On September 10, I ran the Big Cottonwood Marathon near Salt Lake City, UT. This race has a point-to-point course. It starts at Guardsman Pass and follows Big Cottonwood Canyon for the first 18 miles, before finishing in Cottonwood Heights.
This race is part of the REVEL race series. Their signature is fast downhill courses, typically starting in the mountains and finishing in a nearby city. I’ve done the REVEL Rockies Marathon in Colorado twice, so I had a good idea what to expect. This race has a similar elevation profile.
The elevation at the start is 9,696 feet, and the elevation at the finish is only 4,441 feet. That’s a net descent of 5,255 feet. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s almost a mile of descent. Most of that comes in the first 18 miles.
When I registered for this race, I didn’t know if I would still need a Boston qualifier. As it turns out, I was able to qualify at the Super Tunnel Marathon in August, but this was a chance to get a faster qualifying time. It was also an opportunity to get my second sub four hour marathon in Utah.
While steep downhill courses like this have the potential to be fast, it doesn’t always work out that way. Running downhill for mile after mile can be tricky. It’s hard on your legs. If you do enough downhill training and learn how to run downhill efficiently, a course like this can be lightning fast. If you aren’t ready for it, though, it can really beat up your legs. Then the late miles can be slow and painful, offsetting the fast early miles.
When I ran the Rockies Marathon in 2014, I did sufficient downhill training. I ran that race in 3:08, which is by far my fastest race of the last few years. When I returned in 2015, I was injured, and I didn’t have sufficient downhill training. I started fast, but finished slow. Even still, my time of 3:51 on that course was faster than anything else I did last summer.
I didn’t run on Thursday or Friday, but I did some strength training on Thursday. During one of my exercises, I felt some discomfort in my right foot. I felt something similar two weeks earlier, but it felt fine after two rest days. It didn’t feel as bad this time, but I only had one rest day before the race. That made me a little nervous.
Thursday night, I started to notice my foot again during the night. I usually sleep on my stomach, so my feet tend to flatten out against the mattress. I rolled onto my side so I could keep my foot in a more relaxed position. Then I felt some soreness near my right hip. I really worked my hips on Thursday, so I wasn’t too surprised at first that those muscles would be sore.
The next time I woke up, I had stiffness and noticeable soreness in my right foot and ankle, the right side of by butt, and the right side of my leg. I was sleeping on that side, so I rolled over to my other side. My leg and butt continued to hurt, making it hard to get back to sleep. I was surprised to have soreness in my right calf. I didn’t do any exercises that work those muscles. I wondered if I had a pinched nerve. I couldn’t think of any other reason I would have pain in every muscle my right side.
Thursday morning, I was walking with a slight limp. My right leg gradually loosened up, but the right side of my butt still hurt. It felt like I might have pulled something. I had doubts about the wisdom of doing this race.
I flew to Salt Lake City on Friday. When I got to the airport, my right foot was still bothering me. I had a slight limp at first, but it got better. By the time I boarded my flight, I was walking normally again. By the time I arrived in Salt Lake City, my leg felt normal, but my foot still didn’t feel quite right.
I stayed in Midvale, which is right next to Cottonwood Heights. My hotel was within a mile of the finish line. After checking in, I only had to drive a few miles to get to the expo at South Towne Expo Center in Sandy.
Later, I had dinner with other runners at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. One of the pre-race traditions is a “red carpet” contest for the most creative ensemble of throwaway clothes. This year’s winner was Stacy.
I had to prepare for a wide variation in temperatures. In Salt Lake City, the overnight low was about 50, but the temperature climbs quickly once the sun is up. By the time I finished, I could expect it to be in the upper 60s with sunny skies. Meanwhile, up at Guardsman Pass, early morning temperatures were much colder. For each 1,000 of elevation change, you can expect the temperature to be about 3.5 degrees cooler. Using that rule of thumb, I expected the temperature at the start to be in the low 30s.
