My four days in Portland were just as physically and mentally exhausting as I imagined they would be. When I wasn’t attending my intensive two-day coaching course, I was either playing with my adorable one and four year old second cousins, preparing for/running/recovering from the marathon, battling with my pre- and post-race insomnia or traveling. However, the visit was incredibly interesting, gratifying, productive and most of all, FUN! I didn’t have much time to play tourist, but from what I was able to see as I flew into, ran around and ate and drank my way through (the breweries of) Portland, I am excited to return! Oregon seems like a cool state, with tons of beautiful hiking and trail running opportunities, although perhaps better explored during the summer.

It feels good to be back in California (I flew home late last night) and to finally see some sunshine after so many dreary days in Portland! I decided when I woke up this morning that I had earned a day off to recover, watch horrible shows on TV, get a massage, eat cookies for dinner and catch up on a few things – including this blog – before diving back into grad school application madness, taking my online RRCA coaching certification exam and preparing for my 5-week whirlwind NYC – London – Boston trip, among other things. It can all wait until tomorrow!

So without further ado, how did the Portland Marathon go?!

As you can probably guess from my huge smile and shiny gold medal, marathon number three is now in the bag! It was a great race but I’m so relieved that it’s over – as much as I love to run and have a marathon on the horizon to keep me motivated, I really need to prioritize other things right now. I think my body will appreciate a break from the long runs too, although I must say, only two days later and I’m recovering relatively quickly! Must have been all that post-race recovery beer…

My official time was 3:41:15 (8:26 min/mile average pace), which was one minute 39 seconds slower than NYC 2010 and 40 seconds faster than Paris 2010. It was on the upper end of my 3:39 – 3:42 goal that I set the night before the race, but it was a very solid effort, particularly when taking into account the ups and downs of (and large holes in) my training. But let’s start at the beginning…

On Saturday night, I tossed and turned as I often do before a big race until my alarm went off at 4am. I ate breakfast, listened to some music to get me in the racing spirit, looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and gave myself a good pep talk about my race goals (it helps, seriously!) and then got ready before my cab picked me up at 5:20am.

My driver dropped me off at the Hilton twenty minutes later – the hotel was only a few blocks from the start and I figured I could keep warm in the lobby and also use their bathroom (a bit nicer than a porter potty!). The Hilton also happened to be where my course and the expo were held, and thus the only familiar place to me in Portland aside from my cousin’s house!

I sat in the lobby and watched other runners congregate and mingle in between frequent bathroom trips, as I had nothing better to do and wasn’t feeling very social. I was tired and nervous – not in an excited way. I ran into a few people from my course, which was nice, but what really comforted me was catching E’s phone call right before I headed to the start. It was SO wonderful to hear his voice, even if only for a minute – I felt quite emotional as we hung up, but then just as suddenly, I finally felt READY TO RACE.

It was dark, chilly and humid outside when I finally emerged from the Hilton around 6:20am, but compared to my experience last year of freezing for several hours in Staten Island, it felt like the tropics! I walked a few blocks to the A & B corral entrance, where runners were starting to gather and warm up. We had been told to get to our corrals around this time to drop our bags, so I was quite shocked when I found only one small table with a few volunteers frantically trying to serve a never-ending line that snaked all around the block. The situation was ridiculous – made me appreciate my parents even more, since they always carry my bag when they spectate.

I waited in line for at least 15-20 minutes, which really got me nervous, especially when the line turned chaotic as more runners arrived and everyone became desperate to get their bag in the truck before the start. I had about ten minutes left by the time I got rid of my bag, which would’ve been fine except that I then had to go to the bathroom and the lines for the toilets were equally long! Thankfully, it was still dark out and I was wearing a garbage bag to keep me warm, which also gave me some privacy as I found a semi-discreet place to pee (not ideal, but not exactly uncommon in marathon starts) as well as a few minutes to do some strides before getting into place.

From here on out, it was a very smooth start. I was in the second wave, which crossed the line around 7:02. I had placed myself around the 3:30/3:35 pace groups – faster than what I was aiming to do obviously, but I didn’t want to get stuck too far back either. This probably explains why my gun time placements are slightly faster than my net time placements (a first for me), in addition to the fact that I slowed down later in the race.

