Nisene Marks Marathon in Aptos, CA

We decided to do a family reunion in Aptos, California this year since my brother lives there and we love the beach. I suggested a weekend that conveniently coincided with the Nisene Marks Marathon.

The Nisene Marks Marathon takes place in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. This is a beautifully lush redwood forest located just outside of Santa Cruz. The marathon has some significant elevation changes — totaling about 3100 ft up and down. It’s a small event, with only 37 finishers this year. Both the elevation and the size make this marathon much different than most of the races I’ve done in the past. I typically do road races that are either pretty flat or downhill.

Friday was the last day of school for my kids, and my 5th grader had her final “graduation” assembly and ceremony. We left straight from that for the ~10 hour drive from Idaho to California. We picked up some great pre-race nutrition along the way, In-N-Out. We arrived at about 10:30pm Pacific Time, which felt like 11:30pm coming from Mountain Time. We immediately went to bed and I was dreading waking up the next morning for the race.

Fortunately the race was scheduled to start at 8am, which is a bit later than most marathons. They also had packet pickup in the morning, which was convenient. I grabbed my bib and studied the map a bit while I waited. There were a few people I talked to and/or listened to, including one guy who had run ~250 marathons. He’d done all 50 states and was working on doing every marathon in California. Dang.

We started running the marathon about a minute late and the small field of ~40 people quickly spread out. I was running with 3 other guys for the first couple miles. One of them was a runner from New York who was doing his first marathon. He was a college runner and said he’d been training for 80 miles per week, which is more than I’ve ever done. However, I noticed he wasn’t carrying any water. I didn’t think this would be a big deal, but I was carrying my own water bottle since the aid stations were pretty spread out. It turned out to be more of an issue than expected.

About 2.5 miles in there were some cups at an aid station, so I grabbed one. Based on the map, I hadn’t expected water for another mile, but no big deal. A couple of the other 3 runners I was with didn’t grab any.

Two of the runners got a bit ahead of me and the other was several yards behind. I let the two go and tried to run my own pace. My pace was showing low 7:00’s, but with a steady climb that seemed fine to me. It felt about right.

Shortly after mile 4 the big climb started. The two runners in front of me immediately slowed down so I passed them and moved into 1st place.

The climb was pretty tremendous (for me at least). I’m not used to trail marathons. The race had started around 70ft above sea level. The big climb started around 350ft and would reach about 1800ft before turning around. I tried to just keep working at the hill without going to hard. My pace ranged from ~8:30/mi to 10:00/mi depending on the grade.

My left foot started to get irritated at one point so I stopped and loosened my shoe. Still no one caught me, although I could see another runner on some of the big turns.

The scenery in Nisene Marks was great, although it didn’t change a whole lot on this part of the course. We were running through a dense forest with big redwoods. It was very green and almost completely shaded.

Speaking of shade, based on the map I was expecting for an aid station around mile 6. Didn’t happen. Also nothing at mile 7. I was out of water in the bottle I was carrying and I was beginning to worry a bit. Finally at mile 8 I came around a corner to surprise an aid crew. They didn’t have any cups ready, but after opening a big jug we were able to fill up my bottle. There was a turn-around ahead, so I knew I’d get more water soon.

The turn-around was at mile 9.6 according to my watch, which was about a mile earlier than the map said. It turned out that my watch wasn’t very accurate in the forest, so I’m not sure where the actual turn around was.

On my way back I got to see how close the guys behind me were. They weren’t back very far. It was also fun to see other people coming up since I was their first sign that the climb was almost over. I was surprised that my downhill miles were only in the mid 6:00’s to low 7:00’s, but it was on dirt and I was trying to save some energy for the second big climb.

There was more water at the bottom of the second climb, which was around mile 16 by my watch. Once I started going up again I knew it was going to be taxing. My legs were pretty tired and I had not consumed enough water. It was fairly warm even though the trees blocked the sun.

At this turn we moved from fire road to single track in dense foliage. It was a well-used trail and there were lots of marks to keep us on the right path, but it was dense, hilly, and very steep in some parts. We had bottomed out around 250ft and we would top out at over 1100ft.

Some of the climbs got too steep for me, and I had to walk a couple of them. My pace had deteriorated quite a bit, so I figured someone would catch me sooner or later. I started to pass some half marathoners as well as some day-hikers.

Fortunately there was an aid station around mile 20 at the top of the hill. I gave a volunteer my water bottle and another volunteer said, “Only fill it half way so we don’t run out!” He filled it all the way anyways and I moved on.

About the time I started my descent, the next runner caught me. I sped up and stuck with him for a half mile or so, but it was clear to me that I wouldn’t keep up for long. I asked him how far back the next person was and he said we probably had plenty of room. I wished him luck and he moved on.

The last few miles were pretty grueling. I was just trying to finish the race so I could get a drink. My watch was off so I wasn’t sure exactly when it would end. I looked back a few times to see if I could spot any other marathoners, but I didn’t see any.

