Just back from running the St. George Marathon and some bookend side trips to National Parks (I'll tell you about those another post.) Heads up: this is going to be a long, picture-heavy post.
First, a bit about my impetus for running St. George. I've said it many times: I am NOT a marathoner. racing shorter, faster distances (5K-10K) are much easier for me. I had run pretty competitively for my age last year and through this spring, and felt burned out on racing hard. I needed to do a race purely for fun. Just for the joy of running. So I decided to do St. George. Non-runners might say, "A marathon for fun?" but running nerds like me will understand the allure of a no-pressure race.
Why St. George? I wanted a destination race, and the St. George Marathon is noted for being beautiful. I love being outside in nature, and I have been smitten with Utah for ages; I've been there many times before, from age 29 on when I first drove the Four Corners solo. I figured I could work in some nature trips both before and after the marathon.
St. George is noted for being a net-downhill race. But don't let that fool you. It starts at elevation, and the drop is significant: from 5,240 to 2,680 feet. That's a 2,560 foot elevation loss. It sounds fast and easy on paper, but the truth is, you can really tear up your quads for the long term if you don't train and race properly. Ok, let's get to the race details...
I arrived in Utah on Monday night to give my sea-level body some time to adjust to life at 5,000+ feet. 5.5 days certainly was not ideal, but it was better than nothing. I did 2 short shake-out runs in the days that followed and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my body seemed to acclimate. I've read that humidity is the "poor man's altitude," so maybe life in uber-humid Philly was paying off?
i rented a condo in St George through Air B&B, so I could relax before the race. It was a wise move. I could spread out my stuff and, thanks to the well-equipped kitchen, I was able to cook my pre-race meals. Only bummer is that I forgot my swimsuit, so I was not able to partake in the pools or the hot tub.
One of the biggest mistakes most people make pre-marathon in not taking in enough carbs. For the final 3 days before the race, you really need to consume at least 70% carbs, or about 4g per day per pound of your body weight, in order to amass a hefty-enough supply of glycogen to carry you through most of the marathon. You also need to take in enough water – doubly important when you are adjusting to altitude -- a time when your body needs even more hydration. I rarely drink enough (I think I'm part camel) but somehow, I managed to swallow more than 1.5 liters of water the day before the race.
Most people look forward to carb loading. As much as I love my pasta and bread, pre-26.2 carb-loading is not my favorite. I quickly grow weary of eating nothing but bagels and spaghetti, plus I hate the fuzzy "carb coma" you experience from this imbalanced diet, which is basically sugar. I call it "carb bloating." Your body holds onto the carbs and you actually do end up gaining a few pounds, if you are doing it properly (Not to worry. They perspire away during the race).
I picked up my bib at the Dixie Convention Center – a 10-minute drive from my condo. While it was not the biggest expo I've ever attended, many vendors were present and the atmosphere was festive and energetic. If you forgot or needed anything, you could certainly pick it up here. I needed some Sport Beans, so I grabbed a few packets. I also stocked up on Honey Stinger Waffles, which are *almost* vegan, except for honey. The Gingersnap and Vanilla are my favorite flavors.
When I got "home," it was time to put my feet up and relax. Literally. What you see in the photo below is pretty much how I spent the day before the marathon. I never sit still but to run well,youneed to chill well. I caught up on magazines and HGTV (after days on nonstop, horrible news on CNN, I needed to watch something cheerful). I knitted, and I napped.
At around 6:30pm I cooked my final pre-race bowl of pasta – which, after 3 days of carbs, I really did not enjoy. I also drank a small glass of Vinho Verde and still more water. Before bed, I laid out my kit on the coffee table so I could quickly get ready when the 3:30AM alarm went off. I also got the coffee ready to go and set out all my breakfast plates so I would have less to do when I woke up.
Though the alarm was set for 3:30AM, I woke before it went off and was amazed at how good I felt for getting up in what was essentially the middle of the night. I enjoyed my coffee, but my stomach could barely tolerate yet another bagel and hummus. I could only eat 3/4 of it and I had to force it down. I was not at all hungry and was all carbed out.
I quickly found parking in St George and with military-like efficiency, the volunteers herded me on a bus faster than you can say "Where's the porta potty?" A guy named Jason from the now infamous town of Mesquite, NV sat next to me. This was his 15th time running the St. George Marathon so I was all ears as he pointed out landmarks and offered tips along the 30-minute ride to the start line. Since it was still dark at gun time, he advised me to really keep my eyes open, because over the years, he had seen many a runner take spills in the first few dark, pre-dawn miles.
The start of the race was in the mountains of Pine Valley, elevation 5,240 feet. I expected it to be colder. Still, 40 degrees was chilly compared to the summer-like weather we have been experiencing in Philadelphia. To keep runners toasty, the race start featured many bonfires and free throwaway gloves and heat blankets. I arrived about 1 hour ahead. I wore throwaway sweatpants and a hoodie over my shorts and singlet and felt fairly comfortable. I had planned on eating a small banana and a Honey Stinger Waffle before the start, but was only able to eat the banana. My stomach just felt off. In retrospect, I think I may have consumed too many carbs in the previous days.