My plan was to try to follow my 3:38:59 pace band as long as I could, which had me warming up at a slightly slower pace for the first two miles (later subtracted from the last three miles) and running 8:21 for flat miles and faster/slower paced miles according to the course profile. If this became unattainable, I would try to get a PR (sub-3:39:36) or as close to 3:40 as possible, since that seemed like a good benchmark. My best effort goal was to at least beat my Paris time of 3:41:55 – I could live with that.

However, it you take a look at my Garmin details, you’ll see I didn’t exactly follow the plan. The latter goal was the one I achieved, although up until around mile 23, my sub-3:39/3:40goal was within my reach. Grrr. Don’t get me wrong – I finished strong and feeling proud of my performance, which was my most important goal for the day. However, putting aside the fact that I was relatively under-trained and not feeling 100%, I have to be honest with myself and admit that I didn’t race the first half as wisely as I could have, nor did I do so in my previous two marathons (sheer determination made up for that in the later miles). Let’s take a look at the course profile and splits!

As you can see, the course was not what I would call flat – in fact, the net elevation gain was 809ft and loss 808ft, compared to 888ft gain and 901ft loss in NYC! That really surprised me, as I had assumed that Portland would be a lot flatter than NYC. Now let’s compare my pace band to my Garmin splits (keeping in mind that my watch said I ran 26.45M, and I was getting my splits many seconds ahead of the mile markers):

As you can see, I was ahead of my pace band splits for many miles in the first half of the race – I didn’t start that quickly, but then in miles 4-8 I took it up a notch. Why?! I misread my early splits and initially thought I was behind (was hard to read the numbers clearly in the rain, and I also missed the first two mile markers), used some downhills to my advantage and then got slightly carried away with the crowd and surrounding pace groups (the 3:35-ers, to be specific) once I settled into the run. I knew I was pacing too fast and I might pay for it later, but it just felt so good, and I let myself start toying with the idea FAR too early in the race of achieving an even faster time than my pace band! Silly silly me. The upshot was that I somehow managed to miss the train twice on the out and back section – I heard it approach just after I crossed the first railroad tracks on the out, and then as we crossed the same tracks on the back section, I heard a spectator shout that we had just missed it. I find it quite shocking that a relatively big race has a course that intersects with trains (they subtract the time apparently, but still), and am very grateful I didn’t have to deal with that!

By the time I reached the halfway point, I was 40 seconds ahead of my pace band, but not for long! With mile 12 came a hill, which set me back five seconds. I started to lose steam on the flat 14-15 mile section, which I’m sure is at least somewhat related to running too fast earlier on and which set me back another ten seconds. Then, I was really hit hard by the longer, more challenging hill (i.e. ramp and bridge) around miles 16-17, where I lost 72 seconds! It was actually on that ramp that the 3:40 pace group caught up with me, but I’m very grateful for that! I usually don’t use pace groups, but these extremely enthusiastic pace leaders (who shouted words of encouragement, reminded us to keep an eye on our technique and engaged the spectators) helped me stay strong up that hill and kept me motivated until I lost them around mile 23. I got some time back here and there, but by the time I reached the 20M marker, I was 37 seconds behind my pace band, meaning I was toeing the PR line and already feeling very fatigued. If I had held back my pace in the beginning, perhaps I wouldn’t have struggled quite so much in the later miles and would have been able to stay on track for sub-3:39, but given the fact that I had only run 18M in training, it’s hard to say.

Then again, one of my great strengths is digging extra deep in the last miles of a race to ensure I achieve my goal. I remember how much I struggled in NYC towards the end – similar to Portland, I started to slow down in miles 23 and 24 (although in NYC, mostly due to some big hills) and was barely hanging on when I mentally yelled at myself that I was far too close and had worked WAY too hard to give up, and suddenly bumped the pace up 30 seconds for the remaining 2.2M, bringing me under 3:40 with 24 seconds to spare. Obviously, it helps to build sufficient physical endurance in training and pace properly on race day – neither of which I really did for Portland – but I’m pretty sure that if I had been REALLY determined to get a certain time, I would’ve made it happen once again at mile 24. I remained mentally focused and relatively strong the entire way, but for various reasons, I struggled to feel sufficient quantities of that inner intensity to propel me into that last gear. Occasionally this happens, and so of course I ask myself why.