Finally I came around the last turn and finished. I considered running another 1.5 miles to make sure it was a full marathon, but after running about 150 yards, I realized that was stupid and I was finished.

I ended with an official time of 3:33:00 and confirmed with another runner that my watch was indeed off (his showed ~26.2).

I talked with the race director after and let him know that the water was an issue, especially since the map showed there would be aid stations every few miles. There were only 5 total, and the last one ran out of water a while after I went through it.

Besides the water issues, the Nisene Marks Marathon was enjoyable. For someone that doesn’t run in forests very often, it was a different experience. It’s a small field of runners and mostly on dirt road and trail. The elevation is challenging. I had a good time and I even got a pullover for getting 2nd overall.

After the race I grabbed a hot dog and some chips, walked to my car, and went to the beach to spend a couple hours playing in the waves with my family.

Ragnar Trail Zion UT 2018

Having done the Ragnar Wasatch Back road race a couple times, I had some interest in trying out a Ragnar Trail. Not enough interest to actually put together a team, but enough to want to try it out “some day”.

A few weeks ago a great opportunity presented itself. A local team was looking for a last runner two weeks before the Ragnar Trail Zion UT race. Out of desperation the team captain, Nate, contacted me via Strava and asked if I’d be interested in joining the team. After some discussion I decided to give it a try and I committed to coming. I had never been to Zion and thought it would be fun.

I didn’t really know Nate. I had unknowingly stolen a segment from him last year during the Shamrock Shuffle (which I consider my best race ever), and he promptly stole it back. We then started “following” each other and that was about the extent of our relationship. It turns out we had run against each other in high school, but I didn’t remember that. I actually only kind of knew one person on the team, but I knew the names of two or three others, having seen them on Strava and race results.

One thing I did know about the team is that everyone was pretty fast and they expected to win the race. This would be a bit different than the teams I’m normally on, which are generally a hodgepodge of runners varying in speed and age. There are advantages and disadvantages to either type of team. The main point with a relay, or any race for that matter, should be to have some fun. That said, it’s fun to throw in some competition and challenge yourself.

Cade loaded us up with essentials before the trip

We met up on Thursday before the race, threw our gear into a big van, and hit the road. It was nice to put some names to faces, as I had only met one of these guys before. We drove down to Springville, UT (near Provo) and stayed at a hotel. On Friday morning we woke up and drove to Zion Ponderosa Ranch, where the race would take place. We took lots of bathroom breaks on the way due to a van full of well-hydrated runners.

A gas station
In Beaver
Barak, Nate, and Ryan G. at a rest stop

One nice thing about being on a fast team is that we had a late start time of 3pm — pulled in from 5pm due to heat and other teams. Many runners had already been on the course for hours before we arrived. We were still able to secure an awesome camping location right at the finish line. Some people like to camp farther away to avoid the noise. I get this, but our spot was really fun.

During a Ragnar Trail, each runner takes turns running the same three loops in different order:

  • Green loop: 3.1 miles with 213ft elevation gain. This loop was fairly easy, although the last mile was fairly technical.
  • Yellow loop: 4.3 miles with 722 ft elevation gain. A tough climb followed by a windy downhill on single track.
  • Red loop: 7.6 miles with 1048 ft elevation gain. A mix of tough climbing, technical downhill, and longer distance.

Our relay was set up like this:

Runner Ryan M. Tyson Cade Nate Barak Blake Ryan G. Kevin
1st run (Start) Green Yellow Red Green Yellow Red Green Yellow
2nd run Red Green Yellow Red Green Yellow Red Green
3rd run Yellow Red Green Yellow Red Green Yellow (Finish) Red
Ryan M. started us off
Followed by Tyson (being cheered on by Nate and Ryan G)
Followed by Cade

Followed by Nate, Barak, me, Ryan G., and finally Kevin.

Each of the runners faced a different amount of light, darkness, heat, and wind. The order of the runs also made a difference.

The exchange area

Our first few runners were all pretty speedy, as expected. It was hot and windy, but everyone was still excited to be running. Tyson was dealing with some stomach issues, but he still put in a good time.

I started out with my Red run at 6pm. Cade had run it earlier and gave me a brief overview. It was still pretty hot and there was a ~20mph wind which had peaked around 4-5pm. I pushed hard on the uphill and quickly realized that my hill training during the past couple months was insufficient (no thanks to a knee injury that took out most of my April). It was crazy how many people I passed. There were a lot of walkers, especially on the uphill, and many people were taking it pretty easy on the downhill. My goal was to at least be below an 8 minute pace and with the downhill I was able to get some time back. I pushed hard on the downhill and my knee started to get a little unsteady. I also noticed I was already burning out my quads on my first of three runs. With about 1.5mi left the course went onto a nice dirt road and I picked up some time. Then there was a little more uphill and a fun ending: we ran through several campsites with people cheering and giving high-fives. I finished pretty strong and was happy with a time of ~59 minutes.