Everyone said the race always started on time at 6:45. So I made one final porta' potty trip and lined up at 6:40. There were no corrals; the start was self-seeding. Since we were packed in like sardines and I only had 5 minutes to wait, I thought "What the hell" and tossed the heat blanket to the side, not wanting to trip on it.
Bad decision. Of course, Murphy's Law kicked in and the gun did not go off until 7:00 AM. 40 degrees is not cold when you are sitting in sweats in front of a bonfire, but when you're standing in shorts and a singlet, it's pretty damned cold. (I did have a throwaway hoodie draped over my shoulders, but it only did so much.) My toes started to feel numb, and I was literally shivering and shaking.
I was so relieved when the gun finally went off and I could start moving. The first few miles are a gentle downhill and runners took off like bats out of hell. My first of my two-part mantra for this race was "Focus, Form, Fun." So I focused with all my might on holding back. - a weird sensation when you learn as a 5K runner to go out hard and hold. But I had no intention of flying then dying after all the months of training I had put in. My toes did not feel warm until about mile 3 and I think I tossed off my hoodie around the same time.
Miles 1-7+ were a gentle downhill. The the course itself was exquisitely beautiful, which also made the first segment fly by. You start running in the dark - an odd sensation in a race. Then suddenly, wham!, a rose-blue shimmer emerges on the horizon as the sun starts to peek out behind the dark silhouette of the mountains. That warm morning light painted the entire landscape with a luminous golden glow, and I must admit, I shed a little tear of joy and happiness when I saw it, possibly fueled by Ani DiFranco's "32 Flavors" blaring on my playlist. I worked so hard to get where I am, and I felt so lucky to be out there in such a vista. Running marathons is not something I ever imagined I would be doing at age 52. At other points, paragliders soared above us and waved and kids flew their drones over the race. Cyclists dotted the bike path to the right – going uphill in the opposite direction uphill. I was glad I was not them.
At one point, I thought I would hitch a ride with the ClifBar 3:35 pace group. When they passed me, remembering the "Fun" part of my mantra, I decided to run my own race and not chase them. I took in a GU gel (Salted Caramel!) at around mile 6, and I sipped water at every water stop. Since I still have not perfected the art of running and drinking, I decided beforehand to speedwalk the water stops. It only ended up costing me a few seconds per stop but ensured I would remain hydrated in this dessert run. Splits were: 8:26, 8:34, 8:04, 8:02, 8:02, 7:55, 7:49.
Miles 8-12 included some beast hills. They were long and steep. The biggest one reminded me of Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon, only a little worse. Many runners walked up them. I focused on maintaining my effort. I also reminded myself that I had trained for hills and that these were no different than my long runs up Ridge Avenue here in Philly or than racing in the Mayor's Cup. I caught up with, then passed the 3:35 pace group. I started working on a bad of Sports Beans at Mile 12, and nursed them for the next few miles. Splits: 8:57 (huge hill!), 8:29, 8:30, 8:35, 8:19.
Miles 13-20 included some steep elevation loss. While this may sound great, running down such steep grades can actually be quite precarious. First, it is super hard on your body, especially if you have not specifically trained for it. Form is especially important; unless your form is impeccable, you stand the chance of burning out your quads, tops of toes and also your lower back and glutes. I reminded myself of all the time I had put in at the gym. I stayed laser focused on maintaining good downhill form, working with gravity and not against it. My half marathon time was conservative: 1:49:07, or 8:19 pace. After the half, I switched over to part 2 of my mantra: Form, Focus, Fast. I was feeling good and it was time to kick it up a notch.
Somewhere between mile 16 and 17, my heart rate monitor decided to have a meltdown. I was basically jogging this race, with my heart rate at the top of my Aerobic Zone 2, around 138-141. Suddenly, at the end of a very steep 8% downhill grade, my heart rate monitor read 196. I would be dead if my heart rate every got that high. It continued to read wonkily for the rest of the race. It was not really a big deal since I was running for fun and not really pushing it, so I continued to go by effort. I caught up to the 3:35 pace group again, and though I did not run with them, I kept them within eyeshot. Splits: 8:04, 8:08, 7:52, 7:45, 8:00, 8:10, 8:41, 8:15. I continued to feel great.
They say the marathon consists of the first 20 miles and the last 6.2. Miles 21-26.2, were hard. Not the worst I've ever felt, because I was running and not racing. But hard nevertheless. At this point, your body begins to ache because of the repetitive motion, further exaggerated by the relentless downhill. All around, you see runners walking, stoppjng to stretch and looking defeated. I felt a few niggles I had never before experienced. For example, even though I have dealt with gastrocnemius issues, my left soleus - the other calf muscle -- began to burn mid-race. I shook it out and also changed up my footstrike and stride for a hundred or so meters whenever I felt a twinge. Boredom also settles in at this point, along with that "I just want to be done" feeling. But somehow, you persevere.
