Thursday, October 10, 2013

St George: Never in my wildest dreams...

(warning - if you don't like swearing - you probably shouldn't read this !!!)

Struggling to run through the hottest Denver summer on record in 2012, I made myself a promise -

"No autumn marathon in 2013"

So what did I do ?  Of course.  In the spring of 2013, I entered the lottery to run St George that October.

Then at Boston in April, I finally ran the sub-3 marathon I'd dreamt about, and then another 20 days later.  I was marathoned out.  On the eve of the lottery results - I was hoping I'd get rejected.  Take the summer off.  Maybe run a December marathon, or just wait until Tokyo in 2014.  I don't want to train in the summer heat.  Hell - I really don't think St George is suited to me.  It's normally hot.  I hate running in the heat.  Please don't get selected.

With that kind of attitude - there was only one possible outcome from the lottery.

"Congratulations - you've been accepted."

A number of friends got in too, so I tried to motivate myself.  After setting a half marathon PR in June, I promptly got injured with a  high ankle sprain and was out for a couple of weeks.  In mid-July, I started up again.  Slogging through the summer heat.  I didn't have the same pep in my step as I had earlier in the year.  My legs were heavy.  My paces seemed a little slower, my enthusiasm definitely dimmed.

In September I ran a half marathon as a training run.  Despite finishing third, it felt like I was working far harder than my time of 1.28 suggested.  Then 10 days out from St George - I did an 800m repeat session on the track, and had to bail after 5 repeats.  I blew up.  Not exactly confidence inspiring.

Still - St George is in a beautiful part of the country, and a bunch of friends were going.  I was determined to make the most of it.

For the geographically challenged, St George is located in the far south western corner of Utah.  From Denver - the quickest way to get there is to fly to Las Vegas, and drive the 120 miles to St George.

So that's what I did.  Interesting fact - hardly any races in Utah are on Sunday.  It's something to do with the local people and magic underwear apparently.  Anyway - race day was a Saturday, so I flew to Las Vegas on the Friday.

A 2 hour delay at the airport, and then a horrendous line at the car rental company raised my stress level, but I was finally in the car and on the road by 2pm.

On the drive I spoke on the phone with my coach Benita and we talked strategy.  I honestly felt like my form was probably good for a time of around 3 hours.  I told B I'd rather go for it and try and run 2.55, with the rather large risk that I could detonate and run 3.30, than play it safe and run a time around 3 hours.  If I'm flying to a race, paying for a night in a hotel - I'm going to go for it.  Sod the cautious approach.  She agreed.  Fortune favours the bold.  And other cliches that typically go out the window at mile 20 when the wheels come off and you just want to find a hole, lie down and die, and have some dwarf like character cover you in dirt....

I'd gotten hold of a spreadsheet for the course that took into account the topology.  Laughably a goal time of 2.55, suggested a first half of 1.29.30, and then a second half of 1.25.30.  Ridiculous.  I've never negative split a marathon in my life.  And to think I could run the second half of a marathon in 1.25 - inconceivable.  Still - that was the plan going in.  And you wonder why I wasn't confident ?!

I rushed through the expo, checked in, and immediately went out for a thai dinner with friends.  "As spicy as you can make it please, mate".

Then back to the room to try and calm down and get some sleep.  I popped sleeping pills and finally nodded off.

St George is an early start.  The race begins at 6:45am.  The buses to the start from 4am.  My alarm went off at 3:30am.  I ate just a bagel with a honey stinger gel smeared on it (surprisingly good), chugged plenty of water, took care of 'business' and then headed to the buses.

Over 14 marathons in under 4 years, I think I've finally gotten the hang of pre-race nutrition.  No depletion run for me.  No copious amounts of ultra-fuel.  A simple bagel 3 hours out, my stomach is then empty by the time I start and I can take in a large number of gels.  The plan was to take a gel just before the gun, and then one every 4 miles.

Once again I'd scored an 'elite' bib.  I'm not sure how they categorize that - clearly based on the 'predicted' time you give when you sign up, but a big advantage none-the-less.  St George has an elites only area at the start, with a large number of porto potties, and easy access to the drop bag area and starting line.

