Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Top of Old Tabor

See that big white peak? That's not Mount Tabor.
Tabor is the bump in front.

Finally, about 10 minutes after the race was scheduled to start last night, the race director showed up at what the gathered crowd suspected but was not sure was the start line. A bearded slightly chunky guy he was looking frazzled, overheated. No surprise. He had several hundred runners doing three different distances virtually simultaneously at various spots on Portland’s favorite volcano, Mount Tabor. Then there were the dogs. It was the Mount Tabor Doggie Challenge, so there were dogs everywhere. And kids for the kids race. And bicyclists who typically own Tabor on Wednesday, when it’s closed to cars: they were weaving through and around us with more than a few gripes.

He tugged at his white, soggy-with-sweat T-shirt to give himself some air. He apologized for the delay, muttered vague regret about having switched the race to a Wednesday, gave us a few course notes and pointed out there would be beer, Burgerville and a band at the finish. “I think we can still have a lot of fun,” he said.

Huh, I thought. Can we? I actually hadn’t been too bent out of shape that the race organization was wobbly, mostly because it was apparent from the very start this race was more about good wacky fun than keen competition. Plus, I did not have high expectations for myself. I had arrived home three hours earlier after a five-hour drive from Ashland, then had one of those face-wrinkling afternoon naps that can happen, where you crash hard and awake groggy and with a pillow pattern indented on your cheek and part of your nose. It was 5:40 p.m. when I came to. The race was set for 6:30 p.m.

Still, despite not being in PR-seeking mode, and having arrived and locked up the Bontrager around 6:15, the disarray did put my inner uptight asshole on notice. I was poised to get ornery if things didn’t turn around quickly. Then came that suggestion that "we can still have fun.” Tabor, one of my favorite places to find myself in running shoes. A fine, sunny and warm summer evening. Beer. Burgers. A vast collection of shockingly well-behaved dogs of every size and shape. What the hell. He could be right.

He counted us down from 10 and then whistled into his megaphone to get the show on the road. I had warned the tiny speck of a girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old, next to me at the front of the pack that giant fast people might come plowing through so maybe she wanted to move back off the line? “No.” she said. “I don’t want people in my way. I'm very serious. I’ve run 22:35.” Well OK little plucky one! Nevertheless, as we took off a gangly high-school-age guy tried to leap between me and the wee tyke. There was not sufficient space. The gangly guy left me alone but shoved the little kid to the side. I was briefly horrified, but she took it in stride. Onward.

We had started about 50 meters shy of the Tabor peak, and headed up to the top. There’s a short circle there and after completing it we wound our way down to the northeast base of the park. A couple of guys were pulling well away and then came a small cluster that included me. Behind us the crowd of nearly 200 must have stretched way, way back; a check of the results afterward showed that two-thirds of the finishers did the race at slower than 10:00/mile.

It was a sweet downhill, but then we had to head back up and around the hill, not all the way to the top, but pretty close. That was horrible, pushing and pushing to the brink of hurling, but barely moving anyway. What was the point?

Oh, yeah: fun.

We got one more downhill after that, just long enough to give us stupid confidence that the final 100 yards up to the finish line wouldn’t kill us. I hit the line in 18:56 and lived to tell about it.

Some Widmer ale and a little Mediterranean-inspired burger from Burgerville’s Nomad hit the spot. Under the tall trees an outstanding mercifully fiddleless bluegrass group played. I watched people and their dogs, dogs and their people. An hour after it all began I was on my way, feeling two-beers-good headed back down the hill home on the bike. But just before I left I saw the RD guy. He was getting in a truck, about to move some race gear it appeared. He had changed out of his white T-shirt into a red one. He looked a little less crazed but still not out of the woods. I said, “Great evening. Tons of fun. It was beautiful.” He smiled and said, “Thanks.”


