Deer Island man aims to go the distance
There was a time when Al Miller took his long-distance running seriously.
Runners do not complete more than 200 marathons by just showing up.
But as he approaches Sunday's Portland Marathon, Miller is concerned more about making it to the starting line than about how long it will take him to travel the 26.2-mile course.
If all goes according to plan, Sunday will be the 40th consecutive year the Deer Island resident completes the Portland Marathon.
"Anybody could do 26 miles if they had to," Miller said. "I'm more proud of getting up at 4 a.m. 39 years in a row and making it to the start."
Of course, not everybody has the motivation to get up at 4 a.m., let alone to get up that early to run 26.2 miles.
Miller estimates that at least 10 times over his four decades of Portland Marathons he has gone into the race with injuries that might have kept him from showing up — if not for the streak.
His best days as a runner behind him, the 65-year-old plans to give himself plenty of time to get from his Deer Island home to the downtown Portland starting line.
Once there, he'll be in no particular hurry to finish. He'll run as much as his legs can take … and jog or walk the rest of the time. He expects this year's marathon to take him around six hours, nearly twice as long as it once took him to cover 26.2 miles.
The cutoff time to complete the Portland Marathon is 6 hours and 33 minutes.
Miller, who finished last year's race in about 6 hours and 10 minutes, has never been in danger of missing the deadline to finish and says if it comes down to it, "I'll run if I have to," to finish No. 40.
"If I know I'm not going to make the cut, I'll pick it up," he said.
Miller picked up the running bug in the mid-1970s after joining a friend for a 3-mile fun run in Bremerton, Washington. The sense of accomplishment upon receiving that finisher's T-shirt sparked something in a guy who previously considered any kind of running to be a pain.
"In high school, I hated running the mile," said the 1972 North Salem High graduate. "When they had us run the mile, I hated running around that track."
More than four decades later, he admits his teenage self would consider his adult self "out of your mind" for completing 215 marathons and 35 footraces of 50 miles or longer.
Those longer runs, mostly on trails, inspired Miller to sign up for an event under the name "Ultra Al Miller."
Miller's first 26.2-miler was in Seaside in 1977. By the time he finished, his sciatica nerve pain was so severe he doubted he would attempt another one.
In fall 1980, he jumped back into the marathon in a big way, though. The 1980 Portland Marathon was the first of his 40-year streak — and the third in as many weekends after completing marathons in Albany and Forest Grove.
Miller's fastest time in the Portland Marathon is 3 hours, 8 minutes. His personal marathon record is 3 hours, 30 seconds in the 1985 Seattle Marathon. To come so close to breaking the three-hour barrier was frustrating.
That was one of 20 or so marathons Miller ran in 1985. Around that time, he ran his first 50-miler, a trail race on the Oregon Coast.
His schedule at the Boise Cascade Co. plant in St. Helens, where Miller worked for 30 years, sometimes made training for 100-milers difficult. Stll, he attempted 17 of those, finishing three. He finished 32 races of 50 miles or longer, but it's been a long time since "Ultra Al" ran an ultra race.
His most colorful memories are from the races he did not finish, including four attempts at the famous Western States 100 through the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.
On his third attempt, in 1990, Miller made it 98.5 miles in the allowed 24 hours and rode the final 1.5 miles on horseback.
That year, Miller decided against having recommended surgery on a herniated disc in his back, which can still act up. He also has arthritis in his knees.
Those ailments are why he no longer trains — the training needed to run a marathon would leave him too sore to show up on race day.
"I'd love to have a fresh body and not be beat up to begin (the race) with," he said.
But at 65, he appreciates that he still has the opportunity to participate.
Miller enjoys encouraging others along the way, especially first-time marathoners who might hit a wall around mile 20.
"I always find somebody I can help through the run. That's been pretty gratifying over the years," Miller said.
Being among the slower folks, including many attempting their first marathon, Miller enjoys encouraging others as he makes his way along the course. That kind of camaraderie keeps him going, even knowing he once could cover 26 miles in half the time.
"It's kind of defeating in a way," he said about needing more than six hours to finish. "But I'm grateful to still be out there crossing the finish line."
And, in a significant sense, every marathon from now on is a victory over Father Time. Both of Miller's parents died at age 50, so he's counting it as a blessing he can still participate in marathons. In fact, he's hopeful of completing 50 consecutive Portland Marathons before retiring.
"I'm kind of on borrowed time," he admitted.
Last year, he came across a runner receiving medical attention. Turned out that runner, who survived, had suffered a heart attack. It was a reminder to Miller not to push himself too hard.
Which is why the Portland Marathon is the only race he keeps returning for.
"That next day, even if I walk a third of it, I'm beat up," Miller said. "But then (the pain) goes away and you're thinking about your next one."
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