The course, spectators and general energy of the race was uplifting but nowhere near as thrilling as a race like NYC. I knew my cousins would be somewhere at the finish which gave me comfort as well as something to look forward to, but I didn’t have friends and family dotted along the course, which is always energizing. Instead, I pictured my family and close friends tracking me online, encouraging me from one mile to the next and cheering as I crossed each timing mat. This was a HUGE source of inspiration for a large part of the race, since I knew that these people were in fact tracking my progress and it made me feel like I was never alone. However, my ability to visualize their support faded as I started to struggle, and my brain was only capable of locking onto my mantra – loud familiar voices calling my name would’ve been more effective at this point!

I also wasn’t attempting my first marathon, nor was I trying to reach a lofty goal – well, running a 3:39 is a very lofty goal having trained the way I did, but I had already achieved a 3:39, and on that particular day, doing it a second time – even if slightly faster – wasn’t quite as appealing to me for whatever reason. Runners often ask themselves, “why do we do this?” when the training gets tough or nerves build during the taper, and the answer usually is that sense of accomplishment after crossing the finish line. It’s what keeps us coming back for more. I felt a huge sense of relief and pride, but certainly not that same level of elation, that rush of overwhelming, mixed emotions that I have experienced previously.

It makes me wonder – I love to run, but now that marathoning (or racing, generally) is no longer new to me, do I need to attain a PR to get that finish-line rush? Do I need to REALLY want something to engage that last gear, rather than simply be able to give every race a 100% effort? The answer isn’t a clear yes, but it certainly isn’t the same feeling when you cross a marathon finish line in a time you know you could achieve and when you have conquered the distance many times before, compared to attaining a huge goal after months of hard work or conquering an unknown.

In this case, however, it had been nearly a year since I had run 26.2M and so it did feel slightly unknown! I decided to simply hang on rather than push harder when I started to struggle at mile 24. I didn’t want to risk blowing up and figured waiting another mile or two was a safer bet. I finally started to gradually increase my pace and then once I saw the 26 mile marker, I started to sprint.

This is where my cousins shouted my name, but I was so focused I didn’t hear a thing. I was turning the corner to the final stretch!

And then at last – the FINISH LINE – and the hugest wave of relief when I heard my name being announced as I crossed it. I felt nothing but positive emotions on Sunday about my performance, which was extremely refreshing for me, being the outcome-oriented runner that I am! Two days later, I’m of course slightly critical of my race, but more from the perspective of learning from experience rather than wishing I had acted differently.

Let’s take a look at my final placements – based on my chip time, I placed 1040 of 8386 overall, 235 of 4405 women, 45 of 753 group F30-34, and my age/grade percentage was 61.23%. Portland had some great interactive tools and I can’t help but share them. The numbers are slightly different for some reason, but you get the idea!

In my last 6.2 miles, I apparently passed 212 runners and 23 people passed me. But my favorite stat by far is “For the Record, you were ahead of 80% of male finishers.” Remember that shirt I bought at the expo?! 🙂

What about the positive aspects of my race performance that are not related to my time or placement?

My stomach remained rock solid and I didn’t once feel a need to stop for the bathroom, which meant my nutrition plan for the three days prior as well as the morning of the race worked well once again (always a relief after the disaster of Paris). I stuck to a diet of low fiber, simple, carbohydrate-rich foods (i.e. plain white rice, spaghetti, white potato, bagels, oatmeal, banana, applesauce etc.) combined with the appropriate amounts of lean protein (eggs, fish and chicken) and fat (olive oil, nuts, protein sources). I hydrated sufficiently the day before the race and as soon as I woke up three hours before the start, but only took tiny sips of water after that to avoid having to go while running. I took my 5 SIS gels during the race as planned, and like in NYC, I carried an oval running bottle from which I sipped frequently to keep my mouth wet (I only need a few drops at a time to remain comfortable) and to save time when I breezed past aid stations. This lasted until mile 17ish, at which point the bottle was empty and I tossed it.

