On Sunday, I had the honor of joining 5,500 runners for the recently reincarnated Eugene Marathon/Half Marathon in my hometown of Eugene, OR. Many came to “race in the footsteps of legends” of Eugene track and running stars like Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, Marla Runyan, and Mary Decker Slaney. For me, it was a chance to do some speed work up and down memory lane and join my father in our first marathon together.
My Dad, Dr. Larry Dunlap, had run a few marathons back in the 70’s. In fact, his last marathon was the former Eugene Marathon (then called the Nike Marathon) over 30 years ago! Just long enough to forget his dehydration-cursed experience and sign up for another. I thought for sure he would come to his senses and kick down to the also-challenging half marathon, but come race day he was ready to take on the full 26.2, complete with some new eating and hydration strategies. I offered to run with him, but he preferred a solo attempt. I threw in an incentive and offered to fly him to Boston should he beat the 65-69 age group qualifying time of 4 hours and 15 minutes, but he was wisely focused on finishing with grace and no staple-gunned-to-the-toilet episodes on his home turf.
My goal for this race was to do some speed work. I figured I would start out at an aggressive pace just under my anaerobic threshold (around 160 bps) and see how long I could keep my form (which is usually about 10-12 miles), then slow down to retain my legs for the upcoming Quicksilver 50m. This is the first year that I’ve been serious about speed and tempo work, so I was curious to see if there would be any proof in the pudding. Lord knows those sessions hurt the most. If there’s no proof in the pudding, I’m going back to just eating the pudding. ;-)
We gathered outside of Hayward Field for the start around 7am, and the memories already started rolling. I recalled watching the Prefontaine Classic as a young boy, doing endless stair workouts in the grandstands with my high school ski team, and falling asleep in the field while pretending to study during my college years at the University of Oregon. Yep, I’ve spent some time in this town! The historic Hayward Field has never looked so good, thanks to recent upgrades to host the Olympic Trials in a few weeks. Perhaps a few more local names will join the list of Eugene legends.
My early morning breakfast of oatmeal, Vespa, OptygenHP, and Kaboom Energy Drink hit the spot and had my legs jumping, so I only packed a few more gels for the race. The early morning was a chilly 48 degrees, but we knew it would warm up so I opted for a tank top and sleeves (oh so sexy). I found my way up to the 6:30/mile pace group among the 1,700 marathon starters and snapped a few pics before local hero/US Olympic Marathon team runner Dathan Ritzenhein sent us off.
The crowds were awesome right out of the gate, cheering on every corner and ringing their cowbells. What a great running town! I didn’t stress too much about my pace this early and just tried to keep up with all the gazelles around me. My mind was easily preoccupied with rekindled memories at every corner. The house where the Women’s college rugby team lived (easily the best college parties in town), the church where my boy scout troop would meet, the soccer field where I lost my virginity (ha, ha, just kidding). So many distant memories that feel like yesterday…memory lane has a weird way of making you feel young and old at the same time.
Each mile marker on the course had the name of one of the Eugene running legends, which usually sparked a conversation among the runners. When we passed Marla Runyan (mile 4), I glanced at my watch for the first time and we were just under 25 minutes. Whoa! I definitely found a fast pack of runners. But my heart rate was still in the right zone, so I kept cruising along.
The turn at Kathy Hayes (mile 5) brought a chilly headwind, so four of us took turns working as a pack the best we could. I could pick out the track runners among the group, for they got faster every time we hit a corner. We shared some verbal encouragement with the masses headed in the other direction before jumping on a bike path and working towards Amazon Park (where I drank my first beer, natch). I was keeping an eye out for Bobby Lee, a college friend who was taking on the Eugene Marathon for the second time. Bobby had found out last year that when you spend 5-6 hours in a race, you get mighty hungry. This year he asked Christi to bring some chicken wings out near the halfway point (she overcame her vegetarian gag reflex enough to have a bucket ready at mile 17).