Immediately after my run I drank a chocolate milk and headed to eat my free dinner. I wanted to refuel as soon as possible so that I could recover and digest the food. One tough thing about being on a “fast” team is that you only have about 4-5 hours from the end of one run to the beginning of your next run. I tried to rest a bit, but sleep wasn’t going to happen. I have a lot of irrational anxiety in relays as I worry about being ready for my next run on time.

I started the yellow loop at about 11:20. The temperature was nice, but it was very dark. My uphill portion went a little slow. I could tell I was dragging and paying the price for a hard red run. I figured I could make up some time on the downhill; however, despite having a cheap headlamp as well as a flashlight in my hand, I couldn’t see the trail clearly on the downhill. I had to slow down my pace to avoid tripping and stumbling on the rutty single track trail. I was much slower than the downhill portion of the red, and not due to fatigue. This was very frustrating and I finished a bit disappointed and unsatisfied.

I again drank some chocolate milk and also made myself some oatmeal.

And I ate some bacon. Nate had brought ~12 lbs of bacon which he started cooking up about the time I left on my yellow run. Since we were right next to the course, he and Kevin began advertising the bacon to people finishing their loops. Some were extremely grateful and it made their night. The announcer started noticing people coming across the finish line eating bacon and mentioned as much. Eventually they took some to her. Other people turned down the bacon, of course. A couple said (rather snootily) when they were offered a piece, “I’m vegetarian.”

Eventually I laid down in the tent in my sleeping bag. It was dark and getting cold. There were issues with the finish line timing, so the announcer was constantly calling out team numbers to alert runners who was coming in. This amounted to torture for someone trying to sleep. Imagine someone in your bedroom randomly calling out numbers between 1 and 425 after you lay down. That’s what it was like, but it was still worth being close to the finish to be close to the action. I was also battling my irrational relay anxiety of worrying about missing my next leg. I figured I could lay down and rest my legs and heart even if I wasn’t actually sleeping much. I spent about 2-2.5 hours in my sleeping bag “resting”.

Finally it was time for my green loop at 5:30am. It was cold and dark, my energy was gone, and my legs were tight. Fortunately it was only a 5k loop with relatively flat terrain. I stood by the fire until I heard Barak’s number called so I could keep warm.

It took about 1.5 miles into the run before I really felt warmed up. I appreciated the flatness, the wider dirt road, and a very bright headlamp that Nate loaned me. I was able to open up a bit and I tried to quicken my pace as much as possible. It got a little technical in the last mile which slowed things down, but that was fine with me at this point.

I was really happy to be done. After another chocolate milk, which I assumed no one wanted but apparently someone was saving (sorry Tyson!) I was able to take a hot shower. It was glorious and just what I needed.

We waited for Kevin to finish up. He was our last and fastest runner and came through with a great time and completely filthy from a fall on the red loop.

Kevin was a bit dirty after running the red loop

We ended with a time of 16:36:15, which is something like an 8:18/mile pace. That also includes exchanges, which ranged from 10 seconds to a minute or so each. Before actually running the course I would have thought that would be a slow time, but the hills were a significant factor and really slowed runners down. I think our team would have done a 6:30 or better pace on a flat road. The median time across all ~425 teams was about 27.5 hours, or a little under a 14:00/mile pace.

After some photos we packed up and headed home. We were considering doing the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion’s National Park, but we quickly agreed to just drive through. I was very impressed by the drive through the park and I plan on going back to spend some quality time there someday.

Me, Nate, Ryan G., Barak?, Ryan M., and Cade in Zion National Park
Bighorn sheep (?) in Zion National Park
A selfie in Zion National Park

We stopped for gas a few times on the way home as well as Five Guys for some greasy burgers and fries. I finally arrived to my house around 9:15pm, exhausted and sore.

It was a great trip. It was fun to be on a team with a bunch of guys that I could compete against, even though I’m slower than about half of them (or more depending on the distance). The guys were fun to be around and talk running among other things. I liked the camping aspect, but it honestly felt a lot like a Road Ragnar. The advantage was being able to see a lot of other runners and being able to see all of our runners finish their loops (unless I was sleeping or something).

I’ll be considering Ragnar Trail Zion UT again next year if the opportunity arises.

Wilson Creek Frozen [20 Miler]

I consider myself much more of a road runner than a trail runner. For some reason I don’t take trail runs quite as seriously. The runner in me likes a standardized distance on a mostly standardized course. This doesn’t mean I’m not willing to do a nice downhill marathon, but the competitive part of me prefers a race that’s more straightforward than a typical trail run.

That said, I understand why people like trail runs: often better scenery, more natural, challenging terrain, unique courses, etc. (Some people also argue that they are easier on the joints, although I’m not convinced.) I’ve done a few trail runs, including the Foothills 50K Frenzy and XC12K a few times, but less than 10% of my races have been on trails.

