Run Like Hell Race Report by Mark Stone

November 2013. One of my 2013 goals has been to set a new PR for the half marathon. After a busy race season in the first half of the year (two 10Ks, a half marathon, and a full marathon), my entire training focus since June has been to run a great half marathon this Fall. I'm running in a new city -- Portland -- and "Run Like Hell" looked like a fun event covering some classic Portland running routes (Riverfront, Terwiliger Hill).

The route starts in downtown Portland at Pioneer Courthouse Square, winds through a flat stretch of city streets, and then along the greenway adjacent to the Willamette River. At about Mile 3 the route begins a gradual climb as the course approaches Terwiliger Hill, and then from Mile 5 to Mile 7 there's a fairly steep climb with about 500 feet of elevation gain to the hilltop. The course follows a different route down the hill with a mostly straight, gradual descent from Mile 7 to about Mile 10.5. Then it's back along the river, back through downtown to finish at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Like many tall runners (I'm 6'4") I'm not a great hill runner. Sure, I love to stretch out my stride and pick up the pace on the downhills, but challenging uphills have been my bane. In addition, I've struggled with recurrent tightness in my left hamstring that flares up most frequently under high intensity running (like running uphill).

My race plan was to start out somewhat below my target pace, starting at something like 9:15 a mile, to ease off as much as my left hamstring needed me to on the uphill part, and then to open up the throttle on the long downhill to something more like 8:20 a mile, hoping to sustain that increased pace through the downtown flats back to the finish line. The challenge would be to climb Terwiliger Hill without losing too much pace but also without expending too much energy.

My training plan is pretty standard by now: 4 days a week of running that include a long slow run and short slow run on consecutive days, a tempo run day trying to keep the pace under 8:45 per mile, and an intervals day on the treadmill that is mix of 1/4 mile intervals and 1/8 mile hill intervals. My long run tops out at 15 miles when training for a half marathon, my tempo run tops out at 8 miles, and my weekly mileage tops out at about 36 miles per week.

During training, I felt like I was still building off of a strong base from the first half of the year. I ran the Winthrop Marathon in June, and since Winthrop includes a 1500 foot drop in elevation, I wanted to prep for that with some long downhill runs. Of course the catch is in order to run a long downhill you first have to run a long uphill... so my spring training included lots of long runs with big elevation gains and drops up on the slopes of Mount Rainier below Carbon Glacier. After the marathon, and after shifting to the Portland area, I continued extensive hill work by going regularly out to Forest Park and running on the Wildwood Trail (the low and high points on Wildwood differ by about 700 feet in elevation).

While the distance in a half marathon doesn't phase me any more, I always worry about my ability to summon up and sustain a decent pace. In my peak intensity week of training I turned in an 8 mile run in just over an hour, so I was feeling pretty confident heading into my taper period.

Race morning arrived, thankfully without rain or wind. It was cold (low 40s) and foggy at the start, and would remain that way throughout. Staying warm before the start was a little challenging (thank you Starbucks), but I wasn't worried about the cold once we got moving. I made several significant changes in my race plan compared to previous half marathons.

  • First, I made a calculated choice not to stop at any of the water stations. Two hours in cold weather is not enough time to become dehydrated if you've hydrated properly ahead of time, even when you're pushing yourself.
  • Second, and related, I was determined to avoid bathroom breaks. It's just time wasted, and shouldn't be necessary in a two hour event.
  • Third, I changed up my race fuel strategy. I brough along a handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans to be consumed right before the start, figuring the carbs and the caffeine would be a good boost. And I pocketed a couple of salt water taffys as my only in-race fuel, to be consumed right as I approached the top of Terwiliger Hill. Yes, I'd have to slow down to a walk to eat, but it was an ideal place in the race to slow down and catch my breath.
  • Finally, I ran with a GPS watch (Nike+ Sportwatch) for the first time ever. My race plan called for paying careful attention to pace through each stage of the race.

So that was the plan.

We had about 800 runners at the start, and I positioned myself about 2/3 of the way back in the corral. Given my expected time I should probably have been farther forward, but I like the feeling of passing people. I felt good through the first couple of miles, keeping some spring in my step but not going out too fast. As we left the riverfront and angled uphill, I noted that my pace to that point was 9:25 / mile, slower than desired because of time spent clearing the crowd coming out of the corral. Even though we were starting up hill at this point, I took a chance and picked up my pace. So far my hamstring seemed to be responding well. I've really changed my running form a lot in the last year, getting away from the long, loping stride I've used for so many years and focusing a faster turnover with short, quick strides. By the end of Mile 5 I was back on pace, averaging 9:10 / mile to that point.

