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Portland in its purest form: Old Port Half Marathon showcases city and its spirit

If the best part of the race was the scenic course, the second-best part was the after-party.

PORTLAND, Maine — I grew up 40 minutes north of Portland, moved to the city full-time in December, and have thoroughly enjoyed it as my new home. But it wasn’t until Saturday that I truly felt that “This is my city” feeling.

Saturday wasn’t an average day in the Old Port. It was farrrrrr more masochistic than usual. After all, it’s not every day that roughly 1,700 runners gather by Cross Insurance Arena at 7 a.m. sharp to embark on a 13.1-mile trek through public trails and city streets. But with the pain comes the gain, and the pre-race buzz was palpable as everyone prepared to run for their own reasons.

That’s one of the best parts about a race of this distance: everyone is running for their own reasons. Some are running to add another half marathon to a long list of finishes; others may be doing it to check “half marathon” off the bucket list. Some may be running in tribute to someone or something; others may be running as part of a fitness or recovery goal. And, of course, there are those who (see “far more masochistic than normal” above) are simply doing it for fun.

I was primarily participating as motivation to get fit. I'm 26 years old and have run off and on throughout my life, but I'd gotten away from it in recent years. My friend Connor had told me in January that he was planning to do the race, and I thought, “That seems like a great excuse to get fit.” The course route also piqued my interest.

From Cross Insurance Arena, the course took runners on the Eastern Promenade, around Back Cove Trail, down Eastern Promenade Trail, through the Old Port, and up into the West End. At least 85 percent of the race was along the water, with top-notch views of Casco Bay throughout. If I was going to run that far, I might as well have nice scenery while I do it. And the ocean views did not disappoint.

The furthest I had run leading up to the race was nine miles, so I was a little concerned about how 13 miles would go. I told everyone I’d be relying on “sheer heart, determination, and willpower” to get me to the finish. Still, I wasn’t totally sure if I actually had the sheer heart, determination, and willpower to get it done.

The nice thing about a road race is there’s always at least a little bit of built-in adrenaline because of the event. Being surrounded by other runners and having spectators lining the course makes a difference, and that was a big factor in getting me through those final four miles. It's a good feeling to have friends, family, neighbors, and strangers cheering you on.

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Miles 1-2

The Eastern Promenade was all about getting my legs under me and assessing how my body felt on that particular day. This was a particularly nice stretch because there was still some subtle, lingering June crispness in the air. That on-the-verge-of-summer air makes life feel like the privilege it is, and that perspective comes in handy when setting out on a long journey on foot.

Miles 2-6

Most of this stretch was the Back Cove Trail, where I often run anyway. I took an early pee break at a porta-potty in the Back Cove Trail parking lot (diligent hydration comes with a price, but luckily I’ve been watching plenty of Formula 1, so my pit-stop execution was on point), and this is where I really pushed my pace because I knew it would all be flat. I felt pretty great heading into the second half of the race.

Miles 6-10

The Eastern Promenade Trail and the Old Port were the toughest stretches for me, and that's not just because of the sewage treatment facility on the Eastern Prom Trail. (That smell...oh that smell....so subtle yet so powerful! Mental note for next year: Breathe through the mouth not the nose during that section). 

After Becky’s Diner, the course continued to the bottom of the West End, and that particular stretch between Becky’s and the West End seemed like it would never end.

Miles 10-13

This area, for me, held the most unexpected beauty of any section of the course. I had made a lot in my mind of the coastal scenery along the route, but I had neglected the beauty of Portland’s neighborhoods. It was a quiet, pristine way to end the race leading up to the finish line.

If the best part of the race was the scenic course, the second-best part was the after-party. The runner’s high is real, and since Shipyard sponsors the race, all runners of age got two free Shipyard beers included with registration. Those Hazy IPAs hit different at 9 a.m. after burning more than a thousand calories!

Credit: NCM

In talking to fellow finishers in the beer line, I learned many were glad to find no cobblestone sections on the route this year. Apparently, in years past, the final stretch was on the renowned Old Port cobblestones, which sounds like the ultimate betrayal to joints and tendons that helped carry you 13 miles. 

“It was like joint and tendon roulette on those stones,” one man told me. “I’d just pray my knees and hammies wouldn’t give out. And that’s never an easy gamble at my age.”

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After some downtime in the afternoon, we finished the day with a glorious meal at The Great Lost Bear, where we ate and drank merrily while recapping the race. It was nice ending a great Portland day at one of my favorite Portland haunts, and there was no better place to replenish the calorie supply.

A combined 2,300 runners participated in the Half Marathon and 5K races Saturday. Countless volunteers made the event possible, and the spectators brought the race to life. Add great exercise, food, drink, and revelry to the mix, and it was the perfect day in Portland. If you don't register for the Half Marathon or 5K next year, consider attending as a spectator. You'll feel the spirit of the city all around you.

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