Last year I signed up for a crazy race called the Wilson Creek Frozen 50K. It was to take place right in the middle of my Boston Marathon training, so I’d be prepared for 50K. Unfortunately the Treasure Valley’s 2017 Snowpocalypse happened. Despite repeated attempts to keep the trails groomed, the 2017 Wilson Creek race had to be cancelled.

I wasn’t quite as excited to run it this year, but I figured I’d use my 60% discount/refund. I didn’t feel like recovering from a 50K and I wanted to focus on speed a bit more this spring, so I signed up for the 20 miler rather than the 50K.

This year the winter has been much more mild. I drove the 45 minutes to the trailhead to find no snow, soft dirt, and 40 degree temperatures. The weather was essentially perfect for a mid-January run.

I had done a micro-taper for the race, taking it a little easier than normal during the week, but I wasn’t trying to break records or anything. I viewed this race as a tough training run with some competition to make me push extra hard.

After getting my bib and standing by the fire for a bit, we lined up for the 7:30am start time. The 50Kers and 20 Milers all started together — the 50K course used the 20 mile loop as the first 20 miles of their race. To start the race a guy shot a shotgun, which was a nice touch. Many people had headlamps, but I figured there was enough light that I’d be ok without a flashlight (I was barely right and was grateful that there were some other lights around me). I also stupidly didn’t bring a water bottle even though I knew there were only two aid stations — one at 3 miles and one at 12 miles. It’s only 20 miles, right?

Wrong. It was 20 miles with 4900 feet elevation gain and loss. In the summer I generally work more hills into my training, but I hadn’t ran a decent hill since the week after Zeitgeist in early November. I quickly realized I was a little under-prepared for that aspect of the course.

The first couple miles were fairly tame with some single track. I started off pretty easy and worked my way up to second place. I got a drink at the aid station at 2.5 miles. Then the hills started. The next mile was about a 13% grade. Knowing that I had 16 miles ahead of me still, I conceded that walking up this grade was ok.

In fact, I walked quite a bit between mile 2.5 and 7.4 (the top). The average grade is about 10%, but that includes some blistering downhill portions. I alternated between walking/scrambling up steep hills and trying to maintain control on some 100-200 foot declines. We were on a rough dirt road. I found that I was sweating way more than expected due to the tough hills and unseasonably warm weather. This concerned me a bit as I knew there was a long way to the next aid station.

The scenery was pretty nice. It was high desert type scenery — some sage, cheat grass, and lava rock cliffs.

Finally I reached the summit and also had an opportunity to see that I was 3-4 minutes behind the leader. The summit has a radio tower and is a short out-and-back. I grabbed a plastic snake from a bag at the tower and dropped it off after the “back” portion to a guy on a 4-wheeler to prove I made it to the top. Luckily he had a water bottle he said I could take. He actually had a jug of water, but no cups, so he just told me to take the bottle he had. That was perfect and I was very grateful for it.

The next 5.5 miles of the course was almost entirely downhill. It had rained a couple days before so the ground was soft without being too muddy. The leader was long gone so I was hoping for second at this point, maybe first if I got lucky.

After a long trip down I found the aid station and was happy to grab some snacks and refill my water bottle. I was about to get back on the dirt road when one of the volunteers pointed me to the weeds. Seriously, we were supposedly on a trail but I could hardly see a trail. It was weeds. And it was straight up again — about a 700 foot gain over the next 1.5 miles. As I made my way up the “trail” I was astounded to be scrambling through weeds that were sometimes as high as my shoulders (and I’m 6’4″). The people that marked the trail did a fantastic job and I typically just looked for the next pink tape and went straight for it as there wasn’t much of a trail to follow.

I finally made it to the ridge and was happy to find another dirt road near the top to follow down. It was a very rocky road, but since it was also pretty steep I was moving down it pretty fast. My mind was wandering a bit and I was thinking about Waterloo (I was in the middle of reading the book, Waterloo), when suddenly my right foot caught a rock. I let out a yell as I did a superman pose right into the dirt. I laid there among the rocks and dirt for a second before hopping up. I was very thankful I didn’t have any serious injuries, but I certainly had some scrapes from my knee to my waist to my chest to my shoulder and out to my hand. Ugh. That was the worst fall I’ve ever taken while running as far as I can remember.

I documented some of my scrapes after the race

There was only one thing to do, so I plodded on. At about 17 miles I turned off the road onto single track again and headed up a steep 250 foot climb. While going up I caught a glimpse of a runner behind me, which gave me some impetus to keep working. I was getting worn out by now and looking forward to the end.

The plateau on top of the hill was a scenic area and I enjoyed running through it. Then there was a steep downhill on single track before a final stretch to the end. As usual, it was very refreshing to finish up and get some food and water in me.

