Two years ago I did the Portland Marathon and was duly impressed. Because of the hype surrounding this race, both good (very walker-friendly, lots of good swag, generous time limit) and bad (too expensive, too crowded, not very scenic), I had hesitated about signing up. However, since the Gators were playing a home game that weekend, my husband would not be traveling with me and I was looking for a race that was convenient and easy to manage on my own. Portland was the answer. I wouldn’t have to rent a car, the expo is right in the host hotel, and the race start and finish are close to the hotel.
It turned out to be a good race and an overall excellent experience. My only regret was that I did not have time to visit Powell’s, Portland’s superstar bookstore, but that gave me a wonderful excuse (as if I needed one!) to return to Portland once again. This time Darcy came with me (the Gators were playing at Tennessee). We drove to Jacksonville in the wee hours of Friday morning so we could make our flight to Atlanta at 5:45 am. Ironically, the weather in Atlanta was rainy with lightening so our plane was delayed at takeoff. Portland weather turned out to be sunny and dry the entire weekend. So much for the rainy Northwest.
After arriving at PDX, we took a taxi to the Hilton Executive Tower, across the street from the Hilton Portland, site of the expo and packet pickup. Just like 2 years ago, there were dozens of volunteers who directed people to the right place for information, bibs, timing tag, maps, posters, and stuff to buy. It is a good-sized expo but not a spectacularly large one but there were lots of tasty samples and giveaways. We tried not to stuff ourselves too much at the expo because we wanted to have lunch at Rock Bottom Brewery (it was happy hour so I ordered a flight of 6 local beers plus 2 huge pretzels and dip). Tired and full, we walked back to the hotel for an early night.
Saturday was our pilgrimage day to Powell’s Bookstore. We had a hearty breakfast at The Original Dinerant where I feasted on a mushroom/Tillamook cheddar omelet and Darcy had a Denver omelet. Book selection is hard work and we wanted to be prepared. Darcy had done his homework and came prepared with a long list of titles he was hoping to find. I was more dependent on serendipity – my interests are eclectic and I was sure I would find at least a few things to purchase. We spent several glorious hours roaming around the block-long bookstore, losing ourselves in the gold, purple, and pink rooms, until we could not carry any more. It would be much too embarrassing to state in print exactly how much we spent, but suffice it to say that we managed to completely fill the extra suitcases we brought to house our purchases.
Back at the hotel, Darcy watched some football on television while I wandered down to the expo once again to visit the vendor booths and listen to some lectures. One of the changes I noticed from two years ago was the slim schedule of talks this year. There were only two on Saturday; one was on walking the half and full marathons and the other was on running tips. Both were very good but it surprised me that there were no headliners or famous names on the ticket this year. Another very minor change involved the awards for age groups; two years ago, the awards went 15 deep while this year they only went 6 deep. I remember this because I came in #14 in my age group and still got an award!
After the talks, I returned to the room so Darcy and I could seek out a place to eat dinner. We ended up at Kenny and Zuke’s deli where I had a bagel dog (like a corn dog but wrapped in a bagel) and noodle kugel while Darcy had a Reuben sandwich. It was to be another early night, but unlike most pre-race evenings, I was not really nervous about this race. I knew what to expect and I knew that with over 9000 marathoners, I would probably not be last and I certainly would not get lost. I actually got some sleep before waking up around 4 am to get ready.
It was a bit chilly (57 degrees) before dawn but not so cold that I needed hand warmers. I was glad I had dressed in short-sleeves because the day turned out to be sunny with a slight breeze. Everyone lined up in one of 8 corrals; I was in the last of them but managed to work my way to the front so I would not have to work my way through the more leisurely walkers. Full and half marathoners all start together at the same time and follow the same course until just before mile 11. There is a tradition at this race that everyone sings the Star Spangled Banner, and that is fun and a nice touch. It takes about 20 minutes for my corral to cross the starting line. Despite the large numbers of people, the course is not overly crowded, although I did get a bit pushed and pummeled until the road widened after several miles and people were more evenly distributed.
There are plenty of aid stations with water and Ultima and several have gummi bears and pretzels. One neighbor lady was handing out candy corn, my first Halloween candy of the season. There are some spectators scattered here and there but volunteers are the most vocal and supportive cheerleaders. The course is all road, with not many pebbles to get into my shoes (no gaiters for me here), but there are lots of light rail tracks so I had to be careful to watch my step around those.
The course itself is not especially pretty. It winds through city streets and along industrial areas, with not much to see for the first 16 miles. An exception is at the very beginning of the race when we go through Chinatown – there the music, dragons, and architecture are very distinctive and elaborate. But that is around mile 1 and there is a lot more distance to cover. My favorite section is from mile 16 to 18 as participants cross over the St. Johns Bridge. The scenery here is fantastic and on a clear day you can see the Mount St. Helens volcano. It is very impressive! Then the course follows Willamette Boulevard around the University of Portland and all the way to the Broadway Bridge and back to downtown and the finish line. At mile 26, there is a huge figure of a ‘fat lady’ singing an aria – a vivid reminder that, yes, the race is almost over. I crossed the finish line in 6:13:56, and I probably could have made it in less had I not stopped twice for porta-potty relief. The best news for me: my piriformis muscle gave me no trouble at all. I felt great the entire race. When my husband looked at the photos taken during the race, he noticed I was smiling in all of them, instead of grimacing from pain. I hope that my recent troubles with this injury are behind me; the physical therapy and stretching exercises must be working.
A volunteer handed me a beautiful medal and a rose. After getting some food, I stopped at various tables to get my finisher shirt, Tyvek jacket, little velvet pouches with a charm and coin, and a pine seedling. My husband met me outside the finisher chute and helped me carry my stuff back to the hotel. Our celebratory dinner was at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. It was a bit of a disappointment, especially considering the high cost, but we had plenty to eat and drink.
There are far more pros than cons to this race. The good stuff:
- This is a very walker-friendly race, with a generous 8 hour cutoff (and the finish line stays open until the last person crosses); walkers are not second-class citizens here
- Despite the large numbers of participants, the corrals move quickly and the roads are generally wide enough to accommodate everyone
- Everything is contained in a small section of the city, so if you stay at the host hotel or one close by, you can manage packet pickup and getting to the start and finish with ease
- The race is IPod friendly; this is not important to me since I prefer not to use music during a race (except for multiday races) but it matters to many and I saw lots of people taking advantage of this
- You get a LOT for your money in addition to the race – a poster, a gender specific long-sleeve tech finisher’s shirt (this year, in a soft shade of blue), a Tyvek jacket, a beautiful medal, a coin and a charm in individual velvet pouches, a rose, and a pine tree seedling.
- Powell’s Bookstore
The just-okay stuff:
- There are parts of Portland that are attractive but this course does not emphasize them. Chinatown is wonderful and so is the St. Johns Bridge area. The rest is so-so. Enough said.
- I guess there are never enough porta-potties, ever, but there were not enough at the start and they had very long lines (too long for me to chance getting into one which is probably why I had to stop twice during the race itself)
- The food at the finish line leaves a lot to be desired – there is some yogurt, but the chocolate milk was all gone by the time I arrived. There is fruit and small bagels and chips and cookies but nothing substantial. This is not so important to me because I am not very hungry after a marathon, but I do wish they had had enough chocolate milk
I planted my little seedling in a pot and placed it next to its big brother, now about 2 feet tall. I never thought these trees from Oregon would make it in Florida but so far so good. I’m already thinking about doing this race again, maybe not next year but soon.