Sunday, April 30, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Mt. Charleston Marathon

Yesterday, I ran the Mt. Charleston Marathon in Las Vegas, NV.  This race is sponsored by Revel, which specializes in steep downhill races where you can run fast.  I chose this race to give myself the best possible chance to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon.  The rest of my race schedule isn’t conducive to training for fast marathon times, so I wanted to get it done here.

The race starts in the resort town of Mt. Charleston at an elevation of 7,600 feet.  The finish line is in Las Vegas at an elevation of 2,000 feet.  That’s a net decent of 5,600 feet, or roughly 214 feet per mile.

I had hoped to do a significant amount of downhill training by either running hilly routes outside or doing downhill runs on a treadmill.  I got in a couple of downhill training runs, but then my training was disrupted by injuries.  Since the Boston Marathon, I’ve done most of my training on a treadmill that can simulate downgrades of up to 3%.  Two weeks isn’t enough time for my body to adapt, but I was able to get comfortable running on a 3% downgrade.

I flew to Las Vegas on Friday.  After checking in at my hotel in Summerlin, I went to pick up my race packet at Las Vegas Indoor Soccer.  When I registered, I had my choice of a T-shirt or a tank top.  I have lots of T-shirts, so I opted for the tank top.  I’m much more likely to wear it.

While I was at the expo, I stopped by the booth for the pace team.  I recognized the guy in the booth from the Rock ‘N’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon.  I was a pacer for that race in 2014.  He said their 3:35 pacer always comes in right on schedule.  That’s the time I was shooting for, so I kept that in mind.

Later I had dinner with two friends at a restaurant near my hotel called Aces & Ales.  I had a pizza with spaghetti on it, so I had pre-race pizza and pre-race pasta at the same time.

I went to bed early, and I was able to fall asleep quickly.  I slept well for about four hours.  Then I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.

I had to get up early to park near the finish line and board a bus to the start.  The buses started loading at 4:00, so I set my alarm for 2:30.   I was already awake, so I got up at 2:15.

For breakfast, I was planning to eat a protein bar that was in my race packet.  I ate about half but just didn’t feel like eating, so I saved the rest for after the race.  I also had two cups of tea.

I got to the bus loading area and parked my car.  I didn’t want to be on one of the first buses, so my plan was to wait in my car until about 4:30.  Then my digestive system finally woke up.  I needed to find a bathroom, but nothing nearby was open this early.  Then I learned that the buses to the start were motor coaches with bathrooms.  That was a pleasant surprise.  I was expecting school buses.

The bus left around 4:15.  I was relieved to be able to use the bathroom, but now I was going to get to the start area earlier than I planned.  That presumably meant a longer wait in freezing conditions.

Revel races always present challenging weather conditions.  Because of the difference in elevation, it’s always much colder in the start area than it is at the finish.  That’s a price you pay to run one of these steep downhill races.  Inevitably, you have to endure waiting in freezing cold conditions before you can start running.  By the time you finish, however, you’re hot.

The overnight low in Mt. Charleston was 29 degrees with strong enough winds to make it feel much colder.  In Las Vegas, the forecast high was 77, and I expected it to get into the mid-60s before I finished.  That made it difficult to decide what to wear.

I’ve done two other Revel races.  The first time I did the Rockies Marathon, I dressed for the cold temperatures at the start.  By the time I finished, I was overheating, but I was able to hang on for a strong finish.  When I did the Big Cottonwood Marathon, I dressed more for the conditions at the finish.  I started that race with a light jacket, but my legs were bare.  After several miles, my legs felt like they just quit on me.  I think I was suffering from a decrease in circulation to my legs in reaction to the cold conditions.  That’s a problem I have.

For this race, I compromised.  For my legs, I wore tights, knowing I’d have to wear them for the whole race.  For my upper body, I wore a Tyvek jacket over my T-shirt, knowing I could take off the jacket as I got warm.  I also started the race wearing two pairs of gloves.  The second pair was included in my race packet.  It also included a Mylar blanket.

When the bus dropped us off, I had another pleasant surprise.  The lodge at the start area was letting runners come inside.  They aren’t normally open at this hour, but they decided to open early just for us.  Instead of waiting outside, we got to wait inside where it was warm.  They had tables and chairs, so I could get comfortable while visiting with friends who were doing this race.  We were also able to use their bathrooms.  The race provided about 60 port-o-potties, but it was much more comfortable indoors.  The line for the men’s room was never long.  The line for the women’s room was another story.

There was a gear check at the start.  I wore extra layers, because I was originally expecting to wait outside in the cold for more than an hour.  About 20 minutes before the race started, I removed my warm-up layers and checked my gear bag.  After a few group photos, it was time to line up.

In contrast to recent races, I had a concrete goal for this race.  To qualify for Boston, I needed a time of 3:40 or better.  To be sure I actually get into Boston, I needed to be a few minutes faster.  Ideally, I wanted to break 3:35, which would allow me to enter during the first week of registration.

The first half of this race has a net decent of 3,100 feet, while the second half has a net descent of 2,500 feet, largely because it levels off in the last few miles.   Accordingly, I expected to run faster in the first half than in the second half.  My plan was to run the first half in 1:45 and the second half in 1:50.  That corresponds to an average pace of 8:00 per mile in the first half and 8:23 in the second half.

Although the course is mostly downhill, it actually rises about 65 feet in the first quarter mile.  Because of the high elevation at the start, even a small hill can be tiring.  Accordingly, I didn’t try to go too fast in that first quarter mile.  I would have plenty of time to make up for the slow start.  Even though I was going slow, I still got a little short of breath.

