Thursday, April 14, 2011

Moab Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 6; 11th Edition 
199.3 miles raced, 400 yards swam and 10 miles biked in 2011
Race: Moab Marathon
Place: Moab, UT       
Miles from home: 233 miles
Weather: 50 degrees; RELENTLESS wind


I am going to get the (very) few negatives out of the way here, first-off. The website for this race is atrocious.  It is confusing, written with horrendous head-scratching wording and out-dated. There.  That is said.  And if this was 1997 that would be acceptable.  But it is 2011 and it is not.  Why is it not acceptable?  Because the race course is fantastic and the race director obviously cares so freaking much about this race. It is a course that should be among the top races not only in Utah but in the United States; it has that much potential. So the fact it has a website which probably turns away hundreds of runners is unforgivable and I hope beyond hope that it gets fixed.

Having said that, let me say this: Wow. This was my first trip to Moab and in three years of living in Utah I was slightly disappointed it took me this long to get to this National Forest.  Most of my delay was that I was too busy seeing every other corner of the United States that I was unable to carve out the time to drive the 4 plus hours from SLC to Moab.  But now I have seen virtually every corner of the Beehive State and I am glad I saved this area for last.  Simply breath-taking and stunning.  I unfortunately deleted some pictures I took of the Arches National Forest so I am unable to post them. Luckily, however, my girl Shannon took some pictures as well and you can see how spectacular it is down here. Pictures never do sights like this justice, though, so I implore you to make your way down to this part of the state someday soon.


I had no intention to run a marathon in the month of April.  This was a month to continue to work on triathlons and other multi-sport events.  However, when Shannon came to visit, I looked around to see if there was a race we could run. Lo and behold the Moab Marathon appeared.  Run by the same gentleman who puts on a variety of races in Utah (all from the same website-grrr!) I knew what to expect: low-key, no-frills racing.

At the packet pickup, we saw there were probably going to be around 60 some racers in the marathon.  That is not a typo. This was going to be a small event; no timing chips; no spectators; nary a single band on the course playing Beautiful Day by U2. This was 100% fine by me. I looked over the roster of runners and recognized more than a few names I knew.  It was going to be like a little reunion! The race director was on hand and asked us as we came in if we would like a chocolate.  He had a batch of mini candy-bars next to him.  We were then given our finishers’ medals.  Wait.  I have a finisher’s medal before I even start?  Just another thing that makes this race different.  Even better was the fact that these wooden finishers’ medals had are names already engraved in the wood on them.  Now, that was special.  Reminded me of when we did a similar thing for the Drake Well Marathon back in 2006.

Having gone through the arduous process of this expo (ha!), Shannon and I went and explored Arches National Park.  We did not exactly wish to spend time on our feet walking through a national park the day before a marathon but we had little choice. One, with the reprehensibly dumb potential government shutdown looming we did not know if the park would be open the next day.  Two, the weather forecast called for cold rain and wind for the area the next day which may keep us from doing anything even if Congress removed its collective head from its collective ass. So we went to the park and were just completely taken aback by the beauty there. Knowing we would be running with this as a backdrop the next morning was making us giddy with excitement. We finished our hiking tour, got some food and our bellies and hit the sack early to get up the next morning at 4:30 AM.

Race Day:

The bus (yes, singular) left at 5:30 AM from the host hotel after a few last minute instructions from Curt, the RD.  There would be two starts to this race; waves, believe it or not.  The first wave would be dropped off at the start and head toward the finish. AS the race had a 5:30 time limit, this was used mostly for slower runner.  However, some chose to use this start to avoid the potentially bad weather forecasted for later.  My only problem was this was that it smacked of the same structure of the tri I did last weekend where you were potentially racing against people who were nowhere near you.  I hoped this would not affect the results at all. Fortunately, two of the people who I knew were some of the fastest in the race stayed on the bus.

The RD then explained he would have the bus go up to Dead Horse Point State Park to make use of the restroom facilities there before heading back to the start.  Why did he want to take us up there?  Because he thought it was so unbelievable that we had to see it.  That’s it.  How awesome is that?  The RD loved the area so much he was taking a bunch of adults on a brief family tour!  As he explained this he walked through the bus carrying a jar of Twizzlers, a box of Kudos granola snacks, about three bananas and I think, a part of a watermelon. He wanted to make sure those remaining on the bus got something to eat. You cannot make this stuff up!

I could go on about Dead Horse Point State Park but let me just say it was beyond worth the trip. More or less the start of the Grand Canyon, this area left us all without words.  As we meandered around the park after using the bathrooms like a bunch of tourists, few words were exchanged.  A honk from the buss (we called it “Mom and Dad”) reminded us we needed to get on board to go back and run a marathon.  Get your buddy! Make sure everyone is on the bus!

