Race Report: Mt. Nebo Marathon

I wasn’t supposed to run the Mt. Nebo Marathon on Saturday, September 5, 2015. However, sometimes things don’t turn out how you expect and it still works out ok.

Mt. Nebo Marathon & Half

Cancellation

I had been signed up for the Freakin’ Fast Marathon for over a month and was excited to run it on September 5, 2015. The marathon would have about 400 runners this year. It was a large downhill course, and since it takes place in the Treasure Valley I would be able to sleep in my own bed the night before and avoid traveling. Being able to do a good marathon in my home town was a big plus for me since it takes out a lot of the stress, missed sleep, travel fatigue, etc.

However, the Freakin’ Fast Marathon was cancelled late Monday night the week of the race! Apparently there was work being done on Bogus Basin Road which was supposed to be completed a couple weeks before the race, but the road work was delayed. This left a six mile stretch of the road very rugged and created an injury hazard. Everyone was upset about the cancellation, but what can you do? You can sign up for a different marathon.

The road work on Bogus Basin Road which led to the cancellation of the Freakin’ Fast Marathon

Given that I was already tapered, and hoping to qualify for Boston, I really wanted to run a marathon. Once the Freakin’ Fast Marathon was cancelled I had to choose from a couple other race options. I hoped to find a good downhill race since I had done two training runs (on July 18th and August 8th) with significant downhill. I had sacrificed speed for hills in my long runs so that I’d be prepared for the Freakin’ Fast Marathon downhill.

The Pocatello Marathon was fairly close, but I had done it before and I was concerned I couldn’t get the time I needed on the course. It has a lot of downhill, but it’s all in the first half — the second half is flat. The other option I had was the Mt. Nebo Marathon.

The Mt. Nebo Marathon course was intriguing to me: it has huge downhill (4500 ft or so), but it is also at high elevation (starting at ~9250 feet) and had some uphill early in the course. I decided to attempt Mt. Nebo with the primary goal of getting under 3:05:00, which is the Boston Marathon qualification time for 30-34 year-olds. I figured if I failed I could still hope for a PR. In any case, it was my best shot for a BQ before the deadline the following week.

Getting to Utah

Fortunately my wife’s old college roommate, Sara, lives in a town near Payson, which is where the Mt. Nebo Marathon ends. We enjoy seeing her and she was happy to have us over the night before the marathon — even on short notice. The six hour drive to Utah on Friday wasn’t pleasant, especially when we hit traffic and Salt Lake City and my legs started cramping up from sitting driving for too long. That concerned me a bit, but I hoped for the best.

We hit packet pickup at the University Mall in Orem on our way into town. It was really fast as there wasn’t much there — they only had four booths set up. I did get to meet Dane and talk to him a bit. He was doing the Mt. Nebo Half Marathon. He was really friendly. It’s always fun to talk to someone about the course and some running strategy, which we briefly did. Dane had a stack of his book, 138,336 Feet to Pure Bliss. I wish I had purchased one since I like running books — I plan to check it out soon.

By the time we got to Sara’s house we were happy to be out of the car. She gave us a nice spaghetti dinner, as requested (at about 6:30pm). We also roasted marshmallows for s’mores. I restrained myself and only ate one s’more made with a graham cracker, a marshmallow, and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. (It was mostly carbs, right?) I’d never had a Reese’s-based s’more before and it was quite tasty. I also had a couple marshmallows.

Getting Started

I went to bed at about 10pm on Friday night — which was fairly early for me. I had been trying to get to bed early all week in preparation for the marathon. I was surprised at how tired I was and glad I could fall asleep quickly. I actually slept on Sara’s couch as I didn’t particularly want to sleep in a room with an 8-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a 3-month old. They were all in the guest room with Cyndi. I’ve learned from sad experience that it’s not wise to sleep in a room with small children the night before a marathon.

Despite sleeping on the couch, it was the best pre-marathon sleep I’ve ever gotten. I fell asleep immediately and only woke up once. I woke up at midnight and used the restroom (as I had been drinking a lot of water all day) and I ate part of my bagel. Then I went right back to sleep and didn’t stir until my alarm went of at 3:10am. I was pleasantly surprised.

