It’s been five days since I ran the 2016 Bend Marathon, but it feels like forever. I was so caught up in the surreal experience, that when it passed I was left wondering if it had actually happened.
Leading up to the race, I had mixed feelings. For several months, I’ve been working through a nerve issue in my right leg. Physical therapy helped clear up a lot of it, but along with that came a series of realizations. My body was simply too heavy to handle all the miles, so some weight loss was in order. I needed to make some dietary changes for better nutrition. I needed to increase weekly mileage, though slower than I’d been piling them on. And somehow, I had to figure out how to work this all into an already busy schedule that balanced my other commitments to work and family.
Outside of me, there was the reality that Bend is a different animal altogether. The city is 3,600 feet above sea level. The course would include about 1,200 feet of elevation gain, with a solid, 3-mile uphill towards Mount Bachelor. And, I was warned of endless hills. The weather is unpredictable, so it could either be hot and dry, or cold and wet. And I’d only run a few sections of the course in previous Cascade Lakes Relays, so the overall terrain was largely unfamiliar.
And yet, two weekends before the race, everything was looking good. I hit the apex of my training then, running a 23-mile course between Dundee and Newberg, into the hills above each town and back. It was a grueling outing, with 2,200 feet of elevation gain on roads and gravel. At the end of it, I felt I had something left in me, and I knew deep down I was as ready as I would be for Bend.
Then came the taper, that maddening, scheduled decrease in miles that keep you fresh and limber to run, but without the impact so your body can start saving up energy for the big event. In the first week of taper, I reduced from 40 miles to 25. The second week, I’d planned for maybe 15 miles, ending up with just 9.
It was those 9 miles that were the most significant for me. I’d traveled to Bend the Thursday before the race, which gave me a solid 72 hours to adjust to the elevation and conditions. The first night, I hiked up (and ran down) Smith Rock, a beautiful location that snapped me out of the taper funk I’d fallen into. And on Friday, I ran through Dry Canyon in Redmond in the middle of a high desert rain shower. It was refreshing and exhilarating, and my pace time was looking good.
That night, I met with friends in Sisters for a pre-race meal, carefully choosing what to eat or avoid. The last thing you want before a race is to count your miles by the number of portapotties you have to stop in at. Saturday came and went, quietly and calmly. Taking it easy, I could tell my nerves were on edge. I had that slight anxiety response of nervous energy and amplified pulse. We drove into Bend and picked up my race packet at Foot Zone, and it hit me: This thing was really going to happen.
I went through a mental checklist of all the things I might need, and we picked them up at the store. Beyond nutrition, I realized the weather was looking to be colder and maybe wet, so a new pair of running leggings were in order. With everyone “ready”, I just needed to put it all together.
Unlike previous events, where I’d wake up early the morning of the race and hastily pack, I was finished by 10pm Saturday. I did a “final” check of supplies several times, relaxed in the hotel room, and fell asleep before midnight. In the end, I got less than three hours of sleep, but rested calmly until my alarm went off at 4:45am Sunday.
And so we departed the hotel in Sisters for Bend, shortly after 6am. Unannounced road work closed the highway, and we sat idling for 20 minutes before I realized I was going to be late. I took a few back roads and we were able to get into Bend just minutes before the start of the race. One last pit stop in a portapottie by the start line, and I raced out of it right as they started the race.
That was a lot of build-up. How did the run go?
It was beautiful. The weather behaved for the first half, alternating clouds and sunshine. It was mild in the city, such that I didn’t take my gloves.
The course began by looping clockwise through downtown, down to the Deschutes River, and through Drake Park.
I’d heard that a couple running the marathon was planning on getting married in the park, and as I approached, realized a woman was running ahead of me wearing a wedding gown! At Mile 2, a group of onlookers cheered as the couple approached, and a chaplain was waiting for them to exchange vows, I stopped for a quick pic, and continued on.
The course headed uphill, flanking Awbrey Butte, then around Mile 4 leading downhill and to a forested dirt trail that bordered along the Deschutes.
Back through downtown down Wall Street, with a surprise of my wife and a running friend greeting me at Mile 6.
The course turned south and took us through the Old Mill District, before crossing the river and then down to Riverbend Park.
At Mile 9, we headed west, along a nicely paved trail bordering SW Century Drive. The next six miles would include a gentle upward grade of just 500 feet. Compared with my training runs, it was “nothing”, but at the elevation, felt much steeper. At Mile 12, my wife met me again. It was really helpful to see a smiling face.