Monday, July 26, 2010

Running at Nike

Just looking around it was obvious this was not the usual bell curve-shaped 5K field. The bump at the Bowerman Athletic Club 5K last night was on the "fast” end of the graph—befitting the race location, none other than Nike Inc. world headquarters, a vast, Edenic suburban business park 15 miles west of my home. A world away.

I flew the helicopter over and snapped this shot of
Nike HQ before setting the bird down on Ronaldo Field.

I was especially impressed by how masterfully they had hidden the acres and acres of parking. Lots cover the campus but are mostly in concentric circles separated by high hedges and tall trees. So you never look out upon an endless sea of cars. It's just you and a few other drivers; thank goodness everyone else is taking public transportation and saving the world from choking itself to death!

I arrived early and had time to find wood-chip trails, water features, statues of Nike-sponsored greats, sloping lawns, covered walkways, playing fields and my favorite, a track with trees in the infield. The Tiger Woods Building was the epicenter of race festivities so we were allowed entry. I guess you either stand by your man or not, and Nike has, but in July 2010 this shrine to Tiger struck me as equal parts comical and tragic. On a wall in the airy lobby there’s an ode in melodramatic Nike marketing speak to Tiger's talent at whacking the little ball into the slightly larger hole, complete with some suggestion about how he's brought peoples together. I’ll say.

The day was warm, peaking around 90 in the Portland metro area and remaining well into the 80s as the 7 p.m. race time grew near. I heard more than a little fretting about the heat, and just now read a message-board contributor’s assertion that PRs were virtually unattainable in such conditions. A perfectly reasonable view, but my mindset was different. I was pleased not to have to run early in the morning on my slow-to-lubricate joints. I took heart that the temperature was falling, that the sun’s angle was growing less fierce, that a little breeze was coming up. Perfect conditions, I told myself.

As it turned out, it did feel pretty damn hot. We did a big loop nearly twice before peeling off to the finish in the plaza behind the Tiger building. There was a stretch directly into the sun and the second time around I suddenly noticed my mouth was Death Valley in July dry. This wasn’t my first instance of dismay. A half mile in I was suffering enough to wonder what ugliness the race’s later stages might bring me. I thought about a Joe Dudman lament from a few weeks ago, posted on the TRL message board, in which he suggested that running shorter/faster required a different and perhaps more profound commitment than running longer/slower: “I can't seem to push myself to that level of extreme physical crisis that's needed to run up to my standards as often anymore. It's like I don't have anything left to prove, so why go through the pain.” Crisis is the right word, getting at the desperate, mind-exploding nature of the pain, so different from the grinding, contemplative hurt of the marathon.

So I slowed down. I pushed, but I slowed down. A 5:53 opening mile became a 6:10 second mile. It felt like the wheels were coming off on Mile 3, but it wasn’t much worse, a 6:14, which I suppose means I was working, giving it my all. Then the final tenth, 33 seconds more, adding up to 18:50 on the certified course, a hefty improvement on my previous 5K best of 19:19.

That's me on the right, losing out on 77th place by breaking
stride to stop my watch while racer 201 hammers it home.
Yeah, well, my chip time was three seconds faster, dude.

It was such agony. It was so unpleasant. It was a half-minute PR? Wow. I was aided, I know, by the high quality of the field. Amazingly, in a race with only 498 finishers, there were always runners to chase or runners to sidle up to or tuck in behind or fight to stay ahead of. Great credit to the Bowerman AC and Nike for providing the lure, the venue, the experience.

Of course I’m not satisfied. Nature of the beast. Already setting new goals, beginning with running the distance at a sub-6:00/mile pace. That translates to 18:38. I think it’s doable. I think sub-18 might be doable. I’m fighting against aging, anyone beyond 40 is, but there’s upside potential in the fact that my training the last few years has been focused on marathons. More time on the track could make a big difference. And what fun, those swimming-in-lactate, lung-busting workouts. What fun, indeed.

By the Numbers:
78/498 overall
72/275 men
2/30 men 45-59