I immediately ate the rest of my bagel and a banana, and started drinking a 20oz sports drink. Cyndi was already up since she was going to take me to the starting line and since she couldn’t sleep with all the kids in that room 🙂  We took off around 3:40 for Payson High School where the buses would be waiting.

Cyndi and I right before she dropped me off for the Mt. Nebo Marathon bus

The buses showed up around 4:15 or so and we loaded up. Runners filled from the back of the bus to the front, and I ended up getting the first seat in the first bus. A guy named Charlie sat down next to me. This was his 3rd marathon and we talked a bit. The buses left 15 minutes late (4:45). The bus drivers were friendly and were chattering and bantering on the way up, which was funny. Sitting in the first seat was nice for two reasons: I got a nice view of the whole course on the way up, and I was very first to the port-a-potties! This was my second marathon in a row where I got to use a clean port-a-pottie. Talk about good luck.

There were only four port-a-potties and one outhouse for 200 people (not quite as bad as my last race). This is a bit insufficient in my opinion, especially since everyone was dropped off at the same time. It wouldn’t have been as much of an issue if it weren’t for the buses leaving a little late.

They made some bonfires to help keep us warm, as has become the norm for Utah marathons. They also had some hot chocolate (before a marathon? no thanks) and some sports drinks. I sat by a fire and waited, ate a Gu, downed a sports drink, and changed my shoes and socks before heading to the Start. It wasn’t too cold, although I was happy to have a hoodie and running pants on. I also had knit gloves which I kept on until Mile 3. The guy in charge gave a little speech while we were all by the bonfire and also right before the gun went off. He did a good job.

On my way to the start, a guy next to me asked if we just needed our bibs. “Yes,” I replied, “Is this your first marathon?” It was. We talked a bit and he was excited to run, as was I. His name was Joseph.

The Mt. Nebo Marathon was supposed to begin at 6:30am, but the timing people got there to set up a little late, so it started at 6:38am. No big deal. I did some high knees and a little movement to warm up before the gun went off.

My goal was to get under 3:05:00 so I could meet the Boston Marathon qualifying time. I needed a pace of 7:03/mile to achieve that.

Racing the Mt. Nebo Marathon

After the gun went off the racers spread out really quickly. It was a small field of ~200 runners, and I found myself in 6th or 7th place in the first couple minutes.

I think the mix of uphill and downhill makes the Mt. Nebo Marathon challenging if approached incorrectly. The first 10 miles or so had at least three decent climbs. The first came in the first mile. After a brief downhill, there was a nice uphill stretch. We passed as sign declaring the summit at 9345 feet during the first mile. The second mile was a net 300 foot decline.

All the ups and downs made for some difficult pacing decisions. I had determined before hand to run with my heart rate monitor, and I’m very glad I did in hindsight. My objective was to keep my heart rate under 170 on uphills, which is about 89% of my max (~191). This meant that I slowed to ~9:00/mile pace on a couple of the big hills, substantially slower than my 7:03/mile target. On the downhill I could speed up significantly and keep my heart rate at or below 160, or ~84% of max. My goal was an average heart rate in the mid 160’s for the whole marathon.

One nice thing the Mt. Nebo Marathon race organizers did was to put out a few signs before the big hills. The first came right around the Mile 4 mark, indicating a 200 foot climb ahead and another shorter climb to follow. These hills even had names, although I don’t remember exactly what the were (one of them was an Indian name for “skunk” I think). I really appreciated these signs as they set my expectations.

There was an out-and-back which started at about Mile 6.7, and went out a little over a mile. It was on a dirt/gravel road. It didn’t bug me too much except that it had some gentle slopes which I knew I’d have to come back up after the turn around. Out-and-backs are kind of fun since you get to pass the people ahead and behind you. Saying “hi” and telling people “good job” helps take my mind off the run.

