specifically, I don’t think I’d done enough 20+ mile runs (only logging three before the event). I had done lots of 13s, many 15 to 18s, but only three truly long runs. Why not more really long runs?

    The time commitment is one big piece of it; for me to run 20+ miles means at least three hours of running. It’s tough to find that much time each week, above and beyond all the other hours on the ‘normal’ length runs.

    It’s also physically grueling, obviously, which is why you do the long runs. But knowing that I wasn’t going to get notably faster, and knowing that long runs are harder on my body, it was tough to convince myself to do them.

    I paid the price, though, starting at mile 21. My body just wasn’t ready for the last five miles.

  • I learned that running for four hours in the rain really sucks. Nothing is dry, everything’s heavy and dripping, and it’s just miserable. A 30 minute or one hour run in a light rain on a warm day? Very pleasant. A four hour slog through a couple inches of rain? Not pleasant.

  • I learned the Portland Marathon is a great event. It’s very well run, and they have a nice collection of goodies for finishers. It’s interesting that you don’t get a shirt merely for entering; you get your shirt after crossing the finish line. And the finisher medal and coin are really something to behold; they’re very nicely done.

    There’s also a small pendant, suitable for a necklace. I gave that one to our kids :).

  • I learned that things hurt after running a marathon. The day after the race, my right knee was a bit sore, my feet were (I swear!) still wet from the soaking they took, my thighs were sore, and I was basically wiped out. Still, I got on the treadmill and walked a few miles, just to get the muscles moving again.

    Now, on day two post-event, things are better. The knee feels normal again, and the overall level of soreness has gone down a lot. It’s still there, just much more in the background.

    I don’t plan on running at all this week, just treadmill walks. I’ll ease back into running next week, knowing that I won’t ever again have to train for a full marathon.

  • The last words

    So that’s that … if you’re thinking about a marathon, I’d highly recommend doing one. Yes, it was a hassle to train for, I was miserable for the last hour of mine, and I’ll never do another one. But I am very glad I did the one I did, as it really does take some mental and physical strength to get yourself through 26.2 miles of running.

    Despite my troubles towards the end, I had a great time at the Portland Marathon this year. So much so, in fact, that I’ve already signed up for next year … but for the half, not the full!

2 Comments

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  1. Good job! I ran the San Francisco marathon in 2007 after my (now ex-) wife said I couldn’t do it. I finished. It’s fun to talk about but I have no desire to do it again.

  2. Congratulations! I’m one of those who get “hooked”. I started to run 4 years ago as a way to deal with stress. Running a marathon is a big deal. It requires a great commitment. So many hours training, so many things could go wrong.

    One thing you could try is a mountain race. It’s really fun and you recover much faster than after a road races.

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