While I ended up being the first finisher in the 20 Miler, it didn’t feel that way since the runner ahead of me and behind me were both doing the 50K. I was very happy I wasn’t doing the 50K since I was feeling pretty beat up.

Cyndi snapped a photo of me when I limped into the house.

The “medal” was a little hokey but very Idaho. Same with the award for first place.

The medal and plaque from the Wilson Creek 20 Miler

St. George Marathon 2017

We had some friends move to St. George, UT this year. Obviously this provided an excellent opportunity to visit them and run the St. George Marathon.

I ran the St. George Marathon in 2013 and 2014. In fact, St. George was the marathon that really brought me back into running. I had been an irregular runner for several years, taking winters off, not ever training very hard, etc. After running St. George in 2013 I realized that I liked marathons (for some reason) and that I could potentially qualify for Boston some day. That marathon sparked a passion for and interest in running that I still maintain today. I enjoyed the St. George Marathon both times I ran it and looked forward to running it again this year.

Cyndi originally wasn’t going to run with me, but with about a month to go she changed her mind and ended up signing up as a charity runner (since she was too late for regular registration). I was happy to have her join me in the anticipation, on the bus, at the cold starting line, and at the finish. She blogged about her experience at the St. George Marathon here.

The trip to St. George also happily aligned with our children being out of school the Wednesday through Friday before the marathon, which was nice. I had to work on Wednesday morning, but around noon Cyndi picked me up and we began a nice vacation southward.

After staying with some friends in Springville, UT, we resumed our course towards St. George on Thursday. We made a stop in Kanarraville to visit Kanarra Creek Falls. It’s not far from the freeway and made for a great hike with the kids.

This picture doesn’t do Kanarra Creek any justice whatsoever

Once in St. George, we stopped by the St. George Temple.

On Friday we went to packet pickup. The St. George Marathon puts on a solid expo. There are lots of booths and picking up your packet is fast and easy. Altra is always there with discounted shoes (I bought my first Altras at the expo in 2014). We had all our kids with us so they got some swag.

After the expo we headed to some other friends’ house where we stayed for the night. Our son coughed a bunch during the night which was really nice. Who needs to sleep before a marathon anyways? We woke up (or rather, turned the light on) at 4am to catch the bus. I’m glad we got there when we did since the line exploded shortly after and one bus was actually a little late to the starting line.

Cyndi waiting for the bus for the St. George Marathon. I’m sure she won’t appreciate me posting this photo, but at least I’ll know whether she read this.

Cyndi and I got to the starting line about an hour before the start and found a spot by one of the many bonfires that were warming the swarms of runners. It was cold, but not as cold as I remember 2014. Maybe that’s because in 2013 and 2014 my father-in-law liked to be on one of the first buses that would leave us on the cold hill for a couple hours.

When the time came, Cyndi and I dropped our bags off at the van and we said goodbye until after the race. Somehow my time from a previous marathon got me a “Wave 3” bib. I didn’t know about these until I got one. There are elites, sub-elites, and Wave 3. All of us got to enter a roomy starting corral with special access to a set of port-a-potties. This was nice, because it gave me a little room to warm up and I really wanted to hit the restroom one last time before the gun went off.

I met a guy named Alex in the starting corral that I talked to a bit. He seemed pretty anxious and nervous. He had been fighting an injury and really wanted a good time. He’d run Boston a couple years back, but had been hampered by injury ever since. We were going for a similar time, so I told him to stick around me if he wanted.

Eventually it came time to start, and I was glad to be on my way once again.

Overall I felt ok for this marathon, but not great. It had only been 4 weeks since I got a PR at Big Cottonwood. I wasn’t fully recovered. Two days earlier I also had some serious intestinal issues, but luckily it had cleared up on Friday. I was still a little concerned. I still hoped for a time in the 2:50’s, maybe another PR if I was feeling great.

The St. George Marathon

Miles 1-2: 6:49, 6:51

The first couple miles were relatively flat, so I tried to take it nice and easy. Having started too fast at way too many marathons, I didn’t want to blow it again. Besides, there was plenty of downhill ahead so no need to rush the first couple.

On the other hand, I saw Alex take off pretty fast and get out ahead of me. It was pretty crowded, but I soon found some fellow runners that were going the same pace as me.

Miles 3-7: 6:24, 6:23, 6:32, 6:13, 6:19

The downhill started in earnest after mile 2, and I increased my pace accordingly. This meant that I passed a few people before falling in with a new crowd. One of the people I passed between mile 2 and 3 was Alex. I gave him a few encouraging words as I passed him, but he had a worried look on his face. I think he had already realized it wasn’t going to be his day.

Each mile of this portion was about 100-200 feet of elevation loss. It was nice to bank a little time and roll down the hill.