The crowd near Bill McChesney Jr (mile 7) was at least a hundred people, putting on a great show of support as we rounded South Eugene High (my alma mater 21 years ago…gulp!). As we headed up into the hills again, we passed the leading group of women who were all within a minute of each other. I stuck close to Tim Knox, a 48-year-old member of Portland’s Red Lizard Racing Team, who set a solid pace up and down the hill and into the UofO campus. Tim kept checking his watch and saying “this is awfully fast”, sharing with me that his marathon PR was 2:48. He asked what my goal was, and I said a 2:55 would be nice so that I could get a guaranteed entry into the NYC marathon. He just laughed and said “you can start walking now”.
I didn’t quite get the joke until we hit mile 10 in 1:02:11. Holy cow, this was fast for me! Tim passed the spot where he had cramped the previous year (and had to drop) and picked up the pace with his renewed confidence. I just stuck with him, trading off the lead as we ran in the focused silence of our pace.
We entered Springfield, where Tim got a water bottle from his wife and the “look of confidence” that renewed Tim’s faith that he must be doing fine. We hit the halfway point in 1:21 and change, and turned onto the rolling river bike path that would be the terrain for the remainder of the run. Tim had a big smile on his face…”new half marathon PR”. Sweet! Either that, or we both rooked it big time.
As we ran past Alton Baker Park (where I used to jump my BMX bike into the man-made lake…don’t laugh, BMX is an Olympic sport now!) and the McMenamin’s Mile (mile 17), we finally started pulling in 50-year-old Joe Sheeran whom we had been chasing for miles. Joe is like Tim, an impossibly fit Masters runner, and he was glad to have some company. He said he hadn’t seen anyone in nearly six miles! We all ran together for about a mile before Tim surged again, and I stuck with him.
At this point, I wasn’t doing my fair share of pulling from the front of our pack of two. Tim was really running strong, and even a new headwind didn’t slow him down much. I kept focusing on my form and keeping my turnover going as fast as I could. At Cathie Twomey Bellamy (mile 20), I let myself check my watch again….2:04:28. I had to do the math in my head a few times to figure out we were on a 2:42 pace. I checked with Tim, and he confirmed – we were killing it!
We crossed the bridge and started heading back, and at Maria Mutola (mile 22) I began battling a side stitch and hamstrings that were burning like hot lava. I could push hard to the end, but I wanted to stick to my training goal and save something for next weekend. 22 miles at this pace, wow! I eased up to 7:00/mile and walked a few steps at the remaining aid stations to get in lots of water, while Tim pressed on at full speed. I still managed to catch a few runners on the last section, but a few caught me as well. I crossed the finish line in 2:47:22, good enough for 21st place. Ten minutes off my marathon PR, and I felt great at the finish. I think I can officially say that the training is paying off. ;-)
Tim had finished in 2:44, winning the Masters division and setting a new PR. I thanked him for his help as we watched Joe finish right behind me in 2:47. I got some food, changed my clothes, and targeted 4 hours to go back and watch for my Dad. By the time we got back, we missed him…because he finished in 3:48!!! That's a 2:55 when WAVA age-adjusted. What a rock star! When I told him he was ready for Boston, he said “I don’t have to run another one, do I?”. Spoken like a champ who gave it his all. Bobby Lee also came in strong at 4:59 (a new PR), and he didn’t even need the chicken wings.
We snapped a few pics and hit the beer garden for a pint of the Eugene Marathon Ale brewed up by McMenamins. My Dad must be doing just fine if he can take down a beer! We caught up with local Erik Petersen and his friend Lonn Robertson, who both had stellar races and would be heading to Boston in ’09. In general, that’s the theme we were hearing – wonderful weather, a great course, and awesome spectators had pulled many to personal records. As I sipped my beer, I tried to piece together what went right today (it's so much easier to figure out what went wrong, eh?). Good aerobic base, faith in my speedwork, knowledge of the course, great weather, and the speedy Tim Knox whom I was lucky enough to pace with on a breakout day of his own. Gotta be happy with that.
My thanks to the volunteers and Race Directors who put on a spectacular race. I can chalk up one more fond memory of Eugene, and this one will certainly make me feel younger. Next up, the Quicksilver 50m…