The weather was cold (mid 30s) and windy.  I'm a cold weather runner and was relishing the conditions.  Except when we were standing around at the start.  Bloody brass monkeys....  I met up with friends from the RWOL forums and we huddled around one of the fire pits.

6:45am on the western side of Utah and the mountain time zone in October, is very much still night-time.  You start in the dark and run the first 3 or so miles by the light of the moon and stars.

We shivered as we waiting, and then finally were off.

Let's get this out the way.  St George is a big net downhill course.  For those who've not run it before - they make the assumption that it's going to be screamingly quick.  Strap on the roller skates and off you go (sorry Adam !).  I know I did when I ran it 2 years previously in 2011.  Turns out - it's not quite as easy as it looks on paper.  The first half has some considerable climbing too.  Miles 8 to 12 are all net uphill, including mile 8 where you literally run up the side of a volcano.  It's more than twice as long, and twice as high as Heart Break Hill in Boston.  193 feet of climbing that mile alone, and 375 feet in that 5 mile stretch.  Then there's something about the downhill start - tempting you to go too quickly - then those miles of climbing, that can do a number on your quads.  Very similar to Boston.  When the second half starts - if you've gone out too quickly - your legs are trashed and you can't handle the downs.

That happened to me last time, where I'd gone in convinced I could go sub 3 - and ended up with a 3.04, slowing dramatically the 'easier' second half.  Yet another positive split for my growing collection.

Fortunately I'd learned that lesson.  So this time I was determined to go out easy.  A goal of 2.55 is an average pace of 6.40 minute miles.  The gun went off.  Just a few seconds to cross the line, as runners streamed past me on both sides.  I kept pressing the light button on my garmin in the dark so I could read it and make sure I wasn't going too quickly.  Determined to stick around 7.00 min pace.  I ran with Charlie, and we commented on how fast everyone was going.  He suggested we'd probably see many of those people again later.

We did.

Mile 1.  6.58.

I had printed out a pace band, but it was too dark to read it.  Another lesson from last time.  I'd memorized the first 3 mile goal splits.  I knew the next was slightly quicker, but still slower than overall goal pace.

Mile 2.  6.51.

Nice.  So I've started slowly.  Easing into it.  The next 5 miles are downhill - need to pick things up a bit.

Around this time I lost contact with Charlie.  He told me he was nursing an injury, and didn't want to push things too soon.

The dark is fading slowly.  From being almost pitch black, you start to make out the close scenery.

Mile 3.  6.34.

I was running with a 24 oz bottle of water, but was also drinking water at every water stop.  In cooler weather - this seems to be the winning formula for me too.  I'm finally starting to figure some of this marathon stuff out.

Now you could make out the hills and mountains in the growing dawn light.

Mile 4.  6.26.


Mile 5.  6.37.

Just taking what the course was giving me, but staying well within myself.  As it got lighter, I made out another friend Adam, just ahead.  I gradually caught him and then we ran together.

Mile 6.  6.35.

Up ahead the form of the Veyo Volcano.

(you don't actually run over the top - just half way up the side)

Official tracking had me through the first 10K in 41.21, @ 6.40 overall.

Mile 7.  6.40.

Charlie appeared next to us.

That was it for the downhill - now the uphill section was about to start.

I'd run the same hills with Charlie two years before.  He on his way to a 2.56, me on my way to that 3.04.  The guy was 53 years old then - now he was 55.  Damned impressive dude.

Up Veyo we ran.  Even effort.  Knowing the next few mile splits were going to be a lot slower.

Mile 8.  7.21.

Over the top of the big hill, but still going up.  Gel.

Mile 9.  7.05.

Adam and I had pulled away from Charlie a little.  I didn't see him again to the finish, but he ended up running 2.58 - first in the 55-59 age group.  With an injury.  Like I said - damned impressive dude.

Mile 10.  6.56

Try to take in the scenery.  Mountains in the distance.  Canyons close by.  Lava fields along the side of the road.  The sun was finally up, but fortunately it was still fairly cool.

Mile 11.  7.06.

Now the uphill was less.

St George had given us the option to set up text tracking for up to 3 people.  At Boston - knowing people were 'monitoring' me had really helped keep me honest.  Kept me accountable and giving me a bigger impetus to keep going when it started hurting.  So I'd signed up my 3 people.  My coach Benita, running friend from Boston, Lisa, and a friend from Denver.

