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Race Report: St George Marathon 2016

I spent a lot of time preparing for the St George Marathon, but I’m having trouble coming up with anything meaningful to say about it. After months of running over the same stretches of semi flat trail trying to grind out ever longer tempo, and slightly faster speed and strength runs (I used the Hansons Marathon Method to build my training schedule for the last three months, it’s the first time I’ve ever tried a preformulated training calendar, and I’ll have more to say about it in a future post), I showed up for the race, shaved more than eight minutes off my PR, and still left the event feeling kinda bland and empty. Three weeks later that hasn’t changed much. I think I just focused too much on this one race, and crossing the finish line left me adrift. But I will ramble onward in my duty to provide barely coherent commentary to a minuscule audience.

St George is one of those semi-famous marathons. It’s not quite Boston, New York, or Chicago, but if you hang around in running circles long enough you’ll still hear about it often enough to rank it no more than a tier or two below them. It wins all sorts of awards (which they will tell you about endlessly on their website, in emails, and even over the announcements at the starting line, as though they’re still trying to sell you on an event you’ve paid for, trained for, and shown up to participate in) and has enough interested runners that they’ve had to instill a lottery system to narrow down who gets one of the (relatively) limited bibs.

The race starts way outside of town and closes off enough roads that your only option for getting to the start line is to load up onto a bus. In most races this whole process can be its own test of endurance, and it might just be that my standards have gotten low from bad experience after bad experience, but I’ll admit St George handled the transit about as pleasant as it can conceivably be done. For once I didn’t have to stand in line for an hour, and while the bus was still overcrowded and a little loud (what is it about school buses that makes everyone instantly feel as though the only conceivable method of communication is wild shouting), the driver had the courtesy to not turn the damn heaters on in a misguided effort to convert all the occupants to varying flavors of jerky. I’ve ridden buses to start lines in mid August where, despite it already being 70 degrees and rising outside, for some reason the heaters were still cranked to full blast. You shouldn’t be worried about heat stroke at six in morning. Speaking of heat, it was a tad chilly when we hopped off the bus, but not too bad overall. However, the race was prepped and ready to deal with all temperatures, ranging from moderate to blizzard. There was hot chocolate, people handing out gloves and space blankets, and most notably a bunch of bonfires to gather around and pretend grill smores. I skipped the fires to avoid a lung full of smoke and ash just before trying to run 26.2 miles, and instead sat off in a remote corner, near what looked a water treatment plant, and took note of the fact that, even though we were way out in the boonies, there were actually quite a few houses within a stone’s throw of the road. Which led me to wonder how the poor residents of those homes deal with this event every year. I imagine the full noisy set up, with equipment drop offs, sound checks, port-a-poties trucks, and so on, starts running early the day before, and once the runners arrive at 4 AM the next morning the spotlights, helicopter flyovers, and endless thumping ear vomit club “music” would be impossible to ignore. Is there like a “Fuck Sleep” for 36 hours moratorium over the entire neighborhood?

There were some bridge repairs along the course causing a hold up with some of the buses, and the race kicked off a little late, but it was still pitch black when we started moving. I heard some complaints about the darkness, but honestly it wasn’t so bad. The only thing you had to watch out for was the divots in the road along the center dividing line. Otherwise the sun came up soon enough that I could read my GPS watch after about a mile and a half, and meanwhile helicopters were doing flyovers to blast us with search lights. Besides, the race takes place in a desert and the earlier you get going the better off you’ll be. That finish line was hot when I got there hours ahead of the last survivors. I’d much rather deal with some dark patches at the beginning than shoe melting heat at the end.

A little ways into the race lies the town of Veyo, which was easily the highlight of the entire run for me. It’s a tiny little town, that doesn’t look like more than maybe 10 or 12 buildings, but it was packed to the rafters with people. I’m talking hundreds in a 3 to 4 block stretch. And all of them were bug nutty about the race, cheering their heads off, snagging high fives, and waving signs. Any one person in the crowd looked more into it then every last one of the moderately enthusiastic people over the last 3 miles in St George proper (although points for creativity to those along the final stretch, I’ve never exchanged a spanking to get misted down before). And it’s a good place to get pumped up, because it’s right before the “dreaded” Veyo hill (a 250 foot climb spread out across a mile, or as those of us who train in the foot hills of the Rockies call it “any random mile on every single run”) where you suddenly shift from casually skipping downward for 7 miles to the first of many extended uphill slogs. That’s the weird thing about this race. It’s a net downhill journey to the tune of a few thousand feet, but there’s a surprising number of slow and steady inclines, nothing too steep, but a few of them stretch on for multiple miles (I talked with a few other runners about this after the race and we all agreed, you’d never guess how long some of the hills actually are by looking at the elevation profile on the race’s website, I’m sure the graph is accurate, but its appearance is deceiving). And of course if it’s going to be a net down it’s got to make up for those ups by hurtling you over some sharp declines, occasionally wrecking a havoc on your legs (especially the ones over the last few miles before you hit St George itself, some people might say those late high velocity drops kept them moving near the end, but I noticed I was actually decelerating to soften the impact of each downward step, and not collapse into an mismatched pile of jello foam de quadricep).

