Monday, October 29, 2012

Columbia Gorge Marathon

We're driving to the Columbia Gorge Marathon and I have no idea what the weather is going to be like. Right now we have rain. That bodes ill. I've brought two different jackets, but I'd prefer not to wear either one, because though they'll keep off the rain, they'll add to my sweat factor.

In the meantime the Gorge itself is starting to become visible: huge dark cliffs rising just to the right (south) and equally bigger shadows on the north side, though with more houses visible. Lots o' trophy homes over there.

But lo, as we pull into Hood River, the clouds are parting! We park at the Marina, where some yachts the size of my apartment building are docked, and I assess my clothing needs: I will take my 'shell' jacket, just to stay warm while we wait for the start, then hopefully leave it in my check bag. Hopefully. There's still an evil dark cloud to the north.

I'm also wearing my Luna Sandals for this one. Yep, I'm wussing out. Based on my experience with the Portland Marathon and the Run Like Hell Half-Marathon, the pavement around the Portland area has just been pretty rough, just too unpleasant to be running for four hours on. If I'm wrong, and I hope I am, I have the option to just take them off and go barefoot.

The problem? I just noticed this morning that one of my sandals is on the verge of blowout: these new versions have what's supposed to be an improvement: a small shallow circular area cut out of the bottom, where the knot from the (in this case) hemp rope feeds up through the hole between the toes. Apparently, some folks get really freaked out by that lumpy knot, so this shallow circle is supposed to give some space for the knot to 'nest.' I never had a problem with the knot in my last pair, and when I learned the new versions have this area, I remember my first thought was, Hm, seems like that thinner area might get torn more easily. Et voilĂ , three months after buying them, the knot has torn almost all the way through. After a quick stop at a party store (is that what they call them out here? Or am I betraying my Michiganderness?) I've got some duct tape, which, as everyone knows, fixes everything. I've placed small strips surrounding both the top and bottom of the hole, to hopefully stop the knot from bulging through. We'll see, especially if they get wet. But yeah, I'm very disappointed in this pair of Lunas.

The half-marathoners will start here, at the finish. Us full-marathoners have to get on a bus and get shipped a couple miles east, and up, where we'll start, at nine o'clock. Yes, I'm liking this marathon already. An actual sane start time. And get this: there's a taco bar at the finish. How cool is that?

So, on the bus, up to a visitor center. Steep road. Going to be killer on the quads coming back, because by the way, this is and 'out and back' race: We'll run about twelve miles east, paralleling the Columbia River, turn around, come back through this visitor center, then barrel down through the town of Hood River back to the Marina area. Some of it, like right here, is on a bike/hike trail, but most of it will be on actual roads, and the roads aren't closed off either, though we are assured that there won't be much traffic. But yeah, two lanes of runners, with vehicles in the middle. What could go wrong?

There's about two-hundred of us full marathoners, maybe more. I'm not sure on the halflings. Big enough that there will be a continuous stream of folks, but not too chaotic. I hope.

My friend Katherine is here, for her third marathon, and all three have been within two months time. She's insatiable, even though now that school has started back up, she hasn't been running as much. Both of us are nursing injuries. I know, you might then ask, why are we running? Because we're marathoners, and as long as the pain isn't anything tearing, game on!

She's wearing her VFFs. While we're waiting around, a woman comes up and asks to take our picture. She and her husband recently read Born To Run, and she's amazed to actually find someone wearing huaraches, so she wants to send him some pics. She's got some Merrill Trail Gloves, and says they've changed her life. Katherine tells her about the Portland Barefoot Running Society FaceBook page, so hopefully they'll both sign up and come out for one of our meetups. Yay, new recruits!

There are some other 'zero drop' shoes around, and well as at least two other runners with VFFs. So, the minimalist contingent is well represented. I'm looking at the bike trail we'll be on for the first five miles or so, and man, it looks pretty smooth. But still wet, and cold, so I wuss out. Though the air temp is not that cold actually, and no rain, so off comes the shell, leaving me with a wicking long sleeve, and a long sleeve tech shirt over it, as well as running pants (trousers for you Aussies and Brits—NOT underwear).

