Seattle Marathon course saves the worst (and hilliest) for last

Crosscut By 2: With the big race two days away, a veteran participant previews the course, and the pain, that lies ahead.
Crosscut archive image.

Runners leave downtown during the 2008 Seattle Marathon

Crosscut By 2: With the big race two days away, a veteran participant previews the course, and the pain, that lies ahead.

Editor's note: Monte Enbysk, an experienced (but not elite) runner, was thrown off his Seattle Marathon training schedule by an injury last month. He's chronicling his comeback effort and 'ꀔ if he makes it 'ꀔ his race day for Crosscut. His previous installments are available here.

I'ꀙm indeed running the Seattle Marathon on Sunday. Six weeks ago, I was very unsure about it, due to a leg injury I thought might completely derail my training. I tried but could not run without pain for 10 days. When I started running again, I wasn'ꀙt sure I could do the mileage needed to be fit enough for a marathon.

I am undertrained, but have completed at least one run in excess of 20 miles and three others of more than 15 miles. I usually like to have many more long runs under my belt, as I'ꀙve said, but this will have to do. I feel I got back on track with three weeks of training left, and have completed all my runs since then without re-injuring my leg. My last pre-training run was a five-miler on Thursday.

So even if I'ꀙm not fully trained, I will go into Sunday'ꀙs likely cold, wet run at full strength (unless, say, I twist my ankle taking out the garbage or something; knock on wood). So bring it on! And KZOK and KJAQ, please play some high-energy running music on Sunday; please no Pink Floyd!

The Seattle Marathon course (PDF map) is one of the hardest I'ꀙve ever run. The hardest ones I'ꀙve run are two different Seafair Marathon courses that roamed through the hilly Eastside, but the Seattle Marathon course ranks next because of its last six miles. After a mostly flat 20 miles, you leave the east Seattle shoreline and climb big hills to the Arboretum, where the terrain twists and rolls until you are back downtown. Getting to the finish line inside Memorial Stadium is equal parts exhilaration and relief.

I'ꀙve run the Seattle Marathon three times before and I'ꀙve run the Seattle Half-Marathon (essentially one-half the full marathon course) four times, so I feel I know the course pretty well. Here is my review of it:

The start: You'ꀙre at Fifth Avenue and Harrison Street in front of the Seattle Center, in a sea of people spilling over the street and parking lots. Twice as many people run the half as the full, so the marathon start is a bit less crowded. But there are never enough Porta Potties. And parking close by is harder and harder to find. The start has a rock-concert feel, with runners full of energy and caffeine and eager to get going.

Mile 1: You ascend Fifth to start, and the first mile marker is just past Union Street. By this time, Fifth has crested and you are starting to descend. I'ꀙm just waking up. It'ꀙs still early. My wakeup call is that there are 25 miles left.

Miles 2-4: Runners have to funnel into narrow pedestrian lanes along I-90, and the lanes get crowded. Around Mile 3 last year, I stumbled over an unexplained piece of cement in the roadway, and fell on my face. It was more embarrassing than anything, as runners around me wondered if my race day might be over. I just picked myself up, thanked them all, and kept running. Mile 3 leads east into the Mount Baker tunnel, where runners can spread out onto the freeway and where some runners whoop it up because they aren'ꀙt feeling any pain yet. After Mile 4 is the big break: Marathoners go straight, half-marathoners turn right.

Miles 5-6: You leave the tunnel and hit the I-90 bridge en route to the turnaround on Mercer Island. The bridge has a downhill on the Seattle side, a flat stretch, and then an uphill to Mercer Island, but the hills are mostly benign. Slow runners get to see their faster counterparts who have already turned around and are heading west.

Miles 7-8: You turn around on I-90 in a Mercer Island tunnel, then head back west. I remember my first Seattle Marathon in 2003, after I'ꀙd turned around I looked up to my left and saw three men along the upper shoulder, backs to me, taking a very public leak. When you gotta go, you gotta go. In this stretch, if you are running a decent pace, you see the slowest runners going east to the turnaround. If you are running slowly yourself, you see walkers, or people limping.

Miles 9-11: Runners leave I-90 and turn south onto Lake Washington Boulevard en route to the halfway point at Seward Park. This is a flat stretch of the race where you can cruise. Again, faster runners are going north when I'ꀙm going south. I remember seeing perennial winner Uli Steidl running effortlessly and nearly five miles ahead of me in 2006.

Miles 12-14: The loop around Seward Park covers 2.5 miles and includes the halfway point (13.1 miles), an east-end point where there'ꀙs a clock and a mat to run over. It'ꀙs nice reaching this point; I remember feeling stronger here in previous runs than I did last year. Sometimes this loop seems like it never ends. And Memorial Stadium feels like a long ways away.

Miles 15-17: Finally, you are going north on Lake Washington Boulevard too. At Mile 17, you are near I-90 again.

Miles 18-20: These miles continue north, past Leschi Park and Madrona Drive. Here is where you start feeling the miles, though this stretch is relatively flat. You know, however, that the worst is ahead.

Mile 21: Just after Mile 20 is the trek up McGilvra Boulevard East. This levels out, but then leads to a turn onto East Galer Street and a steep climb up Galer to East Madison Street. This is a lengthy hill that is one of the hardest parts of the marathon. I run up this hill when doing the half-marathon, but walk it during the marathon — after 20 miles, I can walk it faster than I can run it. Mile 21 comes after you'ꀙve climbed the hill and are descending again on Madison.

Miles 22-23: It'ꀙs time to do the Arboretum. You'ꀙd rather not, but this is where the course turns off Madison and past the Japanese Gardens. The rolling hills challenge your legs; runners just try to keep going. Many are walking by now. But once you leave the Arboretum, you start to smell the finish line.

Miles 24-25: Coming out of the Arboretum, you are near I-5, leaving a two-mile stretch south to get back to downtown. You cross over I-5, then run back under it, then cross over it once again on the Belmont overpass to Eastlake. The Mile 25 marker in downtown is nice to see.

Mile 26: After Mile 25, you turn right onto Republican and a steep downhill. It'ꀙd be fun if your legs weren'ꀙt about to fall off. I have to run with my brakes on. But I'ꀙll take a steep downhill over a steep uphill here. The last mile takes a turn from Republican onto Mercer, where there'ꀙs an uphill you don'ꀙt need but then that awesome Mile 26 sign just outside the turn into Memorial Stadium.

The finish: There aren'ꀙt many better finishes than the Seattle Marathon. You turn left and run through lines of well-wishers on either side, lines that extend into Memorial Stadium. Once inside the stadium, you cross onto the football field and run from one goal line to the other to finish. You hear your name announced (mine is often mispronounced) as you cross. It'ꀙs a great feeling 'ꀦ and definitely a relief.

Now that I'ꀙve thought through the course, it'ꀙs time to go run it. In my next post, I'ꀙll let you know how it went on Sunday.

Good luck to all those doing the Seattle Marathon and Half-Marathon. To my fellow marathoners: I'ꀙm behind you all the way!


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