That gave me a tough choice. If I wore shorts, my legs would be freezing in the early miles. If I wore tights, I would overheat in the late miles. I was tempted to wear tights, even knowing I would be hot in the late miles. On the advice of my friend Angie, who does this race every year, I stuck with shorts. I also wore a fairly warm T-shirt, a Tyvek jacket and gloves. I also had a layer of warm-up clothes.
To get to the start, I parked near the finish and took a bus up to Guardsman Pass. I could have walked to where the busses were loading, but I didn’t know if I would be able to walk back to the hotel after the race. The race started at 6:45, but I had to catch a bus between 4:00 and 5:00. That meant getting up awfully early, but I’m getting used to that. I was impressed with the efficiency of the parking. There are numerous ramps and lots near the bus loading area, and there were dozens of volunteers with lighted batons, to direct us to the parking.
I met several friends in the bus loading area, and we all rode to the start on the same bus. After the busses dropped us off at Guardsman Pass, we had to wait in the cold and dark for about an hour until the race started. The race provided gloves and Mylar blankets. They also had a gear check, so you could have your warm-up clothes transported to the finish. After making bathroom stops, a few of us found a place to sit on the grass.
Even with all the layers I was wearing, I was freezing in the start area. I regretted that I didn’t wear tights, which would have given me an extra layer on my legs. I wrapped my Mylar blanket around my legs and butt, but my upper body was still cold, even with three layers. Eventually, I wrapped another Mylar blanket around my upper body.
About 10 minutes before the start, we posed for a Marathon Maniacs group photo. That gave me only a few minutes to remove my warm-up layers, check my bag, and line up. After checking my bag, I heard an announcement that it was one minute to the start. I was still behind everyone, so I had to rush to get into position. I was originally planning to pay attention to where various pace groups were lining up. Instead, I had to move as far forward as I could before the gun went off.
My time goals were somewhat soft. Because I already had a Boston qualifier for 2017, I went into this race without too much pressure. Ideally, it would have been nice to get a faster qualifying time for Boston. A time of 3:35 or faster would let me register during the first week. Mostly, I just wanted to make sure I broke four hours. I’m trying to complete a second 50sub4 circuit, and Utah was one of the states I still needed. Beyond that, I could afford to just run a pace that felt comfortable. I didn’t want to injure myself by forcing the pace on the steep downhill miles.
I didn’t know how fast I would start, nor did I have any pace in mind. As I started running, I tried to keep a few things in mind. First, I wanted to keep my legs relaxed and not resist the hill. I did a good job of that. Second, I wanted to keep my legs moving quickly, so I wouldn’t over-stride. The first time I did a steep downhill race like this, I had a flare-up of Achilles tendonitis after the race. By keeping my stride short, I could avoid putting undue strain on my Achilles tendons. I apparently didn’t do this as well. More on that later. Finally, I want to run with a slight forward lean.
The forward lean was the advice of my physical therapist. It forces me to use my glutes, which helps reduce the strain on my adductors and hamstrings. Leaning forward while running downhill also helps you run faster – whether you want to or not! I practiced this a lot in training, but it proved to be difficult during the race.
The first three miles were on Guardsman Pass Road. These were the steepest miles of the race. Even without leaning forward, I felt like I couldn’t control my speed. I made peace with that, and tried to keep my legs relaxed. My pace for these three miles varied between 7:15 and 7:30.
Once I started running, the cold conditions seemed manageable. I knew the temperature would rise as we descended, so I assumed my legs would be OK with the cold. I no longer regretted wearing shorts. Now I felt that wearing tights would have been a mistake, since I knew they would be too hot in the late miles.
After three miles, we turned onto Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, but instead of going downhill, we were running it in the uphill direction to get to the small resort town of Brighton. We were still about 8,500 feet above sea level. At that elevation, hills feel steeper than they really are.
My pace slowed, but I was still getting out of breath. I had to break up the hill by taking a 30 second walking break. I chugged slowly up the rest of the hill to reach an aid station.
I was conflicted about how to drink at aid stations while running downhill. I wasn’t sure if it was better to stop briefly or try to drink on the run. I had no such dilemma at this aid station. As I drank my Powerade, I happily used it as an excuse to walk for a few more seconds.