Ok, time to start. The announcer encourages us to move to the Start line, but only a few hard core people go up to the actual line. The rest of us don't want to be mistaken for people who are actually fast. And, with a small race like this (though, side note: why is this race small???? It's in a freaking gorgeous place, not far from a big city, and didn't cost that much! And it didn't even fill up!) the announcer merely says, Go! And we go!

Ha. With an immediate uphill. But, well, that spreads out the pack pretty quick. And yeah, this bike path is smooth. But I'm already running. But I tell Katherine, “I'm gonna run this part barefoot when we come back.”

The view. Amazing. We are up towards the top of the south side, and can look down on Hood River (the town, and the river itself, which runs north from Mt. Hood), and then east and west along the Columbia, with some sun, but also wild-looking grey swirly clouds. And the leaves are turning: oranges and reds mixed in with the many shades of evergreens. Cool air on the face. Perfect weather. Man, why don't I come out here and explore more? Oh yeah, I don't have a car anymore. And, have been wanting to explore Portland, have a city experience. And, if the rain were pouring down I'd probably be less enthused. Though I don't know. The Gorge is just gorgeous any way I look at it. This may beat out Missoula as most beautiful marathon I've run.

I guess this race benefits the local high school cross country and track teams, so the aid stations are manned by future recruits to the marathon madness. No mob to get water either, we're all spread out now. I do have my Amphipod bottle though, just to be able to drink when I want.

So far neither Katherine's nor my injuries are bothering us. That'll come later, after the race. For now, just a good solid pace, the uphill behind us, and a long long downhill, out of the recreation area (not sure if it's a state park or part of a National Forest) and down into the small town (population 240!) of Mosher. And yeah, once on regular roads, the pavement gets rougher. I'm glad to have my huaraches at this point. I know I know, what happened to my badass days? Gone. The wussman cometh.

And we're on regular roads, with regular traffic. Or, well, actually the cars on the road seem to be friends and family of runners, so therefore going very slow. Many are parked on the main street of Mosher, and they're generously cheering on everyone. That's nice. We're not going to have much of that on this race. Nope, this is one of those 'get in your head zone' runs, unless you can talk with someone. I again feel bad that I'm not that talkative with Katherine, but she's got her iPod Mini and headbuds in, grooving. Though, we do have some short convos with people along the way, just people saying hello as we all lean into our first real big hill out of town.

Up up up. Not steep, no one is walking, but it goes for a while. This may not be my fastest marathon. And that's ok. Again, the view, the colors. Now that we're getting further east, the terrain is changing a bit, looking, to me, a bit like Idaho, with less thick woods, and more pines and open meadows. Also a bit like, to me, northern California, with the oak trees in those meadows. Bringing back memories of wildland firefighter days, but not unreasonable to see these things in this area. We are, after all, close to both Idaho and Northern California. Much different than back in Michigan, where I've been for some years. I'm much happier to be out here, back in the west!

And then a downhill, right where the halflings will be turning around at an aid station. And soon, can it be? Already? We start to see runners coming back the other way, on the other side of the road. Really? When we're just at Mile 7? That just doesn't seem right, and the people we're seeing don't seem to be running that fast, and don't like like the sleek marathoners one would normally see at the front. The only thing I can figure is that they're part of the 'early start' pack. But then more runners appear, and some of them do start to like like the emaciated marathon types, and they do seem to be running faster than I. So, I don't know. Odd. Maybe some people just decided to turn around? Like, 'Screw this!'

On the uphill to the turn around, Katherine tells me to go on ahead, that she's feeling the need to go a little slower. Ok. We will meet at the taco bar!

I speed up a little, but only a little. Enough to catch some people on this uphill. Yeah, fatigue is setting in for all of us. But coming up to Ravencrest Point, a small parking lot/scenic point, with an amazing view of the rolling hills to the east, I feel a little energized. I'm not alone. A young woman cheering us on, one of the cross country people I'm sure, yells out, “You guys are leaving here running faster! Amazing!' Ha ha, we'll see how long it lasts, mon amie.

I cross paths with Katherine who's just coming in, not that far behind. She's smiling, grooving on tunes. Man, when I ran my first marathon I had no clue that one could actually run more than one marathon in a year. I thought it took a year to recover and train for the next one!

