It started innocently enough…. I was analyzing my splits from the Hot Chocolate 15K I ran last winter and noticed that I was a good 45 seconds to a minute faster on the downhills than my regular race pace. I told a friend about this and she said “what you need is a downhill race!” Sounds rational enough, right?
I signed up for the Big Cottonwood Marathon in Utah at the beginning of June with the goal of qualifying for Boston. This race looked like a dream! There was literally no uphill at at all (aside from a few mild inclines at the bottom of the canyon) in the fall in Utah. It started at a little less than 10,000ft and ended around 5,000ft. It would be beautiful, fast and cool.
The race was the 14th of September so I had a little more than 3 months to prepare. It turned out to be a total of about 11 weeks for me because of a hip injury I got doing cross training.I’d been in physical therapy at ProHealth for about a month and my pain was better…better than it had been and minimal enough so that I believed I could run a marathon. I did the FIRST marathon training program and felt pretty good about where I was in terms of fitness so despite the injury, I hopped on the plane on Sept 12th and was on my way to Utah!
I had two friends joining me out there; one, Lacy, was a local running buddy who had friends in Salt Lake and the other, Natalie, was my dear friend from college. We trained together; Lacy and I in PTC and Natalie in Maryland (we used Garmin Connect to compare workouts). Thanks to Lacy’s friends we had a lovely place to stay less than a mile from the end of the race.
I arrived in Salt Lake on Thursday evening. Lacy and I went on a short and easy run on Friday. I felt good and couldn’t tell that I was at 5000 ft above sea level. We picked up Natalie from the airport on Friday and went off the the expo. *insert pic of Expo We picked up our numbers, got out t-shirts and drove to the Canyon to check out the course. The race was take place in Cottonwood Canyon at Guardsman Pass, so the first 17 miles would be inside a National Park. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but because it was in a park there would not be any public access during the race…which meant no crowd cheering. *insert Pic of Course Preview.
Our Easter Time Zone bodies woke up at the healthy hour of 4:15am. We were ready to go because time change really worked in our favor. It was in the 50’s and was drizzling slightly. There was a 40% chance of rain race day so we were kept our fingers crossed that it would hold off until after the race. With our gels, water, throw-away jackets and our great expectations/trepidations we were dropped off at the buses. *pic of us at buses The race organized a fleet of buses to drive us up the mountain- which seemed like a great idea until one took a hairpin turn to close and got stuck. We were 3 miles from the start, stuck in a bus and we were told we “just had to hang tight” …..can you imagine how it was for the bus drivers? Telling buses full of eager marathoners who could run 3 miles in their sleep to “hang tight” (Ha!)… it took all of 20 minutes before the mutiny. We piled out of the buses and trekked up the mountain. Luckily, the stuck bus was towed shortly thereafter and the abandoned buses were able to pick us up. As nice as it was to get a warm up, I really wasn’t interested in doing 29.2 that day!
The view from the top of the mountain was glorious. I bee-lined for the porta-potties (funnily enough, they were called “honey pots”) and then got in line with the 3:35 pace group. *pic of me stretching at start. Before I knew it it was time! We were off!
The first few miles flew by. I ran the first 5k in 22:20 min- it was impossible to run slower than a 7:30 pace. It felt easy and effortless. My friends and I were able to stick together most of the time. Pretty soon I found myself catching up to the 3:25 pace group around the 10k at 43:44 into the race (just for a reference point: my 5k PR is 21:50 and my 10K is 46:23). I was PUMPED. I was flying and aside from a little hip pain I felt like I could meet my time goal.
All of a sudden, I felt dizzy and started to see spots. I fell down to my knees and just stayed there for a bit. I watched my friends run off. I never even considered calling to them because they were on pace and I wanted them to stay focused. I stayed there for about a minute and a half and then got back up. At this point, if there had been crowd support, I might have quit (or been taken off the course by medical) but because there wasn’t anyone around I really didn’t have a choice. I started running again and found it increasingly difficult to breathe. I stopped and walked to catch my breath and felt my hip for the first time. I think that when I stopped so short I antagonized it. I quickly realized the pain was there to stay. I managed to get to the half in 1:34 ( which for me is CRAZY fast..my 13.1 PR is 1:47) and felt hopeful but I was in serious pain. I kept having to stop to catch my breath so I was essentially running intervals. I kept my eye on my watch and realized by mile 18 that there was no way I would be able to get to the end by 3:35. I knew I could push through and maybe get a PR but I honestly wasn’t interested in a PR. The altitude was kicking my butt, my hip hurt and by now (mile 17) I could feel serious quad fatigue. I went into the race knowing altitude might be a factor but had no way to know how much of one it would be. I made a quick decision to calm down, stop racing and just enjoy it. I was in a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains and foliage. Maybe I wasn’t going to BQ this race, after all. Maybe this was a race for me to learn from and make memories with. I started to wrap my brain around this and continued to the finished. For the first time ever, I meandered through the water stations. I said “hi” and “thank you’ to the volunteers. I high fived kids who were cheering on the runners. I actually got a good race photo! *good race photo pic I even stopped at a Physical Therapy tent and put some biofreeze on my hip and quads. In the end, I finished in 4:29, a full 35 minutes off my marathon PR. I was okay with that (trying to be okay, at least). Natalie made it down the mountain in 3:35:42..which was 42 secs off to qualify for 2014. However, she’s a lucky duck because she ages up next year and qualified for 2015! Lacey came it at 3:48 which was 12 minutes faster than her marathon PR. *pic of us at the end
When I came back to altitude (aka home) I found myself vacillating between pride and despair. I was super sore. For the first 48 hrs post marathon, I walked like a newborn giraffe. I was absolutely exhausted. Being so tired and so sore made it hard to see the silver lining but after the soreness faded and I was able to get a bit of exercise (endorphins!!) I started to come out of my emotional hurricane. I have had about two weeks to reflect and not run (as per my Physical therapist’s order at ProHealth), and despite the race being a monster that I was not prepared for, I would totally do it again. In hindsight, I should have signed up for the half. With the training time I had being affected by injury, I should have compromised but I couldn’t justify flying out to Utah for 13.1 miles. I keep looking back at those splits and think about what could have been…. so NEXT time, I will give myself a year to train for downhill running and go out with enough time to acclimate. It was the experience of a lifetime and I am so glad I was able to try it. I highly recommend this race to anyone who wants to fly downhill (for 26.2 miles!), see a beautiful course and push your body; mentally and physically. In the meantime, I will try and BQ the old fashioned way…on a flat course at low elevation.