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Photo from Portland Marathon's Facebook page.
Photo from Portland Marathon's Facebook page.

Music at the 2021 Portland Marathon

By MICHAEL CONLEY// An inside look at music at the 2021 Portland Marathon from Michael Conley, aka Shoehorn, a musician who played it.

With nearly 4,000 runners, the 2021 Portland Marathon was back from 2020’s Covid suspension, and music was part of the event. Music has traditionally been part of the Portland race, with street stages posted along the route to encourage the runners and entertain spectators. This reporter was hired as a sideman to play with the Latin group Suavecito, led by Aquiles Montas, near Portland’s spectacular new bridge, the Tillicum Crossing. Subjectively speaking, it was fun to watch all the participants run by as our band played.

For sports fans reading this, Matt Spear ran the 26.2 miles in 2 hours, 28 minutes, and 47 seconds to become the overall winner, more than 2 minutes faster than the next runner. Kari Hamilton won the women’s division with a time of 2:53:37. The wheelchair category was won by Max Woodbury with a time of 2:38:59, besting most runners on foot, coming in 9th overall according to this writer’s unofficial analysis.

For my reporting, I wanted to get an idea about how common it is for marathons to feature musical performances, so I called Nathan Schaffer, Portland Marathon Race Director, an executive with the Brooksie Corporation, based in Utah. Brooksie handles logistics and event production for 5 road race competitions in Western states. He mentioned that as the event grows the company would like to open an office in this city.

I asked Schaffer how long the Portland Marathon has featured musicians, but he told me could not say, since Brooksie has only managed the local event since 2019. Schaffer added that though he likes the inclusion of live music in such events, other race sites have logistical obstacles to hosting ancillary performances, specifically, the courses often do not have adequate access for non-athletic traffic, and space is not available for bandstands.

Schaffer went on to tell me his firm has seen great response to Portland musicians on the company's social media, celebrating the eclectic nature of the musical offerings on “10 or 11 stages”, which included 2 pipe & drum corps, the How Long Jug Band (at SE 14th & Bybee), the aforementioned Suavecito band, and a traditional marching band, along with non-musical performances on one or two of the stages. A specific and complete roster of performers was not posted on the event’s website.

A cursory internet search showed that music is included in at least some marathons in other states, including the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, Mississippi, and the Buffalo Marathon in upstate New York. Websites of more famous races such as the Boston Marathon did not mention music at all, but based on the local event’s listings, that may be incomplete or inconclusive.

I also wanted to hear from people who participated in the marathon, both runners and performers. I had seen some facebook memory posts chronicling the involvement of many local musicians over the years.

Reaching out via social media, I was put in touch with Rod Walker, leader of the band Portland Standard Time, who has performed as a musician at the event in the past and has also run the race himself nine times, including last Sunday.

Walker sounded enthusiastic when he said “The new course offers a lot more fan support", noting that the old route had one long leg running up Highway 30 from Northwest Portland to the St.Johns Bridge, which he had found to be a lonely stretch for a tired runner. Walker added that there was much more community involvement this time, and parts of the course ran through pleasant residential neighborhoods with homes on either side.
Somewhat surprisingly Walker said ”There was very little music, and two or three drum corps”. He said that in past years there were “more like 40 bands” spread out playing 2-hour shifts along almost every mile of the course.

Walker also said of the event planners ”They weren’t connected to Portland very much”, noting that a pre-race course description was given by a man from Austin, Texas, who allowed that he had not run the course himself but had driven it in his car.

Next I spoke with musician Johnny Franco, whose 7-piece band headlined the main stage at the finish line near Waterfront Park. Franco is known to Portlanders for his frequent busking performances, delivered with skill and originality in such venues as downtown streets and the environs of Portland Saturday Market. Even though Franco was on the Main Stage for this gig, he says he put tip buckets out in front of the band, saying that the money receptacles give the audience a tool to connect with the musicians in a meaningful way.

Franco went on to say “I think that the interesting part from my experience was that I didn't realize I was signing up for a marathon of music! It felt like 26 miles, but it was 65 songs!” Our band largely shared this sentiment, but another musician, Steve Hasset of the How Long jug band says ”The constant flow of runners and their feedback gave us lots of energy, we barely needed a break.”

I also talked to Bruce Fife, president of American Federation of Musicians Local 99, to see if there were any agreements in place between the musicians and the Brooksie corporation, but he said he was unable to make an informed comment, also not ruling out agreements between the event company and individual bandleaders.

As a musician performing for this event I found it energizing to see the various waves of runners go by. There were a couple of very focused, impressive athletes running by at speed in the beginning, who seemed to not even glance at us, but later on many of the amateur runners would slow down a bit to take it all in, kicking superfluous rhythmic gestures or even full-on dance moves into their strides, flashing smiles at the band.

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Luann Ritts

Hi, I have performed at the marathon for about 12 years, I think I'm playing again in 2022. It's a great experience. At The time I started they said I was the first Solo Performer they ever had. But Folks loved me, and I returned every year. I enjoy it.

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