Friday, May 24, 2013

Vernonia Marathon Race Report

Coming on the heels of the Squak Mountain Marathon I knew that Vernonia was going to be a real challenge but, at a minimum, I knew I was going to be able to finish I just didn’t know what kind of price I would pay for that finish.

In reality, if you are reasonably well trained for one marathon, doing two marathons in one weekend isn’t as stupendous an achievement as you might think but there are certain realities that you must be able to face.  The first reality is that the second marathon will be uncomfortable longer.  It won’t necessarily be more uncomfortable but your discomfort will most assuredly start much earlier.  For me at Vernonia I would say that discomfort started around mile six, maybe mile five.  I had the initial second-day marathon stiffness to run through for the first couple miles but after that I found my stride and then ran off course.

The first aid station comes at a little wooden bridge that spans a stream.  Just past that aid station there is a portion of the bike path where the marathon is run that loops around a small lake.  Past that bridge there is a juncture where you can pretty much go one of three directions left, slightly right or slightly harder right.  The race course had an chalk arrow laid out that suggested there was a right turn ahead and there was a listless boy standing near it who timidly gesture vaguely to the right.  As I was in third place overall at this point in the race and well behind number one and two I had no other runners to follow and the most promising direction seemed to be the slightly harder right because I knew that was the direction we would eventually have to travel to get from Vernonia, OR where the race started to Banks, OR where the race ends.  Within a quarter mile or so I arrived abruptly at a dead end next to what appeared to be a pumping station.  I stood there a couple seconds looking around to make sure I wasn’t missing something then turned on my heals and headed back.

By the time I had gotten back on course as many as 20 runners had gotten past me so now I was re-passing many people I had passed earlier.  The run starts in two waves, the early start and the regular start, which is an hour after the early start.  I took off with the early starters simply because I had misjudged which bus to take and ended up at the start line just in time to head out at the tail end of the early group and I didn’t feel like standing around in the damp and cold for an hour waiting for the regular start.  As I ran around the lake regaining my earlier position I eventually caught up with this one guy who seemed to be about my age, size and seemed to know absolutely everyone present.  He was dressed in a cotton t-shirt, basketball shorts and some kind of beat up looking trainers.

At first I didn’t take much notice of him.  He looked like a lot of pretty new distance runners I’ve come across in my travels and since I was gaining on him steadily I assumed I would just pass him and that would be that.  I’ve gotten pretty good at pacing myself in a marathon and probably 99 times in 100 if I pass someone they stay passed.  This is especially true if I’m passing them in the first three miles.  However, as I started to pull ahead of this guy he sped up a bit and remained in the lead.  As a psychologist this is a response that I expect no matter how early in the race it may be and no matter how irrelevant I may be as a potential competitor with that person.  In psychology it’s called the social facilitation effect.  Basically what that means, at least in this case, is that when another runner becomes aware of your presence they unconsciously perform a little better.  The idea behind the theory is that people respond to the pressure of social evacuation even if that evaluation is only perceived and not necessarily real.

In any case, this is something I’m really sensitive to because two people can get caught up in responding to each other’s social pressure and this will often lead to them both going out too fast so when I face situations like this I usually just back off a little and then re-initiate my pass a few seconds later.  This tactic almost always works because it gives the other runner enough time to really register that someone faster is coming by and it doesn’t make any sense to try and start racing against them with 23 miles to go.  So, with that in mind I backed off a little and then reinitiated my pass and boom, there he went again speeding up except this time he put some more into it and opened up about a 10 yard lead.

I let him go and just watched his back.  I figured that he may be a stronger runner than I was giving him credit for and the only reason I was catching him earlier is because he was waving to all kinds of people.  We had now left the populated portion of the course and were on the isolated bike path that runs in a direct line from Vernonia to Banks.  I was considering that he was now ready to settle in and roll away from me, however, as I started to accept that possibility I noticed that I was reeling him back in and I wasn’t trying to speed up I was just trying to settle in to a nice, sustainable pace.

Once again I pulled up alongside him and once again he sped up leaving me in his wake.  I think of myself as a nice guy and I certainly don’t hope for anyone to do poorly in a race but really, you are going to race me in a marathon when I am already easily catching you at mile three.  Not happening.  I’ve spent a lifetime involved with various competitive sports so unless you are ready to bring it don’t wave the red cape pal.

