It’s my proudest running moment. I crossed the finish line of the 2009 Top of Utah Marathon in 3:44:55, qualifying for the Boston Marathon and achieving my goal with a whopping five seconds to spare.
I am proud of the moment because I had to dig deep. I had to convince myself to keep running when I didn’t want to. I had to push my legs to go as hard as they could at mile 25. I had to sprint the final two tenths of the marathon.
It all starts at 4:30AM when the buses take runners up to the Hardware Ranch Elk Refuge which stands at 5600′. The Hardware Ranch encompasses 19,000 acres of the Utah Cache Valley and is the historical winter range for local elk herds. Today it is a working ranch who’s mission is enhancing big game winter range and other critical habitats, thereby maintaining healthy rangelands for all wildlife. In other words, it’s a gorgeous, peaceful and scenic place to start a run!
The first 18 miles drop you 1200 feet through Blacksmith Canyon. It’s fast! However, the final eight miles level out, include some rolling hills, and hit you with a number of neighborhood switchbacks. You climb 200 feet at mile 18, which normally would feel like nothing but this late in a marathon feels like you’ve slammed on the breaks and are heading in reverse. Just for fun, the course does it again at mile 22. If you’ve planned well, you should have plenty of extra time from the downhill to off-set the challenges of the final six miles.
My Utah adventure was shared with friend and frequent running mate, Kim. We both had trouble navigating the downhills. We didn’t know if we should book-it or pull back. We did both. I reviewed all my mile times. In the first 18, my fastest mile was 7:50 (oops!) and my slowest was 8:29. I was all over the place. Even in retrospect, I don’t know the right approach. My goal was to feel good at mile 18, which I did. I struggled at miles 21, 22, 23 and 24. At mile 25 I had about nine minutes to spare to break 3:45, so I just took off. I told myself there was no way I wasn’t going to qualify and that I could do anything for nine minutes. After one final street corner, I saw the glorious finish line. I sprinted, passing three people in the final stretch and getting under the arc just before the clock hit 3:45. It’s the first time I have finished a marathon and immediatley bowled over, hand to knees, head down. I finished 17th out of 169 in my age group (35-39). I had given it my all. That’s why it’s my proudest running moment.
The race itself was very well organized. There were aid stations, port-a-potties, and a clothing drop box at every mile. The race started cold and ended hot, so this little added touch was very important. The volunteers were fantastic, but aren’t they always. Running brings out the best in people, even if they aren’t the ones doing it. The shirts are cool, if a little small. The medal is fun, if a little big.
It’s the first time I enjoyed the pre-race pasta dinner and I am glad I did. Kim and I met a number of first timers and an equal number of Boston hopefuls. Our favorite was a man named John and his wife Meredith. John, 49, decided four months ago to run a marathon. Meredith, 48, recently beat cancer and was running the 5K. Three of their kids were with them. John and Meredith asked a ton of questions, making Kim and I feel as experienced as Deana and Paula.
Surprisingly, John found us the next morning warming by the campfire, two hours before the start. At first I couldn’t figure out why a strange man grabbed my arm and was asking me if I’d bought toothpaste (airport security took mine) and had enough sleep. Surely, he thought I was someone else. Then I realized it was John. Everyone looks different in and out of running clothes.
So Kim and I started asking him a bunch of questions. Turns out he runs two hours a day and peaked at 60 miles two weeks ago. We didn’t think he’d have any trouble with his first marathon. He said, “Some times I just don’t want to stop. I figure, I’ll just go another 15 minutes. And then I think I will go another 15 minutes. I usually stop because it’s dark.” Ahhhh…. and a marthoner is born. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if we run into ol’ John at a future 50-miler. I looked up his time and he finished in 4:10. Meredith finished her 5K in 32 minutes. Congratulations to them both. Part of what I love about racing is all the fine people you meet. They took the prize this time around.
I must also mention the people of Utah. Kim and I decided that the folks of Utah are the nicest people we have ever met. From our waitress to our hotel desk clerk to our bus driver, not a grumpy person in the lot. Everyone we met struck up conversation. It was odd and pleasant all at the same time. We almost didn’t want to come home!
In the end, the weekend was an amazing experience. While my race was the biggest of my life, my friend Kim – who is a 3-time Boston finisher, 14-time marathoner, and 3-time ultrarunner – had some major and unexpected breathing issues at mile 21. She had her own adventure that included paramedics, an oxygen mask, a blood test and the question “Would you like us to call an ambulance to take you to the hospital”. It’s worth it’s own blog another time.
It was a grand adventure for us both. Every marathon, good or bad, seems to provide a never-ending array of experiences and stories. I guess that’s why we do them.