Review of the St. George Marathon
April 3, 2007
The first thing you see when you look at the elevation profile of the St. George Marathon in southern Utah is that it seems to be nothing but beautiful, gentle downhill between the start line way out in the high desert past Snow Canyon, and the finish in downtown St. George, UT. Bullshit. You run a rolling course for the first 20 miles (slight overall elevation loss, some really huge uphills), and lose almost the entire chunk of elevation down an 8% grade road between miles 20 and 23. Just what you want after 20 miles of running: a road so steep they have to put a brake test area for trucks on the side of the road.
I’ve got some thoughts about marathoning that kind of coincide with the way the race went for me. First, the start. It’s dark, it’s crowded, and everyone is waiting for a bathroom. You hydrate for a week, and try to lose it all in the 5 minutes before the gun goes off so you won’t waste time during the actual race. Turns out, most runners still need to stop a time or two during the race. Some more than others. And some don’t stop at all, even though they probably should.
The gun goes off, everybody cheers, and nobody moves. There were something like 6,000 people signed up for this race; it takes a while to get a train like that moving. I had time to run to the bushes one last time and still make the start. Not that that helped.
I’ve heard the first 10 or so miles of a marathon described as “the stupid miles.” Ain’t that the truth. Everybody is happy, friendly, if you’re with someone, you joke and talk. The grim death march that is the last 6 miles is nothing but a shadowy foreboding, hardly even at the back of everyone’s minds. My brother-in-law and I spent the first several miles admiring the people around us. There was one huge man in a muscle shirt and gym shorts who startled us by making continuous horse noises as he ran. He’d apparently discovered some kind of tantric breathing mechanism that conserved oxygen as he ran that involved the fluttering of his lips every time he exhaled. As we watched the horseman go by, he actually lifted his arms and admired his biceps several times.
Another woman appeared to be some kind of perpetual motion machine, or maybe she was under the impression that she was still in her basement running on her elliptical trainer. Her peripatetic gyrations kept us amused for at least a mile or so. That is, until she disappeared up the road.
That’s right. Up the road. See, before you get all self-righteous on me and complain about how I’m making fun of people, let me tell you, I know these people can kick my ass. The first time I rode the Leadville, just as I was about to cross the finish line in a very respectable time of about nine and a half hours, I was passed by a sprinting 55 year old man on a rickety old rigid bike. I’m pretty sure he was also wearing jeans and a hockey helmet.
That’s one of the things about racing, endurance racing in particular. I can’t really speak for the people up at the front of the pack, for obvious reasons, but the cool (or demeaning, depending on your perspective) thing about endurance racing is that it is a fairly level playing field. Spazzes, old people (older than me, I mean), whatever, you can compete. In fact, these aren’t really races. They’re “events.” About 1 percent (yes, I pulled that number out of my ass) of the participants are actually racing. The rest of us are simply participating, and maybe racing against ourselves and our own private disabilities.
It’s a beautiful thing. The hard body encased in lycra (and I’m not placing myself in this category, again, for obvious reasons) is as likely to get passed in an endurance event by an old fat guy in jeans and cowboy boots as by a fellow 24 Hour Fitness aficionado. The grandmother who runs like she’s constantly swatting at a swarm of bats around her head is as likely to drop your ass as the 19 year old track star in the $200 shoes.
So the course rolled gently for several miles, and descended for a mile or two to mile 7, the Veyo valley. Eric and I had been running together pretty well, keeping to about a nine minute pace, which I was hoping to pick up in the second half and maybe average it out to around an 8:45 pace by the finish. But as we reached the valley, we could see a monstrous hill in front of us. This was no gentle roller, no gradual incline. It was more like a mountain pass, a five percent grade that climbed the flank of an old volcano for about a mile.
Luckily, at the bottom, I had reached the point where 7 miles of running had finally settled my huge Outback Victoria Filet dinner from the night before into my lower midsection, so I told Eric to go ahead and tackle the hill, because I needed to sit for a bit. Several people had the same idea, so it took me quite a long time to get the privacy required. It’s not as if I could use the side of the road just then, because there was a television news crew wandering the road right there trying to find out if runners were afraid of the mountain in plain sight up the road.
Here one is faced with a racing dilemma. You wait in line for a toilet. You finally get your chance after several wasted minutes. You do your business in record time. But due to race food and nerves, it hasn’t been the squeaky clean procedure you were hoping for. How much time do you spend on cleanup? You’re sweaty, you’re hot, you’re tired, and it’s only going to get worse in the 19 miles to come. Who cares? I compromised, and used half a roll instead of the whole roll I would normally consume. I ended up facing this dilemma 3 times during the race. I like to think of these pit stops as rejuvenating, rather than delaying. Wish I’d brought a magazine.