And to fill my quota of incredibly random bitching, at one point we were going down a fairly steep hill, I wanna say around mile 14 or 15, and there was a surge of race related vehicle traffic (police, race support vehicles, etc) at the same time as a bunch of morons in their little motorized parachute gliders were buzzing back and forth about 40 feet overhead. It sounds paranoid, but the whole thing ended up being kinda unnerving. The fan engines on those gliders were loud as hell and sounded just like a car was looming right behind you, which, combined with the actual cars that were weaving in and out of the foot traffic, left me constantly glancing over my shoulder for a good mile or so as visions of being run down danced in my head (like sugar plums, but less seasonal). And, just a little bit before the final “big” uphill on mile 18 the road was suddenly and inexplicably sopping wet. Not kinda damp. Wet. We’re talking soaking every square inch, and mind the occasional puddle wet. Which was baffling. The dirt alongside the road was absolutely bone dry, so this wasn’t leftover morning dew or a regional shower. I have to assume some road or race worker came along and intentionally wet down a few miles of the course, and I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why. Aside from the obvious issues of occasionally having to dodge mild puddles and not slip on the slickened asphalt, the reason I remember this so clearly as a pain in the ass was the sun was really starting to come out as I hit this stretch, and the water was quickly evaporating, creating this weird little pocket tunnel of humid and muggy air that only existed where we were running.

Anyway I ran into some trouble around mile 21. So far I’d been doing pretty well, and even burst through the famed 20 mile wall feeling better than any marathon I’d done before. But all of the sudden my GPS watch couldn’t find its satellite signal, and I was running blind. It’s funny, I’d never run with a GPS watch until this past July, but I’d come to the point where I desperately needed the thing. It kept me from going too fast early in the race, and let me know when to pick it up if I ever started drifting in the middle stages. But what I was really relying on it to help with was that mental anguish that comes on late in the marathon, where your feet don’t want to move anymore, and the gaps between mile markers seem to stretch on beyond the human conception of time. I was hoping I would be able to glance down at my wrist and see that I was still making real progress whenever I needed a little pick me up. No such luck. The watch would catch on for the briefest of moments about three more times, and then flat out gave up and shut off at mile 24. Shortly afterwards the 3:25 pacer passed me, and kept everyone up to date with random yelps about pace, time, distance, and possibly quantum string theory (I was getting a little dodgy), but once he was out of shouting range that last mile felt like it stretched on for days. The worst thing was I could actually see the finish line from about half a mile away, but because it was looming out so far, it didn’t seem like I was actually closing in on it. That chute just went on and on, until I was finally close enough to see the ticking clock and realized I was going to PR by quite a bit. But at that point I couldn’t have been less interested. The real target was the multi-hose misting station just past the people handing out medals. It was enough to make me think heaven might actually be in Utah. But you have to go through hell to get there.

Overall Impressions: I’m a little torn on whether or not to recommend this race. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, and if you’re looking for a place to run your first marathon this one’s probably a good choice. There’s enough runners that you’ll never feel lost and alone, but not enough to where you feel overcrowded and penned in by everyone around you. The net downhill helps with some of the mental hurdles, and the course support is easily the best I’ve ever seen. Aside from the usual water, Gatorade, and gels, they had Vaseline and folks ready to rub down your sore muscles with Icy Hot at every station along the way. Moreover, the further you got along the more stuff they had available. Near the end there were baggies of ice, half popsicles, and, at one point in town, even cold damp towels to pat yourself down with. The race officials really go above and beyond to make sure things are set up as well as they can be to get you across the finish line. But… frankly there’s nothing aside from the support that stands out about the race. You’ll hear a lot about how beautiful the course looks, and maybe it is if you live in a huge city and haven’t seen anything but concrete for years, but from my perspective we mostly ran through some pretty desolate wasteland. Take a look at this course video and decide for yourself. Moreover, since you’re running in the middle of nowhere for most of the race there’s not much crowd support, which can be a huge turn off for some folks (for the most part I actually like it more when I’m isolated, it helps me focus, but a lot of people crave the adrenaline burst from a good set of cheers, and even I welcome it on occasion). So overall I’d give it a maybe. St George is just two hours north of Vegas, and anyone looking to feel like they earned their debauchery could do a lot worse than running these 26.2 miles. And as I said, first timers should sign up here with more confidence than a lot of other races. Aside from that though, feel free to give it a skip if you’re debating between this and another race that looks like fun in the same time frame.