After the out-and-back was another nice hill. By this time I was done with the hills. I had studied the Mt. Nebo Marathon course elevation profile found on the race’s website intensively. It showed the long downhill portion beginning at mile 7 or so. It was obviously wrong. However, I figured that it just meant I’d see more downhill later on and it wouldn’t be as flat at the end.

A runner near me was also tired of the hills, and we exchanged a few words. By this time I was in 4th or 5th place. I had been trading places with a couple guys based on how fast we were each attacking the uphills and downhills.

At Mile 10 I ate my first Honey Stinger Waffle. I considered this a treat as I think they’re tasty and they’re a nice change from the glorified fruit snacks I’d been munching on every two miles since the start. Right at this point I remember having two guys behind me. I had just passed one who said he was in 3rd.

The scenery of the Mt. Nebo Marathon was amazing. From around 9000 feet elevation we got views of the valley at 4700 feet below. The first several miles were basically on a ridge, so the views actually extended in both directions. Besides that, the first 25 miles of the course were in the forest and there wasn’t much traffic. The forest was mostly pine, but also had some trees that were just starting to change color. When we weren’t on the ridge, we were running down a canyon that was refreshing and exhilarating. The course scenery was hard to beat.

Finally we reached a summit at Mile 11 and started going down. It flattened out a bit for a while. One other runner stayed with me until the Mile 12 sign, a which point we were clearly going to start dropping down for good. I gave a holler and sped up as the decline steepened, and thereafter I didn’t see any marathoners for the rest of the race.

I felt alright up to this point, but not great. I had experienced some side stitches (stomach cramps) in the first couple miles which I found really odd. I had also had a few waves of light-headedness during the first 12 miles. I attribute this to the altitude. The first 12 miles of the Mt. Nebo Marathon are all above 8300 feet elevation. This is crazy high and I was feeling the altitude a bit. Fortunately I had been able to keep my heart rate under control. I had touched 170 a couple times, but hadn’t gone over it. I was at a 3 minute deficit to my target pace up to this point (that is, I was 3 minutes too slow), so I knew I had to make it up during the next few miles. I also knew this meant I needed a negative split, which I had never done before. But overall I was feeling ok so I turned up the speed.

I focused hard on maintaining good downhill running form. This meant trying to keep my body perpendicular to the hill instead of perpendicular to gravity (leaning back on the hill). I tried to focus on moving my feet fast and keeping them under me instead of in front of me. This helped conserve my quads and it really helped me keep going later on in the race.

At the Half mark I was still moving fast and all alone. The course is basically a giant downhill from Mile 12 to Mile 19 or so. The Mt. Nebo Marathon course gets pretty windy for a section after the half. There are some hairpin turns which made things a bit more interesting.

One of my biggest mental challenges came around Mile 15. I had been doing well, but I started feeling weak and winded. I glanced at my watch and my heart rate was still well under control (around 160), but I felt similar to how I started feeling at the Newport Marathon before I started breaking down. It worried me a bit, and I tried to focus and regroup. Fortunately, at Mile 16 I got a second wind. Maybe it was a steeper section of the course, maybe it was the declining altitude, perhaps it was the nutrition kicking in, a blessing from heaven, or all of the above. In any case, I felt some revitalization and picked it up.

I can’t remember exactly where I started passing the half marathoners, but it was probably around Mile 15 or so (as some of them were walking pretty slowly). They became more and more frequent as I approached the finish line and never really got in my way or anything.

Every time I passed a mile marker, I would figure out how far behind a 7:00/mile pace I was. I knew I needed to get under an average 7 minute pace before Mile 20 if I had any hope of hitting my target time. I was chipping away about 30 seconds per mile, and finally by Mile 17 I achieved an average 7 minute pace.

Now it was a matter of building up as much reserve time as possible to offset any bonk in the last few miles. I kept moving fast for a few more miles, but my legs started to protest. At Mile 20 I knew I had a shot at my goal if I could just hold on a little longer.

Mile 20 was also my second scheduled Waffle. I unpacked one and tried to take a bite, but my mouth was just too dry. I held it for at least a mile and nibbled on it a little without actually getting much down my throat.