Which brings me to another thing that MUST GO. If one is racing, rather than participating, competing and contending rather than recreating, I can understand the urge to maintain pace, to not let nature get in the way of speed. But there were old women on a 5 hour pace who would simply move to edge of the road, and without breaking stride, pull their shorts to the side and expertly pee as they ran. What’s up with that? Lance Armstrong, I can understand peeing from the saddle. Grandma Wilson rolling along doing 11 minute miles? Hello? There was never a time during the race, until we entered St. George at about mile 23 that I didn’t see someone either sprinting for the bushes or returning from the bushes. Seems appropriate enough (discounting the eco-damage). But peeing mid-stride? So you can finish in 5:10 instead of 5:11? Stop it.
Outside again, I approached the point in the road where the young news reporter was asking passing runners if they were worried about the huge hill in front of them. I had worked up a complicated shtick to use: when she asked me about the huge hill ahead, I would blithely ask “what hill,” and when she pointed it out, I would grab my head with both hands, shriek, run around in circles, and re-enter the outhouse. That would be sure to get me on the evening news. But as I ran by, the woman totally ignored me. Not photogenic enough I guess. Another good joke died without an audience.
The hill was a monster, but I treated it like a bike climb. Just keep your head down, don’t look at the top, and churn. Many people were walking this hill, which might have been a good strategy, saving the juice for later, but I couldn’t resist the challenge. I ground it out, and at the top, I was just about to raise my arms in triumph, when I realized that I had only reached a change in grade, that the course didn’t stop climbing for another couple of miles, just visible on the horizon. Damn them all to hell. No, not the apes, the course designers.
About half way to the summit, I rejoined Eric, but he seemed to have slowed a bit, maybe as a result of having 7 miles be his longest training run of the year. We ran together for a half mile or so, and I bid him goodbye. I still had an idea of finishing in close to 3:45, and I wanted to see if I had it in me. (Spoiler Alert: I didn’t.)
I had expected to see my lovely and talented wife at about mile 16, and as I was approaching that milestone, I felt as good as I had felt the whole race. Passing the aid station, and coming up on the raft of spectators that had managed to find this remote outpost, I started running faster, and was prepared to raise my arms over my head again, and shout “I’m King of the World!” But Kim had been deceived by the creaky old lady at the registration booth who gave her directions on how to get to mile 16, so I only got to show off for the volunteers and voles.
The scenery was fantastic, and this part of the course was mostly gentle downhill. Until the big, unlisted nightmare hill at mile 18, which almost broke my spirit. Almost. But I’m a survivor.
Hitting mile 20 in a marathon is like going down the rabbit hole. Everything’s different down there. The same old rules don’t apply (Pi is a round number, gravity accelerates things at 40 feet per second per second, and Idaho is not a red state), and you do whatever’s necessary to survive. You pick out spectators and make their faces mental targets of verbal zingers to motivate you to finish. You fashion slights, however trivial, to create emotion and energy. And here in St. George, mile 20 is also where the road drops off the edge of the Earth. “Here Be Monsters.” And how. Only instead of “Here Be Monsters,” the sign at the side of the road says “8% grade ahead, brake check area.” It would be better to curl into a ball and roll down the road.
Running downhill can be fun. Trail running, it can even be exhilarating. After 20 miles of marathon running, it’s hell. But what are you gonna do? You run. Every step pounds your quads, and the blisters on the balls of your feet pop every couple of steps, and quickly reform new blisters on top of the old ones.
I saw my beautiful and supportive wife at mile 23. She seemed to have been expecting me earlier, so I had to wave my arms to get her attention, but she responded wonderfully. She ran (slow enough so I could keep up) along side me for a while in her sandals, yelling encouraging things into my ears, and telling me how good I looked, when I knew damn well I looked like smeared dog shit. She did her best, but a marathon is 26.2 miles, and she only got to run with me for about .1 miles of it. It’s lonely out there.
The last couple of miles are still kind of blurry, and I’m not sure if the passing of days has clarified my recollection, or simply blurred it, but this is what I remember: I remember the kind generosity of cheering citizenry, who had garden hoses spraying down grateful runners. I remember helpful aid station volunteers handing out hand towels soaked in ice water. And I remember little gremlins chasing me and biting at my feet.
I managed to motivate myself for at least a mile, from 24 to 25, by screaming at the little beasts. Out loud, using language that would make Quentin Tarantino blush. It certainly made the kindly old ladies blush in their lawn chairs in this quaint Southern Utah town. But it got me to the final turn.
The downside is, the final turn is almost a full mile from the finish line. I turned off Bluff Street, and I could see the big blue balloon archway of the finish line at the end of the road. So I turned it up a bit. But after a hundred yards or so, I was ready to die, so I had to back off. I think I kicked for the finish line at least 4 times. By the time I actually crossed the finish line, I had no kick left, and I barely crawled across the line, glanced up at the finish time of 3:53:27, and camped for several minutes in front of the first water mister I saw. Then I knelt down and removed my shoes, and crawled to a shady spot in the grass, laid down, and wept.
St. George Marathon Final Scores
Marathon gets an 8
I get a 2
Running gets a 0, and my big fat middle finger