The next two miles would be the tough part. I slowed considerably, but tried not to slow my cadence. Basically my strides just got shorter and shorter. Along this stretch I was barely putting one foot ahead of the other, and really had to run looking at my feet to make sure I didn't step on my own foot. The grade along this stretch is about 4%, and I really didn't find it too bad. I kept thinking back to my spring runs on Mount Rainier, where a 5% to 6% grade would just go on for miles. Indeed I found that I was passing a lot of people on Terwiliger Hill, and that my breathing was pretty even compared to the huffing and puffing I heard all around me. The hill tops out on a sweeping curve that brings you around to the long, straight downhill and as I rounded onto that curve I pulled up a last, slowing to a walk to take my taffy break. At this point my overall pace had dropped to 9:25 / mile. Pretty much right where I wanted to be, but I was going to need sub-8:30 miles the rest of the way to hit a PR. Did I have enough left in the tank to keep up that kind of pace?

I picked up the pace aggressively in the next mile (8:23), and then flew down the next two miles of the downhill section (8:02 and 7:55). I hit the flats, and focused on keeping up the pace (8:11). Yes, I was working hard, and yes I could feel the strain, but I felt good. At this point I had less than 2 miles to go, and I knew there was no way I was going to let up this close to the finish.

And then....

The train.

Yes, there is indeed a freight train line that runs through downtown Portland, and the race organizers warn you up front on the website that train delays are a possibility. They have timing mats set up right before and right after the tracks, and do their best to count only your moving time and not time spent waiting for a train. And indeed most races it isn't even an issue. But this time it was an issue. A big issue. Because the train we were all bunching up in front of wasn't even moving.

It turns out one of the freight car sensors had sent a "wheel off the track" alert (in error as it turned out), which mandates an immediate halt. The crew then has to walk the length of the train (2 miles, roughly) and check every wheel. This process took 30 minutes. 30 minutes during which I am standing still, in 40-something degree weather, soaked in my own sweat, developing a chill as my muscles tighten up further and further. Many runners gave up and just wandered off through side streets back towards downtown. But not me. I was determined to get an official time out of this one way or another. I had trained four months for this event, and I was not giving up. Finally the train began to move. We then waited another 10 minutes for the train to clear the crossing. We had waiting so long that my GPS watch, which I had paused, gave up. Surely I couldn't still be running it must have figured.

At last the train was clear, and we all lurched forward. I don't know how fast I ran those last 1.75 miles, but I do know that I was angry, furious even, at the train delay and I just channeled all that fury into my effort. My legs were stiff and cramping, I had to shake off a shiver from the chill in my shoulders, but I didn't care. "Just run. You can rest later. You have 6 months at least until your next race. Just run." That was what I kept saying to myself over and over through the home stretch. I turned the last corner with about a 200 yard straight away between me and the finish line and felt like I was completely spent. Somehow I managed to dig deeper into that anger and the next thing I knew I found myself sprinting, all the way to the finish line and across.

Officially my time was 1 hour 54 minutes and 57 seconds. That's 1 minute and 23 seconds better than my previous PR. Part of me feels like there's an asterisk next to that time, on account of the train. But most of me feels like this:

It doesn't matter what my time was. I know in my heart that I ran my best half marathon ever, and I don't need a clock time to validate that. The external confirmation is nice, but not necessary. I know how I felt, I know how I ran, and I know what I accomplished.

If anything, I'm grateful to be reminded of the uniqueness of each race. No two courses are the same, and given the variables of weather and other runners present on that particular day, even the same race is not really the same from one year to the next. Whatever triumph we feel, whatever struggle we endure, we must understand it as both unique to the moment of that particular race, and yet essential to the whole of who we are as runners. And so I leave you with a quote from someone far more eloquent than I will ever be, in both words and deed, when it comes to running. Each day when I start work, I see a photo of this man when I enter the front door of the building. And next to the photo it says:

A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they're capable of understanding. -Steve Prefontaine

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