One big takeaway from my post-race analysis of the Newport Marathon was that I was not drinking enough water during my races. During the Mt. Nebo Marathon I was drinking as much as my stomach could handle. I tried to drink a full cup of water or sports drink at every aid station. After a while this was unsustainable for me — I really felt like I was going to puke for a significant part of the run. I think this is what I need to do though. I weigh 180 lbs and sweat a lot, so I think I need to cram in more water than my stomach will take.

One of the things I learned from reading Meb for Mortals was that even swishing sports drink or water around in your mouth can trick your brain and give you a boost. That’s what I was doing with both food and drinks once I couldn’t stomach any more. I also dumped water on my head and that felt great.

After Mile 22 the course switches from blistering downhill to downhill mixed with light rolling uphills. It’s still downhill overall so I continued to focus on moving my legs and resisting the urge to lean back and slow down. Mile 22 was my last sub-7:00 mile. I recognized that I had never come close to feeling that good at this point in the race, although I didn’t feel “good” by any stretch of the imagination. My calves were burning up and my back was starting to cramp. Every time I tried to say something to someone, like “good job,” it would just come out as a hoarse whisper.

I resisted the temptation to calculate the worst I could do and still make my time. I thought if I did so I would immediately slow down. Instead, I just tried to go as fast as I could manage. The toughest part was definitely miles 22 through 24. I was struggling to keep going at a good pace.

Just before the Mile 25 mark I had a small breakthrough. I was coming up on a half marathoner that was tall and had grey hair and glasses. I recognized him immediately as Bishop Day — the former Bishop of my parents’ congregation. I didn’t know he was running, but I was very happy to see someone I recognized. I called his name a few times until he heard me and I said “hi” as I passed by. “One mile to go!” I declared in my hoarse voice.

I passed the marker with about 10 minutes left before 3:05:00. I knew I could do a sub 8:00 mile and that I could hit my time. It was a battle between picking up my pace and resisting the natural drift to slowing down. Finally I could see the high school and knew my goal was within my grasp. I sped up as I approached the track to do a half lap. I was grateful I didn’t have to do a full lap but a little disappointed I had to do 250 meters.

Rounding out the last 100 meters of the Mt. Nebo Marathon

Paisley was on the grass in the middle of the track and started cheering me on. Cyndi was in the stands with the other kids. Finally I crossed the line at 3:04:18, happy to achieve a goal I’d chased for about two years, and extremely exhausted.

Post Finish

Dane was at the Finish line and gave me a handshake and congratulations. I got my medal and a drink of water. Then Cyndi found me and gave me a big hug. I tried to stay on my feet as long as I could until my calves needed a break. The kids all gawked at my huge medal.

The nice medal from the Mt. Nebo Marathon

I eventually found Bishop Day and we chatted for a while. Then I found Joseph, the first timer from the start. He won! The last time I saw him was around Mile 11 or 12. He and another guy were in front of me, but after the big downhill started I never saw them. I kept figuring Joseph would bonk and that maybe I’d catch him in the final miles, but he actually got 2:52 and ran a huge negative split. He said the other guy that was with him stopped to take a bathroom break, so I must have passed him unknowingly.

That means I got second place at the Mt. Nebo Marathon! That was exciting for me, although obviously it was a small field. We waited around for the award ceremony but they were taking a long time. So eventually we just went up and they handed us our awards. My wife snapped a picture of us on the stand — I never met the 3rd place runner. I got another huge medal and some gift certificates, which was pretty cool. I wish they had been a bit more organized and/or started the ceremony earlier, but it wasn’t a big deal.

After going back to Sara’s and eating lunch, we had a good day with the family. We hiked the Y and ate ice cream at the BYU Creamery on 9th. We got to see some family in the area and spend time with them as well.

Overall, the Mt. Nebo Marathon was a great experience. There were some small hiccups with the organization, but nothing that really bothered me or would keep me away from going back again. I loved the course — for its amazing scenery and its unique elevation profile. And I was overjoyed to finally qualify for Boston. Of course, now I just have to wait to see if I actually make the Boston cutoff…

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