On Sunday, August 17, 2014, I ran the inaugural Revel Rockies Marathon near Denver. Revel also sponsors the Big Cottonwood Marathon in Salt Lake City and the Canyon City Marathon in Los Angeles. I don’t usually do inaugural races, but I know several people who have done Big Cottonwood, and the reviews have been positive.
Revel’s signature seems to be downhill races. All of their races start in the mountains and finish in nearby cities. This one starts in a canyon in the Rocky Mountains, at an elevation of 10,297 feet. The finish is in the suburbs of Denver, at 5,759 feet. That’s a descent of 4,538 feet. Looking at the elevation profile, it seemed to be almost entirely downhill. It was less steep in the second half, but still downhill all the way to the finish.
Some people are attracted to races like this because they can run faster, giving them a chance to set a PR or qualify for Boston. I saw it as an opportunity to work on my downhill running. That’s been a big weakness of mine. I’m getting more comfortable with long gentle grades, but I worried this race would be steep enough to be uncomfortable. The only way I’m going to get better is to step outside of my comfort zone. Of course, if my legs could handle the downhill running, I would also aim for a fast time.
Denver’s too far to drive, but I was able to get non-stop flights at convenient times. Summer airfares are never cheap, but the fare was reasonable. My flight was on time, and I arrived Saturday in the early afternoon.
I usually like to go straight from the airport to my hotel. Instead I went to the expo first. The expo was at the EXDO Hall in Denver. It was near the freeway, and on the way to my hotel, so I stopped there first to pick up my race packet. The race packet included a Mylar blanket and gloves to help with cold conditions at the start.
I stayed at the Hampton Inn in Golden, which was one of the hotels offering discounted rates for the marathon. It was about six miles from Bandimere Speedway, where the race finished. After checking in, I drove to Bandimere Speedway, to make sure I knew how to get there. In the morning, it would still be dark. It was easy to get there, and I could see where the finish line was already set up. I could also see where I would need to park in the morning.
I was tempted to drive into the mountains to take some pictures, but it was a cloudy afternoon. I would just have to wait until morning, when I would see the mountains while running. Later, I had an early dinner at Pieology Pizzeria.
I tried to get to bed as early as I could, knowing I would have to get up early. For the second straight weekend, I didn’t sleep at all the night before the race. Maybe instead of a running blog, I should have started an insomnia blog.
The race started at 6:00, but I had to drive to the finish and take a bus to the start. Buses left between 3:30 and 4:15. Hampton Inn had grab-and-go breakfasts starting at 2:00. I got up at 2:00, so I could eat breakfast before starting to get ready. That gave me some time to digest. I left Hampton Inn at 3:15, and was parked in the finish area by 3:30. They were starting to load the buses, but I didn’t want to be on the first bus and spend a long time waiting. Since they had port-o-potties at the finish, I made a bathroom stop first. I was still on a bus by 3:45. By chance, I sat next to a runner who lived along the course and was doing this race as his first marathon. He was familiar with the course and gave me a course tour as we were riding to the start. In particular, he pointed out a few places where we would briefly be running uphill. It was good to know about those in advance.
It was difficult to know how to dress for this race, since I was going to experience a wide range of temperatures. In Golden, the overnight low was 57 degrees, with a forecast high of 86. According to the hourly forecast, it was going to be 77 degrees by 9:00. I expected to finish between 9:00 and 9:30. I kept hearing that it would be much cooler at the start, since it was above 10,000 feet. I got the impression that it might be below freezing at the start. It’s hard to dress properly for freezing and upper 70s in the same race. I was either going to be underdressed at the start or overdressed at the finish – possibly both.
I opted to wear tights, so my legs wouldn’t get too cold in the early miles. I knew I risked overheating in the late miles, but the last thing I wanted was to pull a hamstring because my muscles were tight. With a steep downhill start, I couldn’t count on warming up gradually. Like it or not, I was probably going to be running fast right out of the gate.
On top, I wore a short-sleeve tech T-shirt. I brought a thin pair of arm warmers and two pairs of gloves with me to the start, but I didn’t know if I would need them. Since my tights and arm warmers had cheetah prints, I couldn’t resist wearing the cheetah print hat that I bought in Harajuku last February. This was probably going to be my fastest race of the year, so I figured I should dress the part. It’s a warm hat, so that also put me at risk of being overdressed in the later miles.
I also wore some warm-up clothes. They had a gear check, so I was able to stay bundled up until it was time to line up for the start. The bus dropped us off around 5:00. I was surprised how much it wasn’t cold. It was probably about 45 degrees. It was good to have some warm-up clothes while we waited for the rest of the buses to arrive, but I would have been comfortable running in shorts and a singlet.