Mile 12.  6.48.


Adam was running it as a training run - taking things easy until the last 10K.  I checked my elapsed time and saw I was about 10 seconds behind target.  Sub-consciously I pulled ahead a little.

Mile 13.  6.34.

Through the half in 1.29.25.  Thought about the 3 people receiving texts messages.  I was bang on target from the spreadsheet.  Which was all well and good - except I was now supposed to do a big negative split.  I'm a classic fader.  Get to 20, and then try and hang on.  Usually giving back gobs of time those last 6 miles.  Just trying to minimize it.  Here I was supposed to run them that much faster.  Crazy.

Now I was on my own too.  The race was spreading out, so I slapped on my headphones and tried to run 1 mile at a time.  It was still feeling easy though.  I was reminded of the expression - "if you don't feel like you're going too slow in the first half of a marathon - then you're going too fast".  Some famous bloke - Ron someone - said that in Running Times.  This was probably the first marathon I've raced, where I felt like I was really holding back that first half.

Mile 14.  6.32

Mile 15.  6.15

Some nice downhill here - and more spectacular scenery - this a canned shot of Snow Canyon at mile 15

Mile 16.  6.16


Mile 17.  6.26

Mile 18.  6.22

I remembered the next mile from 2011.  A cruel uphill section with a nasty little double-dip.  That had partly broken my spirit then.  This time I was ready.  Despite feeling like I was taking it easy on the hill, I found myself continually overtaking.  Over the crest, a short down, and then up for the second half of the hill.  I was ready for you.  You're not getting me this time !  Mentally much stronger than last time.

Through 30K in 2.04.27 @ 6.41 average.  Almost back on track for that 2.55 goal.  So far so good for those keeping me accountable via text.

Mile 19.  6.42

I remembered Benita's words of advice to me before Berlin the previous year.  Pretend you're on a bus those first 30K.  Use as little energy as possible.  Then at 30K - you need to get off the bus and start working.  In Berlin - I'd been forced off the bus long before the 30K mark.  This time I felt like I could probably coast on it a while longer.

Mile 20.  6.25


Once again thinking about last time I ran.  At mile 20 I was still on for that sub 3, then fell apart.  Take nothing for granted.  Time to get off the bus now and work.  It was finally starting to hurt.  No shit.

Mile 21.  6.12

Wow.  That was a quick mile.  Steady does it.  There are still 5 miles to go.  You've felt good 5 miles to go before.  It can change very quickly.

Mile 22.  6.28

Just 4 miles left.  Check my watch and realize I'm easily going sub 3.  Keep this up and you *might* actually get close to 2.55.  That would be a 30+ minute BQ.  Gotta love getting older.  Stop.  Don't think that way.  One mile at a time.  I stop looking at my pace band and just decide to run by feel.

Recognize the water stop.  This was where I stopped to walk last time.  Not today.

Mile 23.  6.21

Crike.  I'm flying.  Now I've just got 5K to go.  Start mentally trying to figure out what time I might end up with.  I seriously could get 2.55 if I can hold this together.  Hell - I could run 9 min/miles now, and still go sub 3.  How times change.  Sub 3 was that elusive barrier for so long.  6 failed attempts.  And now I could cruise in at recovery pace and run one.

Don't tempt fate you idiot.  Worry about catching the person in front.  Stay in the moment.

Mile 24.  6.16

Wow.  6.16 ?!  Where the heck is my patented fade ?  Despite being only 2 miles out - I took another gel.  My stomach and energy levels felt great, but I didn't want to tempt fate and run out of steam.  Stick to the plan.


Now we're off the main road and working our way through the streets of St George.  It's flat.

Just 2.2 miles to go.  That's a lap of Wash Park in Denver.  Think about the tens of laps you've done there, both solo, and with your training mates.  Often struggling to hang on to the heels of faster runners.   I know I can deal with this pain for just over 2 miles.

Mile 25.  6.28

Just 1 mile to go.  Tracking a woman up ahead - I'm gaining on her.  Trying to use the booty draft method to keep my mind off the pain.  I'm definitely having to work now, but it's not hard.