Miles 8-12: 7:34, 7:07, 7:00, 7:24, 6:47

At mile 7 we ran through Veyo. There’s a nice crowd here and it was fun to be cheered on right before hitting the big hill. The hill right after Veyo climbs about 200 feet in one mile. I worked up it but tried not to burn out too much.

I remembered the hill well from when I ran the St. George Marathon in 2013 and 2014. What I didn’t remember is that the hill stretches on through mile 12. It’s not as steep after the first mile, but it’s definitely up and it gets pretty tiring. I knew most of the second half was down, but I realized that it would be hard to make up enough time to PR at this point. I was feeling ok, but not spectacular.

Miles 13-17: 6:32, 6:39, 6:16, 6:08, 6:22

I tried to pick the pace back up once we summitted the hill, but my legs weren’t going quite as fast as I wanted them to. When I hit the half at just under 1:29, I figured a PR was probably out of my reach. I still wanted to get in the mid-2:50’s if possible though. Miles 13 and 14 are a steady decline, but then we hit the canyon and a 205 foot and 255 foot drop in miles 15 and 16.

Miles 18-25: 6:39, 7:06, 6:49, 6:29, 7:07, 6:58, 6:57

There’s a final little hill in mile 18 which was a little challenging. It was at this point that my attention moved to my stomach. I noticed that it didn’t feel quite right. I started feeling like I wanted to puke.

Of course, feeling like puking is somewhat normal in most marathons. This was more than the normal though. It became very hard to consume any calories or even water. This section has great downhill, but after mile 21’s 250 foot drop, I was just trying to hold my stomach together. Meanwhile I was getting passed by quite a few people, although I was passing an occasional walker or someone worse off than myself.

Luckily I was still able to keep going and I didn’t have to stop. My pace was decent, although I was relying heavily on the hills. The spectators get better and better on this part of the course, especially after mile 23 when we really get into St. George itself. Around mile 24 I saw one lady puking and another almost fainted (I gave her a pat on the back and helped her stay steady). I was still trying to just push through my upset stomach. My stomach was limiting me much more than my legs but there wasn’t much I felt I could do about it.

Miles 25-26.2: 7:02, 6:56, ~6:30

Finally I started feeling better during mile 25. Even though there’s still a 127 foot drop according to my Garmin, it certainly feels much flatter here. Shortly after mile 24, I switched from getting passed to starting to pass other people. My legs didn’t feel too terrible, and my stomach was finally starting to feel more normal.

During mile 26 I really picked it up. Something switched on, I felt a lot better, so I sped up. The town seems to go on forever, even though we were only in it for ~2.5 miles. There are a couple high school bands that play music every year, which is awesome. When I finally turned onto the last straightaway it was relief, as usual, and I had a strong finish to the end.

I came across at 2:56:46, which was my 2nd best marathon time and 19th marathon finish.

Recovery and Going Home

As I laid on the grass drinking some water and munching on snacks, I chatted with a guy from Texas and a lady from Pocatello. It was fun to talk about the race and see how others were feeling. We had a good laugh watching people either try to sit down or try to get up.

After about a half hour I went to get my stuff and watch for Cyndi. I had no idea when she would come in (neither did she). She finished at 4:13:25, which was her PR. She was very excited at the end and wanted to run another, which is unusual for her. I was excited, too.

Cyndi actually was running this marathon in memory of Boston, which is what we named our baby that we lost this year. She was miscarried at about 4 months, just a couple weeks after we were in New York and Boston for the Boston Marathon.

By the way, the St. George Marathon medals are the best medals ever, hands down. They’re made rock taken from the mountains nearby.

The St. George Marathon is a great race. It’s getting hard for me to pick favorites, but this is definitely one of them.

Our kids had a great time with their friends and the babysitters. We peeled them away from their friends. Some tears were shed, but we wanted to hit the road and make the 10 hour drive home before it got crazy late.

Cosie, trying to smile through tears right before leaving her BFF in St. George.

Besides, we also wanted to stop at Leatherby’s, our favorite ice cream place. It was delicious.

Don’t judge an ice cream shop by it’s menu cover.

Big Cottonwood Marathon 2017 Race Report

A text conversation with my wife:

Cyndi: My college roommates want to have a reunion in Utah on the weekend of September 9th. Could we make a trip that weekend?

Blake: Sure, sounds great.

Two minutes later…

Cyndi: Did you find a marathon yet?

Blake: Two. How’d you know?

And that’s how I ended up signing up for the Big Cottonwood Marathon. I had thought about doing Big Cottonwood before, so I was happy that things fell into place to do it this year. Besides, I didn’t have any big races to look forward to after the Boston Marathon, so it was nice to sign up for this one. This would be my 17th marathon (18th counting the 50k).

Big Cottonwood Marathon is one of Revel’s races. All of their races have one thing in common: Gigantic downhills. Big Cottonwood is no exception. The full marathon has a net elevation decline of 5255 feet. It starts just under 9700 feet and follows a canyon down into the city. There are two relatively short out-and-backs during the course, but otherwise it’s pretty much just running down the canyon.