I didn’t know how fast I could run on this course, but I had a few goals in mind. The qualifying period for the Comrades Marathon began on August 1st. Last year, it took a marathon time under 3:20 to qualify for corral B. I also wanted to improve my seeding for the Boston Marathon. To get into the first wave, I would probably need a time of 3:12 or better. A time under 3:10 would allow me to register on the first day.
I lined up near the 3:10 pace group, but I started at my own pace. It was downhill from the first step. I kept my legs relaxed, didn’t push the pace and let gravity do all the work. I knew it wasn’t too fast, because I wasn’t breathing hard. At 10,000 feet, any exertion gets tiring quickly. For the first mile, I was running just behind the 3:05 group.
The sun was still below the horizon when we started, but after a few turns, we got a gorgeous view of the sunrise. At this elevation, it looked like a big red ball peeking over the hillsides. We were running through a canyon, surrounded by steep hillsides with tall pine trees. In a few places, there were outcroppings of rock.
After a mile, the 3:05 group sped up. I maintained the same effort, which was the best pace could run without feeling like I was working. Mostly, I focused on how my legs felt. I didn’t feel out of control, and I wasn’t having any discomfort in my quads. I’m finally getting better at running downhill. The 3:05 group gradually pulled away, but I was still running ahead of the 3:10 group.
Just after four miles, I reached the first short uphill section. I didn’t try to keep up the same pace. Going uphill, I got short of breath, even though I wasn’t pushing the pace. When the road turned downhill again, I still felt short of breath. The elevation was still about 9,000 feet. It took a few minutes of downhill running before I was breathing easy again.
It wasn’t long before the sun was high enough in the sky to feel its effects. In the shade, the air felt cool and crisp. In the sun, it was already getting hot. I could feel sweat under my hat. I was going to regret both the tights and the warm hat.
The miles seemed to be going by incredibly fast. Partly, that’s because I haven’t run at this pace in years. It also helped that I wasn’t expending much effort. Gravity was still doing most of the work. I just focused on keeping my legs relaxed. I didn’t know if they would get sore later in the race, but I was optimistic.
Near the end of the first half, we reached the town of Evergreen. We were exposed to the sun, but there was a nice cool breeze. Then we turned a corner onto a different road. The breeze was gone. I could also another short uphill section. It was in the sun. Running uphill, even briefly took much more effort, and I got hot. I crossed the halfway mark in 1:33:03, but I didn’t know how I would hold up in the second half. There wasn’t going to be as much elevation loss, and it was going to keep getting hotter. I didn’t know if I could keep it together.
There was another hill in the next mile. It was a little bit longer and steeper. I tried to maintain my effort and hot worry about my pace. I had been closing on the 3:05 group, but now they pulled away.
That mile was slower, but I regained my pace when we started down another hill. We crossed a bridge over Bear Creek, and I felt a cold draft. Before long, we turned and were running alongside bear creek. Again, I noticed a cooling effect from being near the creek. It was probably ice cold water from higher in the mountains. I wondered how long we would be alongside the creek. Then I remembered this road was called Bear Creek Road. I hoped that meant we would be alongside the creek for a long time. This was my salvation. I was still hot, but the cool draft kept it tolerable.
The second half of the course had more sections that were slightly uphill, as well as some that were nearly flat. It would be tough to maintain the same pace in the second half. I was OK with slowing down a little, but I wanted to stay on pace to break 3:10. For now, I was, but it was taking more and more effort. I still had several miles to go. Each mile that I ran at the same pace boosted my confidence, but I could easily blow up. I was working much harder than I did in the first half.
Eventually, the road climbed above the creek. There was no more cool draft. It was probably in the 70s by now. More often than not, it was sunny. The heat was wearing me down.
At 20 miles, I was still maintaining a good pace, but the next two miles were my slowest of the race. I was no longer running fast enough to beat 3:10. I hoped that I could at least keep it close. If I couldn’t beat 3:10, I wanted 3:12 or 3:13. At my current pace, I could still do that.
There was an aid station at 22 miles that was in the middle of a gradual hill. For the first time in the race, I walked briefly while drinking a cup of Gatorade. Then I forced myself to run again. It was still ever so slightly uphill. I was running slowly, but I focused on maintaining my effort.
Throughout the race, I got extra encouragement from spectators and other runners because of the cheetah tights and hat. They’re always a hit. As I was leaving the aid station at 22 miles, I saw a woman running with a cheetah print running skirt. As I passed her, I said, “Nice skirt.” She replied, “Thanks.” Then she saw me and yelled, “Hey! Nice pants!” Little things like that can lift your spirits when you need it most. I was really suffering at this point, so I had to stay positive.