I continued to ride the tails of the 3:35ers, and before I knew it, I could see the town of St. George in the distance. It was a bit like seeing Oz. I started to consume another bag of Sports Beans at Mile 20. I ate several over the next few miles, but at around mile 24 my stomach just said "Nope, nope, nope." I felt a tad nauseous - odd because I normally have a stomach of iron. Again, I think I may have consumed too many carbs in the carb-loading phase.
Anyone who runs a marathon will attest that the last few miles are the longest. Running through the town of St. George felt like an endless mile. I kept thinking "Am I there yet?" Finally, I turned a corner and saw the finish line balloons. I had gas left in the tank and crossed the finish line with a time of 3:35:18. A 6-minute PR for me and a negative split marathon! Splits: 7:58, 8:17, 8:15, 7:55, 8:13, 8:01, 7:34.
This was my first negative split marathon with the second half marathon being 3+ minutes faster than the first. And although I was tired at the end, I was not destroyed. I was also happy that areas that gave me problems during training - my gastrocnemius, high hamstrings and bottom of left foot - were total non-issues. It was truly a trouble-free, mostly pleasant run, except for my queasy tummy, which I was able to deal with. In retrospect, I can't help but wonder how I would have done had I decided to race this marathon instead of jog it.
Post-race and goals
Once you crossed the line, you could walk under spritz showers to cool off. I skipped them since I did not feel particularly hot. A volunteer placed the medal around my neck - made of local sandstone. Each one is different, just as each runner is different. It's definitely the most unique medal in my collection.
I walked to the post-race area and was surrounded by all kinds of food but I still felt queasy. I knew, for recovery's sake, I should eat something but the most I was able to get down was 3 or 4 grapes. Nothing at all looked appealing to me and my stomach felt gross. All I wanted to do was to stretch and drink some water. I changed into my recovery flip flops.
After I got back to the condo, again, I knew I should eat to speed recovery, but all I still felt nauseous and all wanted to do was take a nap, considering I had been up since 3:30AM. When I woke up about an hour later, I felt a little hungry so I decided to order in, being too zapped to drive even one mile. I craved Chinese food - some sort of spicy tofu dish with rice was speaking to me. But it was not meant to be. I called several Chinese restaurants, and several other restaurants. No one delivered. Apparently, there are only 3 or 4 restaurants in St George that deliver! (I am a spoiled city girl.) So I ended up ordering a pizza and a salad. Both were awful but when you are truly hungry you will eat anything.
The race was on Saturday and Tuesday was the first day I woke up with no soreness. Going down stairs was especially difficult. This is the most beaten up I've felt after a marathon. I think it was partly from the course and partly because I could not stomach eating anything immediately after the race to speed my recovery.
As usual, I had A, B and C goals and I like to keep my goals to myself until after the race. A goal was to PR in the 3:3Xs (Truly, I was thinking more like 3:38 or 3:39). B goal was to PR period. C goal was to have fun, which may seem like a lame goal, but if you are Type A like me, you know it is hard to push the competitive part of yourself aside. Somehow, I managed to reach my A goal and more importantly, my C goal. I even made it a point to high-five at least 5 kids as I ran. Amazingly, I placed 12th in my 50-54 age group – the best I've ever done at a marathon, said the 5K runner. Special added bonus: I qualified for the Boston Marathon by over 25 minutes (F50-54 qualifying time is 4:00) and qualified for the NYC Marathon, by 16 minutes (F50-54 qualifying time is 3:51). Most people do not know that New York has a more difficult qualification standard. I have maintained my streak of BQing and NYCQing in every marathon I've run.
Race Review: The good
- Superb on-course fuel and aid. Plenty of water and Gatorade, Later in race, volunteers handed out gels, bananas and orange slices. Spectators offered ice pops, high fives, funny signs, and words of encouragement. Medical staff stood ready with Vaseline, saline fluids, and massages. Later in the race, volunteers handed out washcloths dipped in icy-cold water. I took one and it was pure bliss.
- Hundred of cheerful volunteers both pre-race, during race and post-race. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
- Well organized
- Gorgeous, fast course. Mountains, canyons, valley, town.
- Abundant, clean porta potties. Longest I waited was 5 minutes.
- Bonfires at start to keep warm; showers at finish to cool off. What more could you want?
- Decent expo with good energy
- XSmall ladies shirt. Woo hoo!
Race Review: The not-so-good
- Deceivingly difficult course. While net downhill sounds appealing on paper, it is quite tactical and does a number on your body. If you do not train properly or maintain good form, you can really F yourself up.
- The shirts are junky and fugly. I gently pulled the "inspected by" sticker from the shirt and it immediately ran. See photo below.
- Meh swag. You received a cute gear check bag (which was unfortunately as flimsy as the shirt), a sticker, a protein bar and a leg cramp aid. I do not get leg cramps. The protein bar contained whey. Sigh.
Have you ever run the St. George Marathon?