Monday, September 24, 2012

Forest Park Marathon

This is never going to happen again in my life probably, but I am actually walking from my door, two blocks to a marathon. This is the advantage of living near the Forest Park Conservancy, in northwest Portland. I’ve already been running miles and miles on its trails, but when I saw the sign for this marathon, I couldn’t resist, even with the perhaps steep price of $150, since I’ll be saving money on not having to drive, and all proceeds go to supporting the Park, which I’d want to do anyways. Plus, in a raffle before the race, I actually won a $150 gift certificate to a running store! Another thing that will never happen in my life again.

I still somehow have to get up at five in the morning though, but ok. After forcing down a bagel and peanut butter, I grab my stuff and simply walk over to Montgomery Park, a huge office complex, and a well-know landmark around Portland. Here I get on one of the shuttle busses to take us to the actual start of the marathon. The half-marathoners will be starting an hour later in Macleay Park, my normal entry point into Forest Park, only four blocks up the street from me, and we’ll all end there as well.

As usual, I’m one of the early arrivers. Just my personality. I like to plan in case something goes wrong. But really there’s no advantage to being so early, since the bus merely dumps us at a dirt road farther north, where we wait around in the cold dark.

I’d thought there were going to be 100 marathoners, but as start time approaches, we seem less than that. Fortunately I actually have someone to talk to: my friend Katherine, who I met on the “Prepare To Die” BRS meet-up about a month ago. This is her first marathon. It was going to be the Portland Marathon, but I conned her into doing this one, as a ‘training run’ for the Portland Marathon in two weeks.

Katherine is another barefoot/minimalist runner, and is sporting her VFFs today. I’m trying out my new Leadvilles, the heavy duty huarache from Barefoot Ted’s Luna Sandals. I know some of the trails up in here are fairly rocky, and we’ll be on some gravelly roads, so I want to give 6mm of rubber a try.

Surprisingly, we spot a few other minimalist runners. Mostly folks with VFFs, though most interestingly is a woman wearing Crocs! I don’t know if that counts as minimalist or not, but I’m totally interested. Katherine talks to her, and the ‘Croc Lady’ says she’s been running in Crocs for seven years now, and that she just doesn’t like the toe sockets of the VFFs, though didn’t seem to be aware of minimalist shoes like Merrells, etc. I never do get to ask her why/how she started running in Crocs though.

And without much ado, and the sun just coming up, the head of the Forest Park Conservancy yells ‘Go!’, and we go!

The good news about this route, which I didn’t realize until just this morning, is that, after this first bit on gradual dirt roads, the rest of the route will be on the long Wildwood Trail, and mostly downhill-ish. Yes!

And the roads up here in the north part of the Park are way less gravelly than the section of Leif Erickson Road that I sometimes run on in the south section. My Leadvilles handle the rocks easily. I can still feel the occasional bumps, but these soles are thick! That said, Katherine is doing fine in her VFFs, running on the edge of the road where the rocks are less.

The road is indeed gradual. Enough to keep us slow and not overexert ourselves right at the start, but not so steep as to be annoying. We even pick up another VFFer after a while, a guy down from Seattle running his first marathon as well. Dude’s got like four kids, including a newborn. I don’t see how people like that can stay active enough to run marathons, but right on.

Although the northwest industrial area of Portland runs basically parallel to the north of Forest Park, and the industrial noise-hum is more noticeable down where I live, right now all I can really hear is birds, and the heavy breathing of other runners. It’s nice starting this trail marathon on a dirt road, so there’s been no bottle-necking, and runners have dispersed easily according to their ability.

At the eight mile mark, or so, we get to the first aid station, which is at the northern most part of the route (and Park too I think). From here, the five or six of us in our ‘group’ line out, with Katherine leading, and head up a short side trail, which soon puts us on the Wildwood Trail. This trail runs the length of Forest Park, basically along the ‘spine’ (ie at roughly the highest points) and only right at the end will we turn off to head to Macleay Park and the end. I’m glad to be seeing this territory up to the north here, so I can start to form some longer runs of my own.

And it’s true: Although there are of course some small ‘ups’ the trail generally seems to be going either level, or downhill-ish. If it holds, this will be good! And we’re off the gravel! The trail is really hard, compact, dirt, but mostly gravel and rock free. This would be basically good barefoot terrain, though down at the south end the trail maintenance folks tend to dump gravel in sections, I think as some form of erosion control.

Our pace so far is slow and steady, which I’m all for. Not getting passed, and not passing many people, so about perfect. The only problem seems to be footing: Both Katherine and I take some spills. My Leadvilles seem to be a little longer than I’m used too, or I’m just not quite used to them (a review of them soon to come, btw) so that the tip can catch on a rock sticking out. That, and/or I’m just a wee bit clumsy.

But, we seem to be going a little slower than the rest of our group wants, as they eventually all pass us as a pack, including Croc Lady. Katherine is doing well, though I think mentally starting to feel those doubts as we pass beyond 13.1 miles and into uncharted territory for her. I take the lead and bump our pace up a little, and she seems game, and we end up with a couple other runners in the vicinity.

At about Mile 16 though, Katherine really wants to deploy her iPod and hear some music, which I understand. At this point I think she needs tunes more than me for moral support, so we agree to separate. I feel bad for abandoning her, but I think she feels bad for holding me back, and we’d agreed ahead of time that we would both just run at our normal pace. I know she’ll be fine though.

