A moment of insanity, a summer of running
By Tony Ahern
It all started last Christmas, at my parents' house, a home engulfed with the smells of the holidays, brimming with warm, comforting spirit and joy. It must have all combined to make me temporarily insane.
It ended Sunday, my back against the wall of a downtown skyscraper in Portland, sitting on the sidewalk, cold and shivering, wrapped in a plastic blanket, looking and feeling like the most desperate of street people, hoping not to pass out, praying not to throw up.
Back to Christmas. The idea was that of my brother Dan. Another brother, Mike, was turning 50 in the spring. In an amalgamation of a New Year's resolution and in recognition of a half century of being beat down by gravity, Dan thought he, Mike and I should get in shape and run the Portland Marathon. Dan's plan: run a marathon the year each of us turns 50.
It wasn't until October, 10 months away. I'd always wanted to run a marathon (more correctly, I always fantasized about running a marathon). It didn't sound too ominous. We wouldn't start getting race-prepared until the July 4th Todd Beamer 10-K, adding miles after that. I agreed to be included.
I'd occasionally run for most of my adult life, to stay in a semblance of shape, and to also spend some of my labs' near-boundless energy. But three miles was a pretty long run for me, four was near Herculean.
But from January on I couldn't go running without the impending marathon haunting each stride, so in effect, my marathon training started in January. All bundled, I started up Round Butte near my house on an icy, pitch-black evening. I made it all of about a half mile up that evil uphill before my lungs started threatening to throw my heart out my chest. I'd stop, start jogging again, stop, start, stop, start and finally reach the top of the butte, my thighs on fire. The view from the top of the butte made the effort more than worth it, with lights from Culver to Gateway twinkling back at me. The jog down the hill was actually doable without stopping. I specialize in downhill.
A busy year ensued. When summer came I wasn't in much better shape than I had been in January. My training was unsteady at best, lazy at the worst. Mike and Dan had done better, especially Mike, who started unable to run much more than a half mile himself but was now running seven miles a couple times a week. But they were both natural runners, really, cross country athletes in high school, and both veterans of marathons in their early 20s.
A mean summer cold had kept me from training for the Beamer run at all, really. I about died on a four-mile run a couple days before. I thought about not running the race, and in fact bagging the whole marathon fantasy. We didn't have a sports editor here at the time, and I thought about using that as an excuse. Someone would have to take photos at the Beamer race. But, at the last minute, I handed my camera to Bud Beamer and took off running with the pack.
I managed to run the entire six-plus miles, slowly, but I finished. My brothers beat me by about 10 minutes.
Early on I had printed out a marathon training guide, which gave a day-by-day roadmap to building up to being marathon-ready. It called for running three to four times in the middle of the week, building from three to 10 miles on those days, then doing a long run every weekend. Those runs started at eight miles and worked their way up to the mother of all training runs, 20 miles, a couple weeks before the marathon.
You could skimp on those midweek runs, the guide noted, but not on those long excursions. And skimp I did. Rarely did I run more than twice during the week, as most evenings from July through August I spent down here at our new office, painting or otherwise preparing for our late-August move -- solid, legitimate reasons not to train, I convinced myself.
But those long weekend runs the three of us did together. The first came on a Saturday, from my house on Round Butte all the way to Culver. Over eight miles. An unimaginable distance a couple weeks before. But I made it, and felt pretty strong doing it.
The next week, we were to run from Dan's house in town. For some reason, I stunk. I couldn't run three miles without stopping. I knew I would have to force myself to train midweek or this marathon fantasy (an uncommitted description which made Dan bristle) would be popped.
After the Beamer and a Warm Springs 10-K, Dan suffered an injury; pain shot from his lower back down past his hip into the back of his leg. He could hardly walk, and certainly couldn't run. He figured the marathon wasn't happening for him. I thought we should have dropped the idea together, as it had been Dan's plan and he was the most excited about it. But Mike had worked his butt off to get in shape, and there was an outside chance Dan would get better in time, so we trudged on.
In August Mike and I ran from his house in North Madras Heights to Gateway, a fantastic nine-mile run, mostly a slight downhill, at which, again, I excel. The next week we extended the Gateway run about four miles to where the new pavement ends on to the way to Trout Creek, and back to the Gateway park (which we wondered why it hadn't yet been named after Herb Vibbert).
Still shaky on those midweek runs, I kept up the long run schedule on the weekends. With Mike out of town, I had to do an 18-miler by myself. It was the second-longest training session of my marathon guide, six weeks before the event.
My wife drove me out Grizzly Road 18 miles, meeting me every four miles or so to provide water as I ran back to town. By mile 16, I was dead. I had to walk about half of the last two miles.
As I walked the pavement of Grizzly Road, forcing some running strides, I felt physically wrenched. On one hand, I was thrilled that I could run 16 miles. On the other, I couldn't imagine running another 10. I was disheartened knowing I had such a long way to go before I was in marathon shape.
After about three weeks without running, and getting some effective physical therapy at Mountain View Hospital, Dan was again pain-free, and re-jazzed about the marathon. He would try and work his way up to our distance levels. Mike and I had planned to run all the way to the Deschutes River, about 15 miles. We thought Dan could stop at nine miles, at the Gateway park, where Mike's wife Jane (or our trainer, as I referred to her) waited with water and car, which this morning held a full-on picnic breakfast which we planned to eat riverside.
Dan made it to the park, and decided he could go a little further. We ran to the where the pavement ended. By then, he figured he could run down the grade all the way to the river. He made it without any more difficulty than Mike or I. He'd missed about three weeks training, but hadn't skipped a beat. I like to think that said more about him than his training partners.
We enjoyed that fantastic breakfast along the Deschutes, amid the sage and bunchgrass, on another perfect blue-sky morning, the same that had greeted all our weekend runs. I knew marathon day would come, and that we would be there. But I also knew that this marathon was steadily losing importance compared to the evergrowing simply magic of the journey towards it.
The quick commitment made on Christmas Day 2005 had led to a summer of running -- miles and miles along my favorite country roads, midweek evenings racing daylight by myself, and those weekend runs with my brothers starting before dawn and filled with talk of whatever life presented at the moment.
Next week, our final preparation for the marathon, running 26.2 miles through downtown Portland and along the Willamette River, with 9,000 other lunatics.