The weather began turning colder. I’d kept to a steady intake of calories and hydration, but at the highest point of the run and the turnaround point, about Mile 15, I hit my first wall. I didn’t have much left in me. The cold air made it near impossible to eat anything: The protein bars were hard as rock, and even gummy bears they were handing out at aid stations were too cold to chew.
Heading back downhill, I regained my composure, crossing Mile 18 before heading uphill again through an undeveloped neighborhood. At Mile 20, course volunteers guided me off the road and onto a quiet, rocky trail. It was just one mile, but felt like forever. Emptying out onto an old paved road that led to a parking lot of an unnamed park, the second wall hit me and hard. I was reduced to walking, and again, those blasted gummy bears would not digest.
At Mile 23, I realized the cold weather was giving way to sunshine. Blue sky was overhead, and the sun started peeking out from behind the rain clouds. Looking down the road, I saw a runner wearing a knee brace, trying all he could to keep moving. Though tired, I remembered that these last few miles are purely about willpower and nothing else. How bad did I want to finish? That is what would keep me going, or keep me from finishing. I pushed onward.
One of the strangest aspects of distance running is that over all those miles, you come to recognize your fellow runners more and more. You pass them, they pass you, you realize who has a similar pace, and a trend of overall position develops. From Mile 9 onward, there were half a dozen runners I kept up with, or who kept up with me. We kept alternating places. It kept things interesting. At Mile 24, the course converged with the half marathoners. Suddenly, I was flanked by unfamiliar faces. We were all exhausted, and what do you know? Another hill, and another wall. They’d hit me every three to four miles now. Many of us walked upwards along Skyliners Road, through Sunset View Park, a beautiful, winding section that turned onto a quiet street.
It was Mile 25. I was gasping for air, alternating running and walking. It was eerily quiet, and then suddenly, a spectator started blasting music from his parked car. It was Eye of the Tiger. It was all I could do to not break down crying. The song was a favorite of my wife’s father, and was his fight song through his battle with cancer. Though he passed away in 2010, the song turns up on the radio, or is played at times by others, at a time when she or I need support. It was almost like her father was there, cheering me on, just one mile to go. A deep breath, and I continued on.
A final turn, and I realized I was blocks from Drake Park. The bridge by the wedding at Mile 2.5 was also Mile 26, and I crossed it. The next 0.2 miles were literally the longest I’ve ever run. MapMyRun clocked it at more like 0.4 miles. Whatever, the finish was there. And yes, there was one more gentle uphill section, and yes, I did walk a few feet of it before starting up my last climb.
Onlookers began cheering, shouting, chanting. The chute is both exhilarating and terrifying. So many miles of being out there on your own, and suddenly you’re surrounded by hundreds of people all going crazy, cowbells and chants going off like an exorcism. And your throat tightens up, and tears well in your eyes, and your body shakes, and you do all you can to just get across that finish line.
And then, it was over. I didn’t realize it until writing this, all finishers were captured on video. This video clips to the moment I crossed the finish line:
My wife snapped this celebratory shot. Nothing is more satisfying than the taste of metal after all those protein bars. 😉
This morning, Facebook reminded me of a memory from four years ago. It was me, posing with a “13.1” bumper sticker, signifying the first time I’d ever run a half marathon. It wasn’t a race, it was “just” a training run I did on my own. I recall those four years ago, thinking it was a monumental achievement, and wondering if I’d ever be able to run a full marathon. I remember that day, and I remember having a feeling then I just might be up to the challenge. I was right.
Knowing when to slow down or stop, knowing when to go faster, listening to your body for queues, finding reasons to smile and laugh and soak up the positive energy along the way to keep you going… it all adds up to whether you will finish or not.
When I set about training for this race, I had that one goal: To finish. I wasn’t concerned with time, and had predicted a completion time of somewhere around 4 1/2 hours. I was wrong. I P.R.’d that day, with a final race time of 4:06:44, and finishing 5th in my division.
We create challenges for ourselves. We face those challenges with tools, strength, and willpower, and how we use those resources is every bit as important as the resources themselves. Running a marathon is about much more than endurance; It is a game of willpower and strategy.
There will be more marathons in my future, and I look forward to the lessons I will learn from those future experiences.