I pick up the pace a little, enough to catch up to a guy we’d been seeing off and on. He’s got a weird technique, and/or he’s just got super long legs, because he hardly looks like he’s moving at all, but I have a hell of a time keeping up with him. But that ends up inspiring me to run faster, and in fact, weirdly, I find myself with energy. Instead of my normal ‘penguin waddle to the finish after burning out early’ I’m actually still running. I think this is in large part to the still general downhill of the trail, though also perhaps to my Leadvilles, which allow me to be not so dainty when doing downhill: I can simply let gravity work for me, and not have to worry about poking my foot. Which...leads to the question: whither my barefoot running? Because if I was doing this barefoot, I’d still be picking my way along that gravel roads.

What I mean is, do I remain pure to barefooting, because it feels good, or do I go ‘heavy duty minimalist’ with Leadvilles and thereby increase my speed. And: by being able to barrel down these downhills, am I falling back into the potential injury zone that ‘normal’ shoes bring, where I’m putting more stress on my joints? But I still feel like I’m running light, picking up my feet rather than slamming them down. I don’t know. It’s seems to be a question of, do I want to be a barefoot runner (in which case I run slower) or a runner (and thereby choose barefooting or minimalist, or whatever, as an option).

If that makes sense? Because, I like races. I don’t view them so much as competition as ‘group efforts’, where we inspire each other to run better, in the same way going to a yoga class makes one a better yoga practitioner than merely doing yoga at home. But maybe there is some competition, because I don’t just want to be at the end of the pack, and get to the Finish when the organizers are already packing everything up (which has happened while doing a trail run barefoot). And going minimalist (at least on trail runs, not really on pavement) helps me ‘go faster’ and keep up with shodheads. I’d love it if I could keep up on trails with people with shoes, but I just don’t think that’s every going to happen. And I want to be a part of organized trail runs.

I know, shoes/footwear are a tool, to be used if the situation calls for it. But what exactly does ‘the situation calling for it’ mean? And I bet it means different things to different barefoot runners.

These are the thought ramblings of a (barefoot/minimalist) runner twenty miles into a marathon....

As I get into the south part of Forest Park, more ‘normal’ people are appearing—people just out for their normal runs, since the Park is not at all closed off for this race. This doesn’t slow things down, and there are no crashes, though this probably wasn’t the best day for some high school cross country team to be up here running ‘against the stream’ of marathoners.

My energy level stays high. I’m amped, running faster now than at some points in the first half. Maybe this is what the whole ‘run the second split faster than the first’ strategy is about? Or, again, the downhills help. As long as I can keep lifting my feet fast enough, I can keep barreling down, which in turn kind of inspires me run faster in the straight-aways. Or did I finally find the right combination of food to eat yesterday? Or is it the bagel and peanut butter from this morning? I don’t know, but I’m digging it. I even finally pass Legs McGee, both of us wondering if we might actually finish under five hours, which would be way under a PR for me on a trail marathon.

I’m even passing some people that passed me earlier, including that VFFer from Seattle, who’s now walking. Oy. I hope he’s just resting and not burnt out. And now I’m in familiar territory, the part of the Wildwood Trail I’ve run on, with all the side trails, like Dogwood and Wild Cherry. I know exactly where I’m going, and when I get to the old stone building, I don’t even need the friendly volunteer pointing me to the extreme left and saying, ‘Less than a mile to go!’

All downhill from here, baby! Time to kick it into overdrive!

Of course not even this trail is closed off, and it’s a popular one, so there are all kinds of normal people out for a Saturday stroll, though at this point they all seem aware that there’s a race going on and get out of my way. Still, weird, since I’m like the only runner I’ve seen for a while, and I don’t catch up to any. But voilĂ , there’s Macleary Park, with the finish line, and a kind of pathetic-looking crowd of about twenty people. But, they clap and cheer, and I sprint across the line.

5:01! Ha! Just missed getting under five. Well, like I said, that’s a PR for trail marathons, by like a half hour! And I really do feel good. Or, well, now I feel kinda exhausted.

And, two minutes after I finish, they start raffling off some free stuff and I’m the first winner! I get a free jar of ‘trail butter’, some kind of peanut/almond/cashew butter with other goodies mixed in for supposedly long slow-burning energy for a race. Well, ok.

The race results come up almost immediately on some handy iPads at a table. Along with my time, I find that I’m the 28th marathoner, and 7th in my age group.

I think the festivities were more festive when the half-marathoners were coming in, since there were more of them, but there are yet some half-marathon walkers coming in. It’s a nice day to just sit down (finally!) on the lawn in the sun and watch runners come in, though they are few and far between. Katherine comes in a half-hour later. Yes! Her first marathon! She did it! And in way better condition that I was when I did my first one.

She also adds another possibility as to my quick finish: that the route might not be in fact 26.2 miles. While she started her Garmin a little late, it registers as her having gone 23 miles and some change. Who knows though, with all the twists and turns in a hilly area like this.

We wait around and rest, trying to decide if pancakes sound like a good idea or not. Still not that many runners coming in, which is odd. Half the pack is still out there. I don’t ever see the VFFer from Seattle come in. Man, I hope he didn’t just walk the rest of it. Overhearing the organizers, sounds like some people are dropping out at some of the aid stations.

Well, time to go. I thank the race organizer for a fun run. And it was. Well-organized, not so big that the trail was bottle-necked, but enough people to be inspired to run well. And for a good cause.

The best part? After saying goodbye to Katherine (we’re going to see the Portland Cello Project later tonight!) I can simply walk four blocks back to my apartment and get in a hot bath.