Pre-race

We arrived in the valley on Friday afternoon and after visiting my grandmother we headed to the expo. The expo was well done. Getting my number and packet was efficient and easy. They had an area to exchange shirts for a different size. There were a bunch of booths to entertain my kids with free stuff. And there was a nice place to take photos at the end.

Note happy kids with race swag

We checked in to our hotel and went swimming with the kids before Cyndi went to the first phase of her reunion and I put the kids and myself to bed at about 10pm. I had gotten a full 8+ hours of sleep on Thursday night, so I wasn’t too concerned about sleeping well. That was fortunate, since Cyndi got back to the hotel at about 1am and after that I tossed and turned until it was time to wake up at 4am. I ate my peanut butter honey sandwich and started drinking my Gatorade while getting ready to catch the bus. Cyndi drove me to the bus and I hopped on. I chatted with a lady on the way up. It was her first marathon, so she was excited. I was too.

I think the bus dropped us off at the Big Cottonwood Marathon start area around 5:30am. That gave me about 1.25 hours to use the Honey Bucket a couple times, relax, and get ready to run. I was anticipating a very cold wait for the start so I was well prepared with warm clothes. It turned out to be about 45 degrees, so really not too bad. I never really got cold. We were right on top of the mountain. The marathon would go down the west side of the mountain and I could see a town in the distance to the east.

I made my way to the start line and we were off right at 6:45am.

Miles 1, 2, 3: 5:37, 5:55, 5:57

No, I’m not lying: My first three miles of the Big Cottonwood Marathon were all under 6 minutes per mile! Not because I have some new secret training regimen, but because it was blistering downhill. My Garmin captured elevation losses of 497 ft, 256 ft, and 299 ft for the first three miles, respectively. During the first mile, I turned to a guy near me and said, “Wow. This is really steep.” A little while later I asked him what time he was going for to make sure I wasn’t out of my league. He said he was shooting for “2:40. 2:38.” I didn’t plan on finishing that fast, but I didn’t feel like I was killing myself yet. He actually ended up winning.

It was really nerve-wracking to be breaking 6 minute miles. On the one hand I didn’t want to burn myself out by starting too fast (been there, done that). On the other hand, I didn’t want to fight the downhill, as that would just wear down my quadriceps even faster. So I tried to stay relaxed and make sure my breathing was under control.

Miles 4, 5: 7:25, 5:57

After finishing mile 3 the course does a short loop near Brighton ski resort. There’s a little uphill section on this part of the course, so I was careful to slow down and take it easy. After screaming down the first three miles, it was hard to slow down and not go fast up the hill. Fortunately I knew it was coming and had planned ahead. A few other runners caught up to me and some passed me, but once we made the turn and started heading back down I passed them right back. I figured I was around 10th to 15th place at this point, but I was actually something like 7th or 8th.

This little section reminded me that I was running around 9000 feet elevation. I could feel a little shortness of breath and lightheadedness. I was happy that we were quickly descending into thicker air.

Just after mile 5 of the Big Cottonwood Marathon
Just after mile 5 of the Big Cottonwood Marathon

Miles 6-11: 5:56, 5:59, 6:05, 6:24, 6:36, 6:38

The downhill continued and I got into a nice rhythm. I started doing the math and realizing that I had a good shot at a PR and potentially even breaking 2:50:00 for the first time. However, I was very concerned that this downhill would destroy my quads and I would fall apart at mile 20. I knew this happened to a lot of runners in previous Big Cottonwood Marathons and in similar downhill races. Moreover, I was very uncertain of my pace. I continually self-assessed to make sure I was staying relaxed and not spending too much energy, despite the fast pace.

I had my Garmin 235 on, and through much of this section it was telling me that my heart rate was over 170. I really didn’t feel like it was that high, although I knew that it’s tough to tell in the middle of a race. I expected and wanted a heart rate in the low 160’s.

A few of these miles weren’t quite as steep, so I slowed my pace a bit to compensate. Again I could feel the elevation a bit. I made sure to get enough liquids and I was refueling on Jelly Belly Sports Beans (courtesy of my sister-in-law who got them for free) and my traditional Honey Stinger Waffle at mile 10.

About this time we also passed the Big Cottonwood Half Marathon starting line and volunteers were busy picking up Mylar blankets.

Around mile 11 of the Big Cottonwood Marathon

At mile 11 I finally caught up to a guy in a red shirt that I had been following throughout the race. He was breathing really hard. I almost told him that he was breathing too hard and he needed to take it easy, but I wasn’t sure that would be appropriate. So I said “good job” and moved on. I looked him up after and found that he bonked at mile 19 and finished about 13 minutes behind me. I know how that goes.

