This post is a combination of race preview and Throwback Thursday. Over the next three days, I’ll be running the Firecracker Triple. That’s three marathons in three days in and around Portland, OR. I’m still recovering from the groin strain I suffered in early May, so running a triple right now is kind of nuts. These races, however, are special to me. I’ve done them before and I’ve had some great results in these races.
This is a race sponsored by Foot Traffic, a running store that has several locations in the Portland area. This race is always held on July 4th, regardless of what day of the week it falls on. I first did this race in 2010, when it fell on a Sunday.
The Flat refers to Sauvie Island, a large relatively flat island in the Columbia River valley. It’s only a 20 minute drive from downtown Portland, but it has a rural feel to it. The race starts and finishes at a country store called the Pumpkin Patch Market. The course is one big loop, with a long out-and-back section in the first half. On the out-and-back, you get views of the river valley. Throughout the race, you run past farms, including strawberry patches.
In 2011, the 4th of July was on a Monday, making a three day holiday weekend. Steve Walters organized smaller races on Saturday and Sunday. Steve’s two races, together with Foot Traffic’s Flat Marathon made it possible to do a triple. The races had different venues, but they were all in the greater Portland area. Steve called it the Firecracker Triple and made T-shirts that listed all three races on the back.
I had never done a triple before. I had done two doubles, so I had a good idea how I would feel on the second day. I had no idea how I would feel on the third day. At that time, I was in the best shape of my life, but I still kept my goals fairly conservative. I wanted to break 3:30 in at least one of the races and keep my times for the others under four hours.
The first race was the Stars and Stripes Marathon. This was a multiple loop course through Greenway Park in Beaverton. Everyone knew Chuck Engle was going to win the race. I decided to see if I could take second place. It was a distant second, but I did it, finishing in 3:26.
The next race was the Freedom Marathon in Gresham. This was an out-and-back on paved bike paths that we ran twice. I decided to go for second place again. I don’t recall why. There wasn’t an award for second, and I was potentially sabotaging my third race. Off the starting line, I made a point of going slower than Chuck, but faster than everyone else. I finished second again in a time of 3:22.
The third race was the Flat Marathon on Sauvie Island. I learned that morning that of all the people doing the triple, I had the lowest combined time so far. I had a pretty big lead, so I probably only needed to break four hours to win the triple. This was the last race, though, so I had no reason to hold back.
My legs were much more sore than they had been on day two. The race has a downhill start, causing me to start kind of fast. My legs were screaming at me. It’s like they were saying, “Dude, you’re crazy. We can’t do this again!”
As the course leveled off, I recognized Marc Frommer, whom I met at this same race the previous year. He was running with Bob Hearn. I ran with Marc and Bob until I learned that they were pacing for a 3:20 finish. It seemed crazy to try to run that fast, so I backed off a little.
As other runners passed me, I subconsciously sped up to keep pace with them. Before I knew it, I was right behind Marc and Bob again. I finally decided to see if I could still catch up to them.
I caught up to them right after reaching the turnaround of a long out-and-back section. On the way back, we passed all the runners that were still going out. All of the other runners doing the triple were shouting out encouragement to me. I commented to another runner that this must be what it feels like to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.
I’m a long time follower of the Tour de France, which happened to start that same weekend. It’s a three week stage race, and the overall leader wears a yellow jersey. After making that comment, I looked down and realized I was wearing my yellow Marathon Maniacs singlet. I didn’t wear it the first two days. It was purely by chance that I wore yellow on the day that I was starting the race with the overall lead in the triple. Tour de France riders say that the yellow jersey gives you wings. Suddenly I felt like I had wings. After that, I was running on pure emotion.
Marc decided to ease up in the second half and gave Bob the green light to go on ahead. I kept running with Bob, not knowing that he would speed up enough to break 3:15. I stayed with him until 19 miles. Then I had to let him go. Despite slowing a bit in the last seven miles, I still ran negative splits, finishing in 3:18. Each day I ran faster than the day before.
Steve Walters was at the finish line to give each runner an extra medal for finishing the triple. He also gave me a plaque as the overall male winner of the triple. The overall female winner was Kim Gray, who made up enough time on day three to overtake Rebecca Yi.
I don’t think I’ll ever top that day. I pushed myself hard, I exceeded my expectations, and the entire race felt like a victory lap. Later, I had dinner with several friends.