Also here are two state highway workers manning flags out on the road. I nod to one guy and we share a smile. He sees my huaraches. “Damn man, you got the coolest shoes out here!'

I smile. “Thanks!”

Nibbling on raisins, I descend back into the long downhill. I'm feeling good. Keeping a steady pace. I've actually forgotten my watch, so have no idea of my time, which is kinda nice. Not that I'd want to be running any faster at this point. It'll be what it'll be. I'm just having fun.

Down down down. Up up up. And down down down into Mosher again. And here, when the bike path starts, I can resist no longer: off with the huaraches! Interestingly, I immediately start taking smaller strides. Or, ha ha, hardly a 'stride' with this hill. More like baby steps. But running still, and with no loss in speed. My cadence automatically increases. Something to remember: just how much even wearing huaraches changes my running style, with just a little bit more heel striking, I think.

But no one, or at least no one around me, is walking this hill. We all just keep on with the penguin waddle. I end up running with one woman who has run this marathon like eleven times. She seems like she's got plenty o' marathons under her belt, so I ask if she ran the recent Portland Marathon.

“No. I ran the 10K. I didn't train for it. But I didn't really train for this one either.”

“Yeah, if you've run enough marathons, it becomes more of a mental thing.”

“Exactly. You know you can finish. It's just a question of how much it'll hurt.”

She and I bump back and forth, then I bump back and forth with someone else. We're all strung out pretty far apart by now, but I find myself running faster on the downhill's than most of the shod folks. One guy, looks like some kind of military, passes me and says, “You're an animal!”

That's the kind of comment I like! Not like another guy that passes me, turns slightly and says, “I'm sure you've gotten plenty of comments about your feet, so I won't make one.”

Ok...can we get more passive-aggressive? But I just smile and say, “Alright.”

Man this is a long hill. But we eventually top out and start the long downhill all the way to town. We pass the Start line at the visitor center. The tent is still up and the youth are still cranking the PA music, though there's no aid station or anything. They're just hanging out.

And yeah, this downhill is pretty steep. Nice of the organizers not to make us run up this one. Too bad the halflings had to. I'm no longer running faster downhill than the shodheads, but at least I know I'm not alone in being in pain, with almost-exploding quads. And the pavement is now rougher again, but I'm not going back to huaraches. Barefoot to the end! Ouch! Ok, well, I'll run on this center line for a bit, until we get down into town, and we're flagged off onto the sidewalks. Ok, fine by me!

Zigging and zagging through the streets. Crossing Hood River once, then down by the freeway, and back across a pedestrian suspension bridge right at the river mouth, where the water is strong and brown and flowing fast. Almost there! I can see the park. But no, we zig to the left. Argh, we have to run around the city park first! Just let it end! And, it's on a gravel road! Nooooo! But, it's muddy! And soft! Ok! A little added pleasure of splashing through muddy puddles. No one around me. I speed up, not wanting to get passed at this point. A couple more turns and into a flagged off 'chute', on muddy grass. One guy ahead of me. Ok, sorry dude, but you just became my last goal. Must. Pass. Dude.

And I do, coming around a bend, in full on sprint over the great, no need to worry about small stride here!

And over the line. The announcer states, anti-climatically, “Good job John.”

We all get hand crafted medals, ceramic, locally made. No slaves in China were used. Nice touch.

I do some yoga stretches. The sky is now dark grey, and a slight drizzle has begun. I change into my dry clothes and go into the heated tent because, oh yes, that taco bar is calling my name. And, bonus: hot cider. I am kinda in heaven right now.

4:19. 90th overall. 9th in my age group. I'm a little disappointed, but hell, with those hills, I'll take it. I gotta get older though, so there's less dudes in my age category. The awards are starting, and two of the women I ran with, including the one who didn't train, have placed in their categories. Also cool: the woman who wins the 60+ age category, and she's the only woman in that category, finished before me, and does not look over 60. Overall winner for women ran it in 3:26 I think, and overall men's in 2:50-ish.

And Katherine zips in just before the deluge begins! She's hurting, but she finished! Third marathon ever! She too partakes of the holy taco bar. Up next? Seattle Marathon in about a month.

Now the long drive back to Portland, trying not to have all my muscles freeze up.