In terms of gear, I wore nothing new and had zero chaffing or other phantom gear-related injuries (other than a small blister on my toe from running in the rain) so everything I wore worked out great. My hat was perfect for the rain, and my sunglasses stayed perched on top the whole time, since I didn’t end up needing them. My hip – although aching slightly before the start – was nowhere near as painful throughout the race as I feared it might be. Actually, it hardly hurt at all – but of course everything started to hurt later on…

I didn’t feel so great once I stopped running. I was dehydrated, very wobbly and felt quite sick to my stomach – fairly normal for me, but still not fun! The finish area had more goodies (awesome finisher t-shirt and medal, 40th anniversary t-shirt and medal, mini medal pendant, roses and a Douglas Fir seedling) and food (SO many different treats, which sadly I felt too ill to enjoy but grabbed for later) than I’ve seen in any race, which was pretty cool. Strangely, however, they didn’t give you a bag for all of these wonderful gifts! I know Portland prides itself on being a green marathon which is fantastic, but I was stumbling around, hardly able to carry my own weight let alone handfuls of small things I didn’t want to lose!

I also really could have used a second water station further down the finish area. Most larger races require that you walk for quite some time before you can exit and/or retrieve your bag, and I never quite understand why water isn’t more readily available.I drank two cups at the first station right after finishing, but was still extremely dehydrated as I continued hobbling onwards, to the point where a very kind woman half marathon finisher saw me struggling, asked if I was okay and helped convince someone in a medical tent to give me one of the two small cups of water that they had (how can a medical tent NOT have water?!). She went out of her way to walk with me for 20-30 minutes (I was very slow), to make sure I found my bag and then my cousins. We had a good chat about the race and I felt so much better by the time she dropped me off. What a kind woman – runners are such great people!

Here I am, after reuniting with my cousins back at the Hilton:

And wearing my finisher shirt, with one of my second cousins:

We eventually made it back to the house, where I had some food and was able to take a 30-minute ice bath while watching TV, catch up with friends and relax. Oh, and here’s that t-shirt I mentioned earlier! 🙂

Of course, no marathon day would be complete without a big celebratory meal! My cousins took me to a fabulous local brewery (Widmer Brothers), where I had a beer (which does actually aid in recovery), a large salty soft pretzel (was seriously craving savory foods after so many sweet gels) and an EPIC cheeseburger with guac and mushrooms. I could hardly stomach it all but it was too good not to finish.

As usual, I got no sleep that night – my heart was thumping too loud and my legs hurt far too much. I got up early to hang out with my cousins and eat breakfast at a local bakery, and then met up with a really cool woman I met in my coaching course, for some REI shopping and another big, delicious lunch at a downtown brewery (Bridgeport)! It was a perfect way to spend a post-marathon rainy afternoon in Portland.

After returning back to the house and spending some more time with the kids, I headed to the airport for my evening flight. That’s when I really started to feel rough, and the bumpy cramped flight certainly didn’t help! But a night of sleeping in my own bed followed by a 90-minute massage this afternoon has put me back on the road to recovery…

My Dad and I also planted the Douglas Fir seedling today. What a nice way to commemorate an event! We put it pretty far away from the house – it’s only a few inches tall now, but apparently it could grow to be 200 feet!

My big takeaway from this weekend is a renewed sense of confidence in my marathon potential and respect for the distance. Sure, I can get away with insufficient training and still get a decent time, but it’s extremely hard on my body and unless I’m running just for fun, what’s the point? I already know I can run the distance – I’m more interested in racing to reach a goal (such as the new BQ, or finishing a trail marathon) or not worrying about my time at all (as I imagine I might do with a race like Big Sur or a destination race like Kauai). I’m also ready to take a new approach to my training – I don’t agree completely with everything I learned in my coaching course, but I certainly agree that I need to start running more long runs in my training programs.

The bottom line is that I trained for Portland, but not sufficiently – I ran a great time, but I know I’m capable of so much more! And it’s that belief in myself that I have yet to fully realize, in addition to my love of the sport, which keeps me coming back for more.

Spring marathon 2012 – what will it be????