Every rose has its thorn

November 30, 1999

[This article originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of Northwest Runner.]

It’s 6:55 a.m. on October 3rd when Mayor Vera Katz makes the following promise: all Portland Marathon finishers will receive roses without thorns. The starting-line crowd is quiet, as if confused. Roses without thorns? With a hint of civic pride, Katz explains, “The volunteers took the thorns out.”

On a practical level, this is exactly what one would expect from a marathon billed as “the best organized in North America.” On a more metaphorical level, however, one might question whether dethorned roses are really an appropriate marathon prize. Is it perhaps too glib to offer prickless posies to those who have just spent the morning battling cramps, glycogen depletion, hyperthermia, and other figurative thorns of the race? Or can these, too, be avoided with careful planning and prudent action?

My friends Cliff, Craig, and Do hope to answer this question in the affirmative. They have trained for Portland sensibly, increasing their long runs and weekly mileage gradually over a period of several months. Nonetheless, during a final pre-race workout, Craig’s knee stiffens up and refuses to bend. Suddenly, even starting the marathon is out of the question. Thorns 1, Runners 0.

On race day, the first problem to face is the 7 o’clock start time — not necessarily an hour conducive to peak performances, running or otherwise. “I could tell that [the guy who sang the national anthem] was having some trouble because it was 7 a.m.,” Do, a former professional musician, would remark later. “Your voice just doesn’t operate at that hour.”

Vocal difficulties aside, the race starts promptly at 7. For me and the other spectators, it’s time to review the course and find out who’s in the race. I jog out past the didjeridu player and a few other sleepy entertainers to mile 7, where I begin spectating in earnest. In a field of over 7000, I recognize only a few: Olympic Trials qualifier Matt Messner of Bothell; Ed and Kathleen Harri of Bellingham; four-time Seattle Marathon champ Dave Steffens of Issaquah; former U.W. standout Kate Malm of Kirkland; James Matsusaka, Mark Billett, Mark Bloudek, and Emily and Steve Anderson of Seattle; and of course Cliff and Do. There’s also a familiar-looking short guy in glasses whose name momentarily escapes me. I hazard a guess: “Way to go, uh . . . Andy?” Seattlite Andy Lyle smiles back, confirming my hypothesis.

For now, optimism is the prevailing mood; those I greet respond with thumbs-up signs, friendly waves, and even a few good-natured shouts. “What are you up to?” Steffens asks as he streaks by. “Why aren’t you running?” Matsusaka inquires. (Perhaps this article will serve as a belated answer to their questions.)

On to mile 12. Up front, Messner is sitting in second place, about 45 seconds behind the early leader. He still looks very comfortable, as do the top three women, who reach the 12-mile mark in 1:15 and within 20 seconds of each other. The rest of the pack has lost some of its initial shine, however. The people who waved to me at mile 7 now only nod, while the mile-7 nodders have become totally unresponsive. Cliff, a member of the latter group, has nevertheless managed to stay close to his 7:00-per-mile goal pace, while Do is likewise sticking to his target of 7:30s. Craig, being of limited mobility, has retreated to the car for a mid-morning nap.

I take a shortcut over to mile 23, where I find that my waver/nodder/unresponsive classification system is now totally obsolete. Most of my acquaintances now fall into one of two new categories: those who can conceal the pain they’re in, and those who cannot. Interestingly, the three masters runners I know — Billett, Lyle, and Steffens — are the ones who seem to be suffering the least. Chalk it up to their years of experience, I suppose. More typical is the plight of Cliff, who arrives way behind schedule and barely running. Do shows up about 20 minutes later in similar condition. “C’mon, Do, you’re a man in motion!” I scream, referring to the inspirational John Parr song from St. Elmo’s Fire. He smiles ruefully and slows down a little.

At the risk of making Do feel bad, I breeze past him and run ahead to the finish, where I check the final results and conduct a few informal interviews (i.e., talk to my friends). There are certainly some successes to report; for starters, Messner has won in 2:24:33, Billett has topped the masters with a 2:41:56 clocking, and Kathleen Harri has run 2:59:07 to lead all Washington women. Yet few have trod the thorny path and escaped unscathed.

Take Emily Anderson, for example. Having just completed her maiden marathon voyage in 3:17, she vows to stick to 5Ks in the future. “26.2 miles is inhumane,” she concludes tersely. And what does her husband Steve think of his 2:51 effort, about 20 minutes shy of his personal best (PB)? “I’ve learned that I can run a good half-marathon,” he says before excusing himself to throw up.

Even Messner admits to having struggled a bit. “I was hurting pretty bad at 20 miles, and then I got some Gatorade and felt a lot better,” he recalls. He also acknowledges that his last two miles were slower than they should have been. In any case, he declares himself pleased with his victory. “I’ve never won a major marathon before, so that was my goal coming in — to win,” he says.

When I reconnect with Do and Cliff, they both claim to have lost their momentum shortly after the uphill climb on miles 16 and 17. Do has fallen about a minute short of his 3:40 PB thanks to a five-minute rest stop at mile 20 — although, he hastens to add, “that was five minutes well-spent.” Most frustrating, he says, was his inability to run hard during the last few miles. “Every time I tried to push myself, my muscles would contract involuntarily,” he complains.

Cliff, meanwhile, has completed the race in 3:20 — a respectable time, yes, but well off his pre-race goal of breaking three hours. As he recounts the hardships of the hills for my benefit, I look down at his finisher’s rose and note that a lone thorn still clings to the stem. The volunteers, despite their good intentions, have missed one after all.

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