Next we ran a loop around the town. It was mostly flat, but at this elevation, it was still tiring. I was able to run it, but I was slow. Then we began to descend again. Before completing the loop, I saw the four mile sign. My time for that mile was 9:52, but overall, my average pace was just under eight minutes per mile.
As we left Brighton, we got back onto Big Cottonwood Canyon Road, but now we were running it in the downhill direction. The grade on Big Cottonwood Canyon Road was more uniform. I got into a comfortable rhythm and continued logging miles that were just under eight minutes per mile.
If I continued this pace all the way through the canyon, I would have a good chance of breaking 3:35. Once I got that thought into my head, it was hard to shake it. I may have been subconsciously pushing the pace a little.
As I ran, I occasionally took stock of how I felt. The foot that worried me before the race wasn’t bothering me at all now. Running so fast downhill caused a little discomfort in the muscles around my right hip, but that gradually went away as the race progressed. I had a “hot spot” on the bottom of my right foot, and I knew that would eventually develop into a painful blister. That wasn’t a long-term concern, so I did my best to ignore it. More troubling was a feeling of tension in my left Achilles tendon. I was probably over-striding and putting too much strain on my Achilles tendons. That became my biggest concern.
I expected to get warmer, but so far I wasn’t. Some of the muscles in my legs felt tight. Then I realized they weren’t tight; they were cold. They were ice cold. More and more muscles in my legs began to feel that way.
After about eight miles, I found myself slowing down. I didn’t feel fatigued or short of breath, but my legs just didn’t seem like they were working very good. I think the cold was affecting them. I once again regretted wearing shorts. Tights might make me hot later, but they would have kept my legs warm enough in the canyon.
My next mile took more than nine minutes, even though it was all downhill. With effort, I managed to get my pace closer to eight minutes over the next few miles, but I really had to work at it. I would pay for that effort later in the race.
As I continued descending through the canyon, it gradually got warmer, and my legs finally thawed out. Over the next few miles, I started to notice patches of sun. I felt warmer in the sun, but I got cold again when I returned to the shade. After about 12 miles, I finally reached a long sunny patch that wasn’t as steep. I finally took off my Tyvek jacket and tied it around my waist. I kept my gloves on for a few more miles.
I started to notice other “hot spots” on my feet. I also noticed some tightness in my right Achilles tendon. In my left ankle, I was feeling the tension all the way up into my calf muscle.
I reached the halfway mark in 1:44:41. I was still averaging eight minutes per mile overall, but not for much longer.
Usually, when I get to 14 miles, I start to count down the remaining miles to the finish. Instead I counted down the remaining downhill miles before we reached the end of the canyon. I had four more. My legs no longer felt cold, but they were beginning to feel stiff. I couldn’t run downhill as efficiently. I was slowing down.
By now, I realized I wasn’t going to break 3:35. I wondered if I should forget about that and just pay attention to breaking four hours. I could still expect to do that easily.
I reached the 15 mile mark in 2:00:07. That’s just seven seconds slower than my 15 mile split at the Super Tunnel Marathon three weeks ago, but this race has a tougher finish. As I stopped to drink at an aid station, the 3:35 pace group passed me. I expected them to pass me eventually, but I was surprised it was this soon. I was still almost on pace for 3:30. Then it occurred to me that they weren’t running an even pace. They were going faster in the canyon in anticipation of slowing down when the course leveled off.
The next mile was steeper, and I found myself catching up to the 3:35 group. Then I got to the “16 miles” sign and saw my time. That mile was 8:38. Even going downhill, I was now going too slow to break 3:35. I focused on just finishing the race and breaking four hours.
By now it was getting warm enough that I needed to take off my gloves. Then the 3:40 pace group passed me. I wasn’t even to the tough part of the course yet, and I was slowing noticeably.
As I reached the mouth of the canyon, the scenery changed. Up until now, we were always surrounded by mountains. Now I could see the broad Salt Lake Valley in front of me. I started to see the outskirts of the city.
