74. Portland Thanksgiving Day 4-Miler, 2012

Cara and I have officially run our very first race in Maine. Thanksgiving was coming up and there’s usually a race everywhere that day, so we looked it up and registered. It seemed perfect… downtown, not too expensive, and not too far to run. We expected a fun, well-organized race, and we got most of what we wanted. Most, but not all.

Cold But Ready

We were both cold, especially Cara. I was missing my gloves, but I would have taken them off in the first mile anyway. I stuck my hands in my pockets for the most part.

I suppose I should start with getting there in the morning. There was a kid’s race at 8:30am, but our race was at 9am. I used to show up extremely early for races, but these days I try to be there in a reasonable amount of time. This is New England, so I don’t necessarily want to spend an hour-and-a-half standing outside in just my running clothes. In spite of the short distance, we decided to drive to the site. Four miles is a bit long for Cara and we didn’t want to sweat, cool down and then walk home wet in the the cold. Cara’s legs would be sore enough without adding some kind of winter bug to the equation. Since it was Thanksgiving, we expected the traffic to be light until we got on-site, but the parking shouldn’t be a problem since the event website suggested a garage that was free all day.

When we arrived, I saw the first issue: the parking garage we were told to use was inside the loop of the course. We had to sit in traffic and wait for the kid runners to pass before we could enter. This is a pretty serious problem, because it changes when we could leave. If we had a kid in that first race, for example, we wouldn’t be able to reliably leave the site until the big 4-miler was over. Sure, there are gaps in the crowds that you can drive through… but why create the problem in the first place? Anyway, we got in there after a bit of a wait and parked near the top of the place.

The crowd was pretty big, and by following their general flow we were able to get to the Starting Line pretty easy. Folks seemed happy and eager to run, and there was a Thanksgiving Day feeling in the air that reminded me a little of the Turkey Run in Charleston. After we gathered up inside the massive collection of 1,748 participants, we heard the faint garbles of someone giving the pre-race briefing over a megaphone. Then, without warning, they fired a cannon. Cara and I both almost jumped out of our skins, but we recovered quickly and started running.

Starting Line Population

The Good Stuff

We expected some things to be different since we’re in a new state. Where to pick up early packets, whether registration is on Active.com or some other site, etc. All of those things worked out pretty well. There was no problem getting registered or picking up our packets. The race was also set up pretty well with regard to traffic during the race. Everything was safe, and I didn’t need to worry about cars getting out of hand. There were also lots of nice, fun people at the event. Add fun people to a fun course through a pretty town, toss in some good police coverage and helpful folks at the intersections… it’s a recipe for a good overall race. That being said, there were just a few snags.

The Bad Stuff

As I mentioned, the parking garage was inside the 2-mile race loop. They had designed the course with a serious flaw, which became evident as Cara and I were finishing our first loop.

A police car raced up beside the crowd to the intersection we were about to cross, sirens blurping and lights ablaze. One of the organizers hopped out and told everyone to stand back. Then he told us to stop. I’m not kidding. He wanted us to stop during the race. You see, the winner of the race was coming around to finish his second loop, and he had to make a right turn to exit the loop. Since we were going straight, he had to break through us to finish the race. He could easily lose a few seconds doing this, which could kill whatever lead he had on the second-place runner. It could be a win-or-lose situation if he meets a crowd while the next person is lucky enough to find an empty space there. I rushed Cara across the street so we could clear up the intersection, but I’m not sure how much good it did anybody. There were still folks in the way.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t fuss over this, but these guys are on their 31st race with over 1700 people registered for the main event. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have t-shirts for more than just the first 400 runners, and there’s no reason why they couldn’t have a decent course planned out.

No Water for Runners in Portland

Here’s the worst thing I saw at the race: there was a serious lack of water. I noticed one water station near the end of the race, after we exited the second loop. We passed it up because we in the last mile and we could wait until the Finish Line to grab a bottle. In retrospect, we should have stopped while we could.

The Finish Line had ground strips to pick up our times… and that was about it. Cara started asking about the water table, because she couldn’t see it. She couldn’t see it because there wasn’t one. No water. No bagels. No cookies. No fruit. NothingI saw some people with bottled water, so I asked them where the table was. They had no idea. They had brought their own water, and didn’t even seem surprised that none was available right there at the Finish.

Personally, I was fine without any. Four miles isn’t so bad for me. Cara, on the other hand, was feeling pretty rough and needed a drink to settle herself out. We needed some water immediately, and there was none to be had. We also couldn’t go back to the car and leave the site because the race was still going on, and Cara needed water quickly. By sheer luck I had decided to try out my phone for race pictures, so I had my Starbucks app available to me. We walked to the nearest location and waited in the really long line for water and coffee.

At this point, I began to wonder where these people were putting all the money they had collected. Well, yes, of course some of it went to a worthy cause, just like all the other races I’ve done. According to their site:

Join us for a Southern Maine running tradition, the 31st annual Thanksgiving Day 4-Miler & Kids K. A portion of the proceeds will benefit St. Patrick’s Secondary School in Iten, Kenya, and Portland Trails. This year’s food drive will benefit Project Feed, an area emergency food pantry. All donors will receive a race souvenir.

So yes, there was a cause. But as I said, that’s true of all races. As I said, these folks had over 1700 registrants at $20 per person. I know these things are tough to organize, but I’ve seen smaller races with fewer resources provide shirts, food, water and raise money for their cause. This was my 74th race and I’ve run in several states. You can skip the shirts if you have to, but water at the Finish Line is not the luxury of a large, profitable race. It’s a standard, and it’s every bit as important as blocking traffic.

It’s possible that I’m spoiled by my years in Charleston. Races run like clockwork down there. Vermont had some trouble in a few places, but those were mostly newer races without an established community. Boston was a pleasure to run in, since they had some older, established races with a solid pattern to follow, as well as some sharp organizers in general. I was hoping that my first experience in Maine would be more like Boston, if it couldn’t be like Charleston.

All Things Considered

Over all, I really did like the race. Portland is a fun town to run in, and the course was pretty nice aside from the flaws I mentioned. The crowd was positive and friendly, and the weather was pretty nice once we got warmed up. And I should mention again that they had the city’s traffic locked down really well. All of the safety issues were handled perfectly. Well, aside from the obvious health problem of not providing some cheap water at the finish, even if it’s just Dixie cups.

But next year will be different. Now that I know how it works, we’ll just walk there, wearing extra layers of cheap clothes and ditch them during the race. We’ll let Cara rest up in the Starbucks before the walk home, and we’ll certainly bring our own water.

Oh, and I should mention that I forgot to turn off my Garmin at the end, so it has a couple of extra minutes on the map. I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.  🙂