A few minutes later we had all disembarked and were lined up and ready to go. We were told there were a few cattle guard crossings which would have plywood on top of them so we could get over them, the aid stations would have water and Gatorade and that we would start in 15 seconds at the sound of this airhorn. We lined up (sorta), Curt pulled his truck ahead, counted down, pushed the airhorn…and nothing happened.  So he yelled “go!” and we lurched forward (sorta) not exactly knowing if we had started until we saw Curt giving the universal “come on!” sign with his hand waving in a circular motion.  The race was afoot!

First 10k: 6:16, 7:28, 6:09, 6:45, 5:59, 6:23

Almost immediately one runner shot forward in front of me, after I lead for all of 100 feet.   Knew this runner and knew he always tends to go out way too fast and then simply tries to hold on, so I was not too concerned. And while the first two mile markers were a little askew (hence the large differentiation between times) I knew when I passed in 6:16 with him about 15 seconds in front of me that there was no way he would keep that pace. When we made our first turn at two miles, I looked back and did not see a single other runner.  This was going to be a two-man race.

I thought I knew the race course’s elevation but would later learn that course had changed and what I thought I knew was incorrect.  I was expecting a steady rise from miles 4-8 but instead we had a flat or generous downhill.  As such, I was holding back some, readying myself for the uphills.  As the runner in front of me was not from elevation I knew any uphill would slow him, especially here at 6,000’ above sea level. When the uphill never came, I simply decided to pick it up a notch and close the gap.

At one cattle guard in the road (google this if you don’t know what it is) there was no plywood so one simply had to be a little dicey in stepping across it.  No big deal.  I find the metal grating of the NYC Marathon’s bridges to be tougher.   As we approached one aid station it was still in the process of being set up, so that slowed us both down just a touch.  No big concerns here.  I could see that one of the people setting up the aid station was the bus driver who took us to the start.  Apparently this entire operation was being run by about five people. Simply astonishing.  I made it a point to thank them over and over again, which was made possible by the fact that they were almost at every aid station!

To the Half: 6:36, 6:48, 6:11, 6:32, 6:42, 6:34, 6:10

The previous map on the website stated that mile 8 would be the biggest bump in the course.  When the run continued on his downward slant around mile 7 I realized for the first time this was a different course.  At one point the Race Director’s truck flew past me and came to a screeching halt in the middle of the road.  No matter since there was a single other car around these parts for miles.  Curt jumped out of the truck and held a little 6 ounce bottle of water for me saying "I heard the first aid station might not have been set up in time for you two speedsters.  Here you go!”

Seriously?! I was incredulous.  What a fantastic gesture. I assured him that while it was slightly inconvenient there was nothing to worry about. I drank the bottle down and threw it back behind me towards the truck so he would be able to keep the entire park pristine and clean.  At each subsequent aid station, the same two people who had set up the first one were there again to cheer us on.  I could see the course began to run uphill just a bit around mile nine and that the lead runner was coming back to me a touch.  As predicted, when we hit the uphill I closed the gap, even running more conservative than I could have. Cresting the top of this hill, I almost came to a standstill as the entire valley and columns of stone and millions of years of erosion from water and wind laid out before me was a visual unlike few I have ever see.  I could not believe I was running a marathon here!
As the downhill section grew in length I was told by one volunteer that the next few miles were the most downhill of the whole course. As such, I decided it was time to pick up the pace a little bit.  The 11th and 12th miles was obviously a little long (many of the mile markers were obviously just “guidelines” and not something you needed to set your heart to) as I had definitely accelerated both on purpose and by the downhill grade.

A helpful volunteer confirmed my suspicion about the steepness so I simply let the 13th mile fly.  As the road twisted and turned, cutting a literal swath through the red rock around us, I found myself with my head on a swivel.  By the time I remembered I was in a race, I could no longer see the lead runner.

Onto Mile 20: 6:48, 7:09, 7:22, 7:05, 8:25, 7:39, 7:14

When the road finally straightened, I could finally see the lead runner and he was not nearly as far in front of me as I felt he might be.  Over the next few miles, which were all either gradual downhill or flat, even as I could see my mile splits were slowing slightly, I began to gain on the lead.  Having already passed a few of the early starters for the marathon, I passed more than a few in this area between miles 13 and 17.  The predicted rain and thunderstorms did not yet appear and being able to see dozens of miles from where I stood, I did not think there was any chance they would at all.

I knew we have one final right hand turn to make and then we would more or less follow the US 191 all the way to the finish. I crossed over a set of railroad tracks and could see the leader beginning to slow even more.  In fact, he was slowing considerably. Hmmm. I grabbed a glass of water from the RD who once again was setting up an aid station with his own two hands, made the right turn and was stood straight up. A 35 mph wind took my running stride and leveled it. I was ramrod-straight and almost immediately without breath. Wow.  I chuckled inwardly as I was wearing the same singlet I had been wearing for the Mesquite half-harathon last November when the windiest race I ever have run almost blew me off the course.  I made an executive decision to burn this singlet as soon as the race was over.

