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A marathoner's marathoner

Attorney Les Smith helps the Portland Marathon keep both feet on the ground
by: JAIME VALDEZ 
The Portland Marathon, set for its 40th anniversary Oct. 9 and run exquisitely by Les Smith (above) and others, has become one of the country's top races for the hardy souls who dare run 26.2 miles. Smith has run 81 marathons in his life.

Les Smith is rummaging around the Portland Marathon office looking for old Portland Marathon posters to use as a backdrop for a photo op. As Smith produces the posters, his eyes light up and he smiles. Each poster has a story and history behind it that Smith gladly goes into.

'Everybody who finishes the marathon has their own story,' Smith says.

The first marathon in 490 B.C. was a death race. The Athenian army, outnumbered 4-to-1, launched a surprise offensive against the invading Persians on the plains of Marathon. By the end of the day, 6,400 Persians lay dead on the battlefield compared to just 192 Athenians. The surviving Persians fled to the sea and headed south to Athens to attack the city before the Greek army could reassemble.

A fleet-footed soldier named Phidippides, who had fought in the battle, was sent to run 26.2 miles to Athens to deliver a warning. According to legend, Phidippides reached Athens in about three hours. He delivered his message before falling dead from exhaustion.

For Smith, the 26.2 miles of a marathon are a way of life.

By trade, Smith is a labor relations attorney representing management at the Portland law firm of Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson. In his days as a runner, he completed 81 marathons. He is in his 30th year as the event director of the Portland Marathon as the race celebrates its 40th anniversary, set for Oct. 9.

'I love the marathon because it's a challenge,' Smith says. 'You never know what you're going to do.'

Smith grew up in the Pittsburgh area. He graduated from Duke University in 1962 then went to the North Carolina School of Law. He became a U.S. Army captain in the Vietnam era.

After he left the military, Smith began practicing law. He found it hard to be active while working long hours at a desk. He turned to running.

'I was fat,' Smith says. 'I was practicing law and basically not active and it bothered me a lot. I was in fairly good shape when I got out (of the military) in August of '69 and by about 1970 I felt fat, so I started to run.'

Smith ran his first marathon in 1976, which was the last of the Portland Marathon's Sauvie Island years. Until his last marathon in 1999, running marathons was a passion for Smith. He completed marathons as a runner, a walker and pacing others. Many of his friends to this day are people he met during a race.

'I gained a lot of friendships out on the course,' Smith says. 'People I still have contact with because they've run in with me. I was always a good person to run with because I never shut up. I'd take their mind off of whatever they wanted to do.'

Smith still grimaces a little when he recalls his fastest marathon in Eugene, where he finished in 3 hours, 30 minutes and 8 seconds.

'I should've broken 3:30,' Smith says. 'I got to 25 miles, which was on the other side of the McKenzie River, and I saw the clock and I couldn't freaking believe what the time was on it. And I left my race out there. I ran the last mile at about a 7-minute pace, which is pretty good after running 25 miles.'

Smith hit the Hayward Field track and sprinted to the finish.

'It's the only picture of the many marathons that I have pictures of where both feet are off the ground,' Smith says. 'Usually both feet are ON the ground as I walked across the finish line. I don't know how long it took me to go around the track. But I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it. Three hours, 30 minutes and 8 seconds.'

Improved organization

When Smith ran in the Portland Marathon in 1981, he was shocked by how bad the event was.

'I got in it and I realized that it was 25 minutes late in starting,' Smith says. 'When I got out on the course the aid stations weren't ready, the mile markers were not up and they were short of volunteers. They had a serious problem.'

Smith had just been elected president of the Oregon Road Runners Club, which then put on the Portland Marathon. Smith decided that the Portland Marathon would be his No. 1 priority.

'The marathon had fallen into sort of a trough of dramatically declining participation and sort of a weariness that comes at the end of volunteers just trying to do the simple things that make an event,' says Dennis Bromka, Portland Marathon committee member. 'When (Smith) stepped in, he came to the role with a realization that it couldn't just be good enough. It had to be beyond great in order to pull itself out of a nose dive. He really made it better than great.'

Directing the nonprofit marathon gives Smith a different sort of thrill than he got when running.

'The comparison is 100 percent different, but it's also the same,' Smith says. 'Running a marathon is coming down a long ski trail and if you throw an edge, the whole thing goes to hell in a hand basket. It's even more so when you direct one. You can have something happen on the day of the event that can throw the whole thing out of whack. You don't know until it's over, and even when it's over you don't know. Because you can have something weird happen after events.'

In the past 30 years, the Portland Marathon has become perhaps the best organized marathon in the world. Rather than giving a purse to winners, the Portland Marathon spends its money on making the event as good as possible for all runners. Special care is taken on every aspect of the race, from the aid stations to the medals the finishers receive.

'I've traveled to a lot of events and know a lot of event directors,' says Mamie Wheeler, assistant event director. 'And there are a lot of quality events. But (Smith) is constantly thinking of ways to make our event better and putting a lot of time and effort and research into the quality of everything that he does down to the detail.'

The people who participate in the Portland Marathon do not have to rave about the quality of their experience. Their feelings are captured on their faces when they finish the race.

'If you want to know why we do it, go down to the finish line a half hour after all the hot dogs have finished and watch the expressions on the faces of people who finish for the next hour or two,' says Jim Schaeffer, Portland Marathon committee member. 'It's really inspirational.'

When thinking about the ridiculousness of running 26.2 miles - a distance that killed the first man who did it - one wonders why Smith has devoted so much of his life to marathons.

In answering the question, Smith recalls the words of Clive Davies. The late Oregon distance runner used to say that running a marathon is like living life. It's a long distance and a long journey. And you've got a lot of different things that can happen along the journey.

'When you condition yourself to run a marathon and you prepare to produce a marathon, you are doing something that is part of a journey, which is rewarding,' Smith says. 'It's fun, and you know you're doing something that's wonderful for other people.'