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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

2013 St. George Marathon – Part One: The Race

At mile 22, I knew I was going to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

At mile 24, I was certain I wasn’t even going to finish.

I’ll use another post tomorrow to give my general opinion of the St. George Marathon weekend in all its glory, but today, I’m just remembering the race and the hours leading up to it. And there were several hours. Why? Because I’m a sucker for a raffle.

The start line for the St. George Marathon is not close to St. George. It’s a point-to-point course that drops 2500 feet from start to finish. This means two things: first, if you’re going to check what the weather will be like at the start, the weather in St. George means nothing, and two, you’ve got to get on a bus to get to the line. In order to encourage more fools like myself to get to the line early and not crowd the late buses, they offer raffle prizes to those who board between 4:00 and 4:15 am. Yes, it’s impossibly early.

And though I didn’t win anything in the raffle, I did get an unexpected benefit to my early start. The open seat at the front of the bus was next to Scott, a 4-time St. George veteran who gave me a course tutorial as we drove up the hill. Most importantly, he warned me about “the wall,” a half mile hill that doesn’t seem to show up on any elevation map of the course and hits just before the 20-mile mark, when runners tend to hit the other kind of wall.

We arrived at line around 4:45, two hours before the gun time, and I spent most of the next 90 minutes huddling near various bonfires while trying not to inhale too much smoke. As the crowds began to build, I threw my check bag into the truck and wandered past the elite starting gate, wondering why they got so much space to themselves, and how on earth they were going to run the start with all the people standing in line for the bathrooms right there. As I pondered this, I heard the guy manning the entrance to the elite area say, “No, sorry, your bib has to be orange.”

Wait a minute, I have an orange bib.

I headed up to the man who checked my number and let me in to the warm up area where we had our own water, our own bathrooms and our own bonfires. Lesson learned, I guess. It was now about 25 minutes to the race, and I warmed up a bit, got lined up, and synced all the various technologies with which I run. The horn sounded a few minutes late, and we headed off through the darkness.

The first few miles were dark. So much so, that the run was almost eerie. I tossed my warm-up pants at the one mile mark and my sweatshirt at the two. As usual, I had some trouble establishing a constant speed, which was not helped by the fact that I had to use the light on my watch to see what it was. After a few rolling miles, things started downhill, and I caught my rhythm, just in time for Veyo.

Veyo, Utah is the first spectator area on the course, and you hit it around the 7-mile mark. I took my water and my first gel of the day and tried not to enjoy the cheering too much. I hit my 10K split right on goal time and looked up to the worst hill of the course, as far as elevation goes. It’s a roughly 120 climb over the course of a mile, but the bend in the road makes it seem like it’s never going to end. I pushed my pace a little, knowing that relief would follow, and I ended up fairly winded by the top. Still, we bent back down for the next mile, and I kept right on pace. More uphill through 10 and 11 before the great decline kicked in.

Now I was moving. I knew that 15 miles to go was no joke, so I focused on my pace, keeping myself from moving too fast on the downs or slowing too much on the ups. I increased my pace, as planned, and settled in, hoping to just keep going. And for a good while, I did.

Then I hit 17.

This is the point where I can always start to feel the work happening in my legs. In South Bend, I’d overdone it tremendously by that point, so the work spelled the beginning of the end, but on this day, I believed I still had it in me. And then I saw the wall.

It looked impossibly steep, but I had one bit of relief: it came earlier than I expected. I thought it was closer to the 20 mile mark, but in fact it built up to the 19. That may not seem like a big difference, but when you hit the last awful part of a course and that that “easy from here” feeling, one mile is a big change. I walked through the water station at 19 to fuel my heart and legs and took off down the hill.

At 22, I knew I could do it. But the wheels were starting to come off. There were more small uphills than I’d realized, and every one of them sent shockwaves through my quads. I had to walk through the water stations of 21 and 23, and by the time I hit 24, I really began to wonder if I could complete the race. There just wasn’t enough downhill to propel me forward, and my need to walk was increasing exponentially. Still, I kept doing math, knowing that the longer I ran at a strong pace, the easier the pace would be that would qualify me. And through all the music and noise, I was suddenly at 25.2 miles. One to go, and 10 minutes in which to do it and qualify for Boston.

Even coming down the home stretch, I still refused to celebrate. What if I tripped? What if I passed out? The infinite things that can go wrong at the end of a race started going through my head at a pace much faster than the one I was running.

And then the announcer said my name. And I went nuts.

It hurt. I was exhausted, and couldn’t really eat for the next two hours, but I qualified, a month and a half shy of my 30th birthday.

Boston 2015, here I come.

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