Experience helps a great deal in any footrace. Over time I have become very adept at running into a stiff breeze.  It still hurts.  It still knocks me around.  But I can gain extremely large chunks of real estate in a very short period of time.  It helps I carry a little more girth than your average sub-3 hour marathoner.  The leader seemed to lack both girth and experience.  Within half of a mile I had all but closed the substantial gap between us.  By mile 18 and change, when he pulled over to help himself to water at an aid station, I flew past him.
Into a tunnel that went underneath the highway and continuing on the newly-built bikepath on the other side, we were given a brief respite from the wind.  Very brief.  Soon it was blowing with no abatement whatsoever. It was so loud, I could not here anyone behind me, even when I passed an early starter and listened for their footsteps.  So, I pressed forward hoping I was putting distance in between myself and the once-leader.
At mile 20, a hill over a mile long with a 7% grade appeared.  Again, hewn right through stone, this course caught my eye and I could not help but drink it all in the best I could.  

To the finish: 6:26, 6:37, 7:35, 7:49, 7:31, 8:12, 1:36

Right before mile 21, drinking too much of the scenery, the once-leader passed me and became the leader once more.  The wind had died in this ditch and the walls were keeping it at bay, but only for a short period of time. As the leader built a ten meter lead, I resigned to the fact that if he could beat me in this wind, then the victory was rightfully his.  But he most assuredly was not a fan of the wind and it continued to blow him all over the course.  As his lead shrunk, we came upon the aid station at mile 22. Stopping to grab two glasses of liquid, the leader seemed spent. He spent a few seconds leisurely drinking and I decided that if it was going to be a race to the finish from here, I needed my liquid too.  I grabbed a big glass of nice cool water and drunk it down.  The leader, having drunk one glass, was still simply walking forward.  Now was the time to make my move.

Blowing past him while he started his second glass, I buried my head into the wind and forbade myself from slowing.  My shoulders ached from the strain of fighting the invisible foe and my stride was reduced to a shuffle where my feet barely skirted the ground. Unsure if a challenge would be presented, I continued forward. First I passed mile 23.  Then mile 24 came and went.  The wind strengthened here in this section as we passed by the entry to the Arches National Forest I had been so lucky to see the day before. I took another solid swig of water at the mile 24 aid station and allowed myself a look back to see where my chaser was. A full hundred yards behind me, he was looking as if his day were over. I decided now was the time to end it.

Pushing forward with more effort than I had all day, the wind seemed to sense my desire to be done and picked up even more.  I passed mile 25 and as we got close to the Colorado River, I could taste victory. The bicycle path finally swerved away from the highway right before the river and hooked to the left.  I followed it and came to a fork. Crap. Where do I go?

I then remembered the instructions telling us to follow the bikepath across the newly-constructed footbridge up ahead.  So I did just that. Even coming to a complete and full stop for a few seconds here, I could see by a quick glimpse over my shoulder that I had still widened my lead. Over the footbridge, with the river that helped carve this gorge swirling muddily beneath my feet, I knew I was about to win. I went down the entry way to the footbridge, took a 180 degree turn and went underneath the highway. I looked behind me and saw not a soul in sight.

Crossing under the highway and then back onto the side of the highway on the other side I knew I was less than a quarter of a mile from being done and being out of the grip of this ridiculous wind.  One final glimpse over my shoulder revealed no chaser anywhere.  To be honest, I was surprised I had opened such a large lead and actually looked on the other side of the road to make sure he had not mistakenly taken a shortcut.

Through a dirt parking lot I went, down past some cones and a woman with a cowbell greeted me with a “woo.” I was done. 

I won my 3rd marathon ever. Couple this with wins in 5ks, half marathons, ultras and other races and I have now actually and literally broken a tape at just one single race in my life: the Drake Well Marathon where I made sure that the race had something for the lead winner to feel across their chest when they were done.  It is a crying shame that this is not understood by every single director of every single race ever.  The winner needs to break something, even if it is a piece of kite string.  Very few people ever will get to win a race; they need to experience that feeling.

As a few early starters had crossed the line before me, they joined the RD in congratulating me on my victory.  My time of 3:01:59 meant I had lost ~12 minutes in the last 7 miles of running because of the wind.  Brutal. I then wasted no time in quickly getting to my car and driving back onto the curse to cheer on Shannon.  By the time I had entered my car and pulled out to the highway, the second place finisher still had not crossed.  It appears he made some sort of a wrong turn coming off the footbridge.  I am unsure how or why but he apparently lamented that this had killed any chance of him winning the race.  One of the participants who heard him say this said “If he had any chance of winning the race, he would have been close enough to you to see you make every turn.  He obviously wasn’t as close as he thinks he was!”


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