I made the decision then and there that I was going to use his insistence on staying ahead of me to my advantage.  I decided to roll up right behind him and draft.  This guy was one of a very few distance runners that I could actually draft off of because he was as big and broad as I.  Any time I felt the pace was slowing too much I would simply pop out from behind him, pull up next to him and boom, he would pick it right back up.  This went on at least through mile eight but then he began to falter.  His pace would slow and I would pull up next to him, he wouldn’t respond so I’d look over at him.  He was looking kind of grim so then I’d begin to get ahead of him but he found it somewhere to catch back up and pull ahead.

At each of the aid stations we went through a man and a small boy met this guy and cheered him on and at each of those aid stations I was anywhere from a few yards to a few feet right behind him.  He always sped up as we approached an aid station.  I have to give the guy his due.  I flogged him like a cheap mule and he kept it up for a good 10 miles but the course took a slightly upward slant and he just couldn’t hang on.  I left him behind and by the time I came in to the half-marathon aid station he was nowhere to be seen.  The man and the boy who had grown used to him leading me into aid stations at first looked hopeful, presumably assuming they guy would be right behind me, but that look turned to one of being perplexed because the only runner that was behind me was a female that was maybe a quarter mile back.  My windbreaker was nowhere to be seen.

At the half marathon point the bike path crosses the main road between Banks and Vernonia and there is a sharp descent prior to that road and a steep climb afterward.  The half marathoners all finish up just past that road and I discovered that I was the front running marathoner from the early start.  This was a weird experience because there was literally nobody around.  It was just me and the bike path and the aid station workers every couple miles.

Fortunately, if you are going to be running alone the Vernonia marathon is the one to do it at.  Vernonia was my 68th marathon or longer race so actually probably something like my 35th straight up marathon and it was hands down the most scenic one I have done.  Here it’s important to say that my wife and I live in Albuquerque New Mexico so I suppose it’s possible that if you actually live in the Portland area the scenery may be old hat and not particularly great compared to other places you might know about but to us it was pretty awesome.  Pretty much the entire bike path runs beneath a canopy of moss covered trees, flowering trees and shrubs and giant wild ferns.  There is also a large section towards the end of the course where you are out of the native forest and into cultivated farmland but here the canopy turns from lush green to white flowering trees, possibly Bradford pears or at least that’s what they reminded me of.

In any case, it’s a beautiful run but despite its beauty the second reality that must be faced during day two of a double marathon weekend hit me square in the face.  I had a lot of fun racing with that guy for the first 11 or 12 miles but now that I was running alone I was much more aware of the severe fatigue in my legs and it was hard to maintain a descent pace.  I did my best to push through but by mile 22 I had to start taking some walk breaks in order to keep the wheels from completely falling off.  It was about mile 23 when the first place marathoner, who had started an hour after me, passed me.  He chirped out “only a 5k to go!” and zoomed by.  Shortly thereafter three more marathoners passed me as I continued to grind out the final miles.  I had been hoping that my one hour head start would be enough to allow me to be the first marathoner to cross the finish line but it was not to be and so I was now hoping that I could be the first marathoner from the early group to cross the finish line.

I figured I would know I had accomplished this goal because anyone who passed me, if they were in the later start, would be passing me at a pretty fast pace because they would be running a sub-3 hour marathon or thereabout.  If someone passed me slowly then I would figure they had started with me and were just moving a bit less slowly than I was moving.  The slow pass occurred probably at mile 24.5.  A woman pulled up alongside me and slowly slid by.  Any attempt on my part to retain the lead would have been both pointless and futile.  I had nothing left with which to fight back and even if I had been able to regain my lead it would have been meaningless.

The end of the race was really starting to feel brutal.  I had given it my all and it was going to result in about a four hour and nine minute finish.  When I finally reached the school in Banks where I had begun my morning with packet pickup and a bus ride I discovered that the finish line was at the back of the school on their running track and like Western States, the final leg of the race was one lap around the track.  Under other conditions I think this would have been pretty cool but in my state of disrepair it was just one final ordeal to bear.  Was I being paid back for messing with that guy earlier in the race? Maybe, I tend to think not but it’s possible that despite the way I was looking at things at the start of the race I had actually deluded myself into going out too fast just to mess with someone.

Anyway, water under the bridge.  I had a fantastic time overall.  It was really tough as a follow-up to Squak Mountain but I think Vernonia is a very fast course so I’m going to keep it in mind as a possible future BQ attempt if I can’t seem to run a BQ at some race in a state that I don’t already have.  It never seems quite right to say “If you only do one race in (insert state here) the you have to do this one” because I have not done every marathon in any state, not even in New Mexico and we only have six more or less depending on the year.  However, I am sure that you could do a lot worse in Oregon than Vernonia.  Had my wife and I traveled from New Mexico exclusively to run Vernonia we would have been quite happy.

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