In the distance, I saw a road sign indicating a sharp turn ahead. That was good news. Switchbacks in the road always accompanied steeper downgrades. We were going through a steeper part of the canyon. I didn’t know how long it would last, but I forced myself to get back to my earlier pace. It took everything I had, but I was able to do it. It helped that I had some shade. It was no longer cool in the shade, but at least it wasn’t as hot. I started looking up at the rocky canyon walls. Aside from being a beautiful view, the shape of the canyon told me we would continue descending for at least a few more turns.
That mile was my fastest since the halfway mark. I realized I could still break 3:10, but I couldn’t let up. The course cooperated. We continued descending between steep canyon walls. It was just steep enough, and there was just enough shade.
Eventually, I could see a clearing through the canyon. I was getting close to the end. The second half of the course was also the half marathon course, so I was seeing the mile markers for both races. I never saw a 25 mile sign for the marathon, but I could see a 12 mile sign for the half marathon. I checked my watch to see if I would break 3:10 at my current pace. At first I didn’t think I would. Then I realized I miscalculated. Since I was at the half marathon mile marker, I only had to run 1.1 additional miles, not 1.2. I would make it if I held my current pace.
The last mile felt flat. I had to work much harder to run the same pace. I told myself that I could bear down and run fast for one mile. We were going through a town. I tried to count blocks as a way of estimating the remaining distance. I desperately needed to see my progress toward the finish. Eventually, I saw a bridge in the distance. I realized it must be the highway that was just beyond the finish area. I was getting close. I saw a gas station, which I recognized as one near the finish area.
I turned the last corner and saw that it was uphill. I swore. I didn’t know if I could maintain my pace running uphill, but I fought for it. When I passed the 26 mile sign, my watch read 3:07 something. I didn’t see how many seconds, but I knew I had more than two minutes to run two tenths. I could do that. The last tenth was downhill, across the grass to the finish line. I ran as hard as I could. I looked up at the clock and saw that it was under 3:09. I accidentally hit an extra button on my watch, so I wasn’t able to stop it. I didn’t know my time, but it was under 3:09.
There was an assortment of food in the finish area, but I didn’t eat much. Mostly I wanted water. I had felt noticeably thirsty for the last three or four miles. At one of the aid stations, I had spilled half of my water on my face. It felt good, but didn’t leave enough for me to drink. I had felt dry ever since. I quickly drained a bottle of water and asked for another. I remained in the finish area long enough to see several of my friends finish. I also saw a few runners I met during the race.
After finishing a second bottle of water, I retrieved my gear bag. Nearby, they had a tent where you could get a printout of your official result. I’ve done other races with this feature, but usually the printout is a slip of paper the size of a receipt. This one looked more like a results postcard you would get in the mail. My official time was 3:08:46. That’s my fastest time since 2011. It was fast enough to exceed all of my goals. I’m also pleased that I’m getting better at downhill running. My legs never complained, even in the late miles.
My result card also showed that I placed first in my age group. During the race, it never occurred to me that I was also racing other people – I just wanted a fast time. The age group awards were two-side medals. One side had a design similar to the finisher medals, and it said age group award. The other side was engraved with my age group and place. They had different colors of age group medals – gold for first, silver for second and bronze for third.
Post-race photo with Karl & Aya
Post-race photo with Teresa
I was still thirsty, so I had a cup of Gatorade before leaving the finish area. The Gatorade was served with ice cubes. I appreciated that, as it was now in the low 80s. For runners who were near the back of the pack, it got even hotter.
When I got back to Hampton Inn and removed my bib number, I realized that I had an unused coupon for a free beer in the finish area. It’s just as well that I didn’t use it. I needed to rehydrate before having anything with alcohol. After getting back I continued drinking until I was rehydrated. I still had an apple leftover from breakfast, so that was the rest of my lunch.
I spent most of the afternoon working on post-race recovery. About 10 miles into the race, I started to notice tightness in my calves. After I finished, I had quite a bit of tightness in my left Achilles tendon. Besides an ice bath and some time in a whirlpool, I stretched my Achilles tendon several times throughout the day. When I went to dinner, I put heel lifts in my left shoe, to reduce the tension on my Achilles tendon. Only time will tell whether this will be an ongoing problem. I’m hoping I caught it in time to prevent a more serious injury.
Later, I had post-race pizza at Mannie & Bo’s Pizzeria. I slept better Sunday night. The lack of sleep didn’t seem to hurt my race, but I don’t want to make a habit of racing without sleep.