Suddenly a runner blows past me with a 'looking good Richard'.  It's Adam, doing his last 10K fast.  Dude is hoping to go sub 2.42 at Tucson, and based on this - I'm certainly not betting against.

For a few seconds think about trying to chase him, then my legs tell me to shut up.  Make the turn and onto the long finish straight.  Balloons in the distance.

Mile 26.  6.21

Gaining on a runner - pick up the pace.  I want to get him before the finish.

Strain my eyes up ahead.  There's a clock at the line.  Can I go under 2.55 ??

See it tick past 2.55.  Fuck !!!  After all that !!!  No wait.  That was 2.52.  Seriously ?  Are you fucking kidding me ??  It's now starting 2.53.  And I'm coming in fast.

Crowd cheering, announcer telling me the name of the person I've just overtaken.

And over the line.  Last 0.2 @ 5.53 pace.

Stop my watch.  Officially, 2.53.22.

And only Adam had over-taken me in the last 7 miles...

Are you fucking kidding me ??

I feel great.  I could have kept going.  I punch the air and yell.  I shout.  Whooping and hollering.  Hell yes.  Fuck yes.  I don't believe it.  Grinning like an idiot.

A photographer is there and I give him the victory sign, catching the elation.

No bloody way.  I've just run 2.53.  Me ?  Me ??!!!!  For so long I dreamt of going sub 3.  Something I wasn't sure I'd actually achieve.  Now I could probably have run another mile and still gone under 3.  No sodding way.  Pinch me.  2.55 was a stretch A-goal that I didn't actually believe I'd be able to achieve.  I've just run the second half of a marathon in 1.23.57.  That's my 3rd fastest half marathon, and only 55 seconds behind my PR.  No way.  This isn't real.  I've got to be dreaming.  I can't have done this.

Apparently I did.

Writing this a few days later - I'm still not completely sure how.  Clearly there were a lot of things in my favour.  The weather was ideal.  The course was fast.  I'd run it before and learned from that experience and knew not to make some of the same mistakes.  Maybe altitude came into play - living in Denver and dropping down in altitude to St George.  Mentally I didn't have a 'block' - there was no sub 3 barrier I had to break.  I could run freely by feel and not worry about sticking to a specific pace.  Sure - I wanted to run a PR - but I was completely okay if I tried and then blew up.  I didn't have any self-imposed pressure.  Running with others for part of the race had helped keep things relaxed.

Maybe that's the answer.  Don't care.  Go in wanting to do your best, running smart, and putting yourself in a position - and then letting the cards fall as they may.   Clearly I was in better shape than I'd thought.  I believe the cumulative effect of multiple quality marathon cycles certainly adds up.  After trying for so long to run under 3 hours, I'd done it in each of my 3 marathons this year.  Each a little quicker.  2.58, 2.57, 2.53.

I don't know if that can continue.  This race felt almost like the perfect storm.  A multitude of factors coming together for that one 'perfect run'.  Whether I ever run faster or not - I'll always remember this run.  For how easy it felt.  For how there was no fade.  For how genuinely shocked and elated I felt at the end.  That's never happened for me with a marathon.  Normally the time is slower than I expect.  I was shocked to see it this time.  After Boston, and even Colorado - I felt I could have run a little faster.  A little smarter.

No such thoughts this time.

Truly the perfect storm.

I turned on my phone and was humbled by the enthusiastic messages of support via text and facebook.  So thankful for my running friends.  You're seriously an amazing, inspiring, supportive group.  I'm extremely fortunate to be part of such a unique community.  Stumbling upon the RWOL forums 4 years ago and the subsequent friends I've made, and then my training group in CO, has literally helped change my life.  Thank-you everyone.  I very much doubt I'd have run this without you.

Speaking of which.  I had a late afternoon flight out of Vegas to catch.  But there's always time for margaritas with friends...


  1. This is so exciting to read Rich! Congratulations on an awesome race. Perfect storm or not, you're the one who ran a 2:53 marathon!

  2. That was awesome! Though really, if you can't negative split St. George you're really bad at pacing. ;-) No, seriously, I think holding back before Veyo is key to being able to slide through the second half comfortably, and that's exactly what you did - beautiful! Looks like you need a new 'Sub 2:50' shirt...