Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Just a small town girl running in a small town race

Back in June I visited Portland, Michigan for a 5k that turned out to be my 5k PR. I mean you never forget your PR for any race. I figured Portland would be a great place to try for a half marathon PR, so last week I ran in the inaugural Portland Relay for Life Half Marathon. Unfortunately I decided to not really train with my longest run being seven miles three weeks before the race. Details, really.

In addition to my, ahem, lackluster training schedule, this has been a HOT summer in Michigan. I am not complaining because I love the hot weather. But it's one thing to sit on the deck with a cool adult beverage and another thing to run 13.1 miles in it.  Michigan's weather also took another interesting turn dumping several inches of rain the week before the race. This meant the original race course along Portland's gorgeous riverfront had to be rerouted the day before. This is a huge challenge for any race, but it was handled expertly.

I grew up in a small town (I mean SMALL - around 400ish people), and although I basically ran for the concrete jungle as soon as I could, I still appreciate the community of a small town.  Portland is small city considerably bigger than my hometown (with more than 3700 people), but it boasts a quaint downtown and neighborhoods with a real community feel. (Check out a story about Portland in The Review, a bi-monthly publication of the Michigan Municipal League).

The feather in Portland's cap, however, is its riverfront. The city has utilized it beautifully, and it's the capstone of this community.  Portland's nickname is the "City of Two Rivers" because it's located where the Looking Glass and Grand Rivers meet.  Rivers are an integral part of Portland's history and its geography, so utilizing the riverfront is key. Portland has completely renovated its riverfront in the last decade, and the results are impressive.

Portland's riverfront prior to redesign (photo courtesy of the City of Portland)

Riverfront after renovation (photo courtesy of the City of Portland)
I was really excited to run on Portland's riverfront. Unfortunately the torrential rains a few days before the race left much of the trail flooded. As I was driving through downtown toward the race start, I noticed part of the trail under 2-3 feet of rushing water. Race organizers were forced to reroute the course the day before the race to create a loop to avoid flood waters. Despite disappointment at not running through the city, the reorganization was extremely well done. The course was marked well and had many volunteers directing runners. Had I not known, I never would've guessed this course was designed the day before the race.

Pedestrian bridge on Portland's riverfront (photo courtesy of the City of Portland)
The race began at Portland High School and headed down toward the river trail. The course was a little hilly in places, but who doesn't love a good challenge? Runners ran across several of Portland's historic metal truss bridges on a shaded, quiet path. There weren't a lot of spectators, but those who were there were great at cheering on runners on a warm summer morning. The shade from trees along the trail was hugely helpful as the temperature began to rise.

Enjoying the race around mile 2
I'll be honest - I'm not sure I ever want to do another half marathon in the heat of summer. By the time I got to the 6 mile mark and was preparing to start the loop for the second time, my face was hot and I felt faint. This is where the race organizers were pure genius in my opinion. At a water station around mile 7ish, cloths that had been soaked in ice water were handed to runners. It was my savior. They repeated this at additional water stations. I'll be frank - it was those icy breaks that pushed me to 13.1. The heat was brutal.

It wasn't my best time at 2:20, but it was far from my worst time either. As a matter of fact out of the seven half marathons I've run, this time ranked number 3. Not too shabby for not training. The race was extremely well organized, and the shirt is one of my favorite I've ever gotten for a race. This was clearly a race organized by people who are runners and have run enough races to understand what runners expect. Although I was disappointed to not see more of the city during the run, clearly that was a last minute detour that was handled beautifully. 

Crossing the finish
I generally prefer big races, but every now and then it's nice for a small town girl to return to her roots and do a fun, small race. It was hot, but there's something rewarding about finishing a race in the heat. I'm not sure I'd do another summer race like this, but I'm pretty sure Portland is starting a fall race as well...

How would I rate the race? A (organization was fantastic!)

How would I rate Portland? A (it's done some great things and is a cute little community)

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