I reached the 18 mile mark in 2:26:24. The fast part of the course was over. Now it was going to get tough. It was about 60 degrees, and there was no longer any shade. As the crow flies, I was about three miles from the finish, but first I had to do a five mile out-and-back segment.
I made the turn onto Wasatch Blvd. to begin the out-and-back. This was the toughest part of the course. It was gentle rolling hills, with no net elevation change. The elevation here was just below 5,000 feet. I had to work much harder just to keep moving, much less run at the same pace.
My next mile was about 9:30. I don’t recall exactly. Then I ran the 20th mile in 10:20. At that pace, I would break four hours easily, but I was surprised how much I was slowing down from one mile to the next.
As I continued along Wasatch Blvd., I got good views of the downtown buildings. After what seemed like forever, I reached the turnaround. As I came back, I could see the 3:45 group going out. It was only a matter of time before they caught me too. At best, I might finish in 3:50, but even that seemed doubtful.
In the canyon, the aid stations were two miles apart. Here, they were every mile. I need the extra fluids. I was getting really hot now. As cold as I was earlier, I was once again glad I didn’t wear tights. I neglected to check my watch at 21 miles, but when I reached 22, I saw I was running slower than 11 minutes per mile. By now, I could afford to average as much as 12:30 in the remaining miles. As much as I was struggling, I couldn’t see myself running that slowly. My legs were dead, but I could press on.
If you trash your quads running through the canyon, you can find yourself struggling with small hills later on. That didn’t seem to be my problem. My quads weren’t that sore. I was just running out of gas. I pushed too hard in the middle miles, and now I had nothing left. I was “hitting the wall.”
When I finished the out-and-back, I made the right turn onto Fort Union Blvd., which would take me to the finish. Now I had just over three miles to go. From here, the course, once again had a downhill trend, but it was nothing like the canyon. Here, it was a gentle grade. It wasn’t enough to help me pick up the pace, but it was enough to help me keep moving.
I missed the mile markers for 24 and 25, so I couldn’t check my pace. I had already been passed by three pace groups. I didn’t want the 3:55 group to catch me. When I finally got within sight of the finish line, I was relieved. I finished in 3:53:11.
After the race, I hung out briefly in the finish area with a few friends who had already finished. Post-race food included pizza and pancakes. We also got a small box of pancake mix in our race packets. I’ll have to make them after I get home.
Sometimes after finishing a race, it’s tough to walk. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my quads weren’t that bad. My only immediate concern was my left Achilles tendon. As soon as I could, I walked outside the finish area where I could kneel down on the grass and stretch. After stretching, it felt better.
When I got back to the hotel, I did more stretching and took stock of my minor aches and pains. My left Achilles tendon felt tight, but I was able to walk without discomfort. I only had one blister. That was a pleasant surprise. The foot that was bothering me before the race, wasn’t a problem during the race and still felt OK afterwards. I had some soreness in my glutes, but I think that’s actually a good sign. I wanted to use my glutes more to reduce the strain on my quads, hamstrings and adductors. Apparently, I did. I didn’t have any noticeable soreness in my adductors or hamstrings. My quads were a little bit sore, but no more than I would expect after a “normal” marathon. I didn’t trash them.
In the afternoon, I met several friends, and we drove up Little Cottonwood Canyon to get to Snowbird Ski Resort. They were having an Oktoberfest celebration.
We sat down under a big tent to have food and beer, while listening to the polka band. Then we went outside to sit on the grass and enjoy the view.
After a good night’s sleep, I again took stock of how I felt. I have some soreness in my quads, but not as much as I expected. I actually have more soreness in my glutes. I’m keeping a close eye on my Achilles’ tendon, but I think it’ll be fine in a few days. It feels tight after I’ve been sitting, but feels better after stretching. It doesn’t bother me walking, so I’m optimistic it’ll be fine in plenty of time for my next race. My foot still feels fine.
I feel I had a successful race, despite pacing myself poorly. I didn’t get a faster time for Boston, but I did break four hours. More importantly, I got through this race without a major injury. My next two races will be nice and flat. I just need to take it easy for a few days, so the minor aches and pains can heal.