Once the road turned downhill, I quickly caught my breath.  I didn’t try to push the pace running downhill, but I quickly settled into a much faster pace without trying.

I checked my watch after one mile.  I ran the first mile in 8:24, despite the slow uphill start.  During the second mile, I caught up to the 3:35 pace group.  I considered running with them, but it seemed like I’d have to force myself to run slower.  Expending energy to slow yourself down is inefficient.  It’s also a good way to trash your quads.  I decided to stick with a pace that felt natural.  I wasn’t working to run faster, but I also wasn’t going out of my way to slow down.

My second mile was 7:14.  That seemed much too fast, but I continued to run by feel.  I was feeling relaxed, and I wanted to keep it that way.  I listened to my body and adopted whatever gait felt most comfortable.

I gradually settled into an average pace of 7:30 for most of the early miles.  That was faster than I planned, but it felt right.  The third or fourth mile had a short hill.  I let myself slow down.  I didn’t want to expend too much energy running uphill at this elevation.  I knew I would quickly make up the time when the road turned downhill again.

After a few miles, I searched for a mantra.  I told myself to relax.  Then I told myself to just float down the hill.  I finally found my mantra in the lyrics of a Beatles song:

            “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

I was worried the wind would be cold, but we were somewhat sheltered from it in the first few miles.  I took off one pair of gloves in the first mile.  As the valley got wider, I eventually noticed more wind.  At times, it was a headwind, but it didn’t seem to make running downhill more difficult.  The pull of gravity was stronger than the wind resistance.  I kept my Tyvek jacket unzipped in front, so it wouldn’t prevent the timing system from detecting the chip on my race bib.  As the wind began to gust, my jacket was acting like a parachute.  I stopped for a few seconds to zip it up, so I wouldn’t have as much wind drag.

As I resumed running, I started to get warm.  Having the jacket zipped made a huge difference.  I didn’t want to unzip it again, but it was too soon to take it off.  Instead, I took off the other pair of gloves.  Having bare hands compensated for the jacket.

Every two miles, there was an aid station.  As I finished drinking at the aid station that was just past six miles, I heard the chirping of a timing station.  That must have been 10K.  It almost caught me off guard.  I quickly lifted up my jacket, so it wouldn’t block my race bib.

After another mile, I caught up to the 3:25 pace group.  It seemed unwise to pass the 3:25 group when my goal was 3:35.  The road leveled off briefly, so I was able to comfortably run with them until the next aid station.  The pacer had to stop and use the bathroom, so he told the others to go on and he would catch up.  That’s when I ended up getting ahead of them.

I estimated the temperature was rising an average of 1.4 degrees per mile.  It was getting later in the morning, and we were descending rapidly.  It was a bright sunny day, and the sun was in front of us, warming up the whole valley.  The wind gusts were getting stronger, but after about nine miles, I decided it was time to take off the jacket and tie it around my waist.

Between nine and ten miles, we ran past some rock formations that seemed like a giant gate.  About this same time, we got to a section of the course where the grade was more uniform.  On average, it wasn’t as steep, but there was less variation.  I was able to get into a nice uniform rhythm.

I expected to slow down, since the grade wasn’t as steep.  I may have slowed a little, but not much.  Most of my miles were still in the 7:30s.

At one of the aid stations, there was a guy cautioning us to take short strides with a rapid cadence, so we wouldn’t overstride.  Realizing I was probably overstriding, I shortened my stride and picked up my cadence.  Instead of floating downstream, I was now conscious of everything I did.  At the risk of overstriding, I decided to go back to my mantra.

            “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

I reached the halfway mark in about 1:39.  My goal was 3:35, but I was on pace for 3:18.  Was I making a mistake?  I chose to listen to my body and trust that I was running the pace that felt best for my legs.  It was awfully fast, but I didn’t feel like I was working at all.  Gravity was doing all the work. I was just along for the ride.

In general, I wasn’t thinking too much about my mechanics.  I let myself subconsciously find the stride that felt comfortable.  The pull of gravity made it easy to run fast.  I just had to keep my legs moving fast enough.  That rapid turnover requires good hip rotation.  A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.  Today, the muscles around my hips are stronger.  Maintaining a rapid turnover for so many miles without my hips getting fatigued is a measure of the progress I’ve made in the last year.

I expected to slow down in the second half, but not until the course began to level off in the late miles.  As we ran farther through the valley, it got wider, and we were more exposed to the wind.  At times it was a tailwind.  Sometimes we had wind gusts so strong they pushed us down the hill.  I felt like greased lightning.  Now I had a different song in my head.

Somewhere around 16 or 17 miles, I started to see Las Vegas to my right.  As we got out of the valley, we were more exposed to the wind.  It was blowing from our left.  In a few miles, we would turn to the right.  Then we would have a tailwind.  In anticipation, I started to pick up my effort.  For the first time, I felt like I was working.  At this point in the race, that was OK.

I started to pass other runners.  I wasn’t actually speeding up.  They were slowing down.  We were at that point in the race where the people who went out too fast start to regret it.  So far, I wasn’t one of them.

At 19 miles, I could see the road beginning to gradually bend to the right.  As I made the turn, I felt more and more wind at my back.  We were running toward Las Vegas now.   For about a mile, it felt really easy.

I started to notice some tightness in my left Achilles tendon.  That’s the predictable result of overstriding.  It wasn’t a big issue yet, but