In 2012, the 4th of July was on a Wednesday. That didn’t lend itself well to a triple, but Steve still held two races on the weekend. This time it was called the Firecracker Double. It consisted of the Cook Park Marathon and Stars and Stripes Marathon. None of these races fit into my plans that year, but they made Steve’s races a fixture of the Oregon race scene.
On 2013, July 4th was on a Thursday. For some people, that made it a four day weekend, so Steve held three races. Together with the Flat Marathon, they made a Firecracker Quadzilla. The first race was the Flat Marathon. The second race was the Summerlake Loopy Marathon. This race, as you might guess, was held on a loop course in Summerlake Park in Tigard. For the third race, Steve brought back the Freedom Marathon in Gresham. The final race of the quadzilla was the now familiar Stars and Stripes Marathon.
Having broken 3:30 on all three days of a triple in 2011, I wondered if I could break 3:30 four days in a row. It seemed like a real stretch, but I gave it a try. I ran the first three races in 3:24, 3:27 and 3:24. On the fourth day, I ran out of gas. I realized early that I wouldn’t be able to break 3:30. I managed to finish in 3:38, which still gave me a four day total that was under 14 hours.
Unlike 2011, I was never anywhere close to contention for lowest combined time. Charlie Johnston dominated the quadzilla, breaking three hours four days in a row. Christine Rockey had the lowest combined time of the women.
In 2014, there was another Firecracker Triple. It started with the Flat Marathon on Friday. I wasn’t in the same condition as I was in previous years, but with fresh legs I was able to run it in 3:26. It was the fourth time I had done this race, and I qualified for Boston all four times. I was happy with that.
Saturday’s race was the Stars and Stripes Marathon. This year, there weren’t any elite runners like Chuck Engle or Charlie Johnston. In the early miles, there was only one runner ahead of me. His pace seemed just a bit too fast for me, so I let him go. Later in the race, he came back to me. It was a warm day, making it tough for anyone to maintain a fast pace. I finished in 3:43. That was slow compared to previous years, but this year it was good for first place.
That put me in the lead for combined time in the triple. The third race was the Cook Park Marathon on Sunday. The course was a loop with an out-and-back section at one end. It’s a combination of paved and dirt trails alongside the Tualatin River in Tigard. I wasn’t familiar with the course, so I followed Hope Fox through the early miles. Then I briefly took the lead. Another runner eventually pulled away, and I gave chase. It was the second consecutive day that I was trying to complete with a runner who had fresh legs. This time, his pace wore me down before we even got halfway. I held on to finish a distance second. It was the third time that I took second place in one of Steve’s races. It also gave me my second Firecracker Triple overall win.
This year, July 4th is on a Sunday, but many employers observe the holiday on Friday, so it’s still a three day weekend. For the third time in five years, there’s going to be a Firecracker Triple. Having won the triple twice, I have to come back to run it again.
This year’s Firecracker Triple will consist of the same three races as last year, but there order has been shuffled. We’ll start with the Cook Park Marathon on Friday. After running the Flat Marathon on Saturday, we’ll finish with the Stars and Stripes Marathon on Sunday.
I’m not in the same shape I was in last year. That was evident even before my recent groin injury. Now I’ve gone two months without any consistent training, and I’m still not healthy. I probably won’t be competitive this year, but I have way too many good memories from these races to be able to pass them up. Also, I’ve already paid for the races and booked my flight to Portland.
These races are in July, so they always have the potential to be hot. I think the weather has been on the warm side every year, but it’s never been oppressively hot. That may change this year. The west coast has been experiencing a heat wave, and Portland is no exception. The last time I checked, it was forecast to get into the 90s all three days.
This forecast is actually much better than what I was seeing a few days ago. I was worried that I’d see temperatures in the 100s.
To race well on consecutive days, you need to really focus on recovery. After each race, it’s refuel, get enough protein, take an ice bath, soak in the whirlpool, stretch, and massage. In addition to all that, I also need to survive the heat. That includes staying hydrated, finding ways to cool myself off, getting enough electrolytes, and finding a pace that won’t make me overheat. Finally, I have to worry about aggravating my groin injury. I don’t expect to win this year. That’s OK. I’ll be pretty happy if I can finish all three races in one piece.
Because all three races are in the Portland area, I can stay at the same hotel all weekend. This year, I’m staying in Beaverton. All three race venues are within a 25 minute drive. My room has a refrigerator, so I can buy a few groceries and have food for pre-race breakfasts and post-race snacks. I also have an insulated bag that I can use to bring ice and cold beverages to each race.