Miles 12-18: 6:32, 6:13, 5:48, 6:07, 5:53, 6:27, 6:22

The course started getting steeper again after mile 11. It also had some fun curves to run around. And the views were spectacular. The amazing views actually started at the beginning. There were some impressive rock faces and cliffs that towered above us puny runners. There were several sections that had avalanche warning signs and I could see why: on one or both sides of the canyon there were steep mountains that rose high above the roadway. I had to remind myself to look around and enjoy the scenery every once in a while and I’m glad I remembered to. There was also a creek along much of the course and I could hear the water rushing down the canyon. The vegetation was plentiful, green, and refreshing.

I crossed the half around 1:22 and realized I’d need a 1:28 to break 2:50. I didn’t know if I could do it, but I was curious to try. I knew I still had some serious downhill to bank more time.

Around mile 14 I noticed that my right quadriceps were really tight and getting sore. Once again I worried what would become of me when I exited the canyon.

We started passing the half marathoners. There were lots of them, but since we had a whole lane to run in there was plenty of room and it wasn’t a problem. I said “good job” to many of them until I started to get too tired.

At this point I had maybe one marathoner in my sights, depending on the turn. I didn’t look back so I wasn’t sure how close the next runner was behind me. I just kept running my own race and trying to prepare mentally for the flatter last few miles.

Miles 19-23: 6:29, 7:16, 7:09, 7:05, 7:24

At mile 18.5 the marathon course turned right while the half marathoners continued straight. There were finally some spectators now that we were out of the canyon, and that was a nice boost. Some of them were excited to see marathoners since it had mostly been half marathoners coming through so far.

After the turn the course flattened out. I was bracing for The Wall, but it didn’t come! Instead, it felt quite nice to run on flat terrain and even a little uphill. This was a turn-around section, so I began scanning the other side of the road for the first runners. I didn’t see them come through until just before mile 20, which meant they were only one mile ahead of me! That made me really happy as I expected they would be a good 20 minutes ahead.

My stomach felt about how you would expect a stomach to feel after 20 miles, but I forced down a Gu and some water and Gatorade. The sun was out now so I started dumping water on my head as well.

I counted 6 people ahead of me, but when I made the turn I saw what seemed like 50 runners right behind me! I still tried to focus on my own race, but now I was running scared and I tried to dig a little deeper so I wouldn’t drop from 7th to 30th over the last 5 miles.

Sure enough, I soon heard footsteps. There was a cruel little hill during mile 23 and a guy passed me near the top of it. He was 49 years old and I immediately had a lot of respect for how strong he was running at this point.

Miles 24, 25, 26, and 26.2: 7:03, 6:46, 7:24, 6:15

The guy that passed me provided a nice benchmark to measure myself against during the last 5k. He slowly pulled away, but his strength gave me a little extra encouragement.

Mile 25 had a steep downhill and it hurt. My legs were now in full rebellion. Happily, I wasn’t in total meltdown mode like I have been many times before at this stage of a marathon. That said, I was counting down every step until I could stop. I continually did pace calculations to figure what I needed to do to break 2:50. This kept me pushing to keep the pace as close to 7:00/mile as possible.

I could finally see the finish line with about 0.6 miles left. I was slogging and just trying to get there. There was a great crowd at the finish which was nice. I looked for Cyndi but couldn’t find her.

Suddenly with about 100 yards left I saw another marathon come up to my left trying to pass me! I put on a burst of speed that I didn’t know I had and raced to the finish line. I couldn’t believe that was left, and I was a little chagrined that I was apparently slacking off for the last mile.

Sprinting to the finish line
Because I saw this guy.

I only wish that runner would have challenged me about 50 yards sooner as I might have finished 2 seconds faster, but I ended up with 2:49:01, which made me very happy! That was an 8 minute PR.

Post Race

Cyndi was at the finish and found me pretty quickly. She was excited and congratulatory for my good race. Apparently I miscounted, because I ended up getting 6th overall and 1st in my age group. That definitely exceed expectations.

They had pizza from Papa John’s, soda from Sodalicious, and protein pancakes at the finish. An excellent selection of food. They also gave us wet rags which I placed on my head for a good 20 minutes.

My body hurts. Just let me sit.

After the race I sat in the hot tub at the hotel (I know it’s a sin after a marathon but it felt so good) and swam with the kids a bit. Then we had some delicious Kentucky Fried Chicken, because when else can I justify extra crispy KFC? Then we had some amazing ice cream at Leatherby’s after playing at a park with Cyndi’s roommates’ families.

Getting some delicious ice cream at Leatherby’s after the race. Don’t worry, I shared with my kids.

Revel knows how to put on a good race. The Big Cottonwood Marathon was fantastic. The organization was superb. The course was fast and scenic. The aid stations were well stocked. The website results and (free!) photos are best-in-class and were up within 48 hours. I emailed them for a couple of different things and received responses in under 12 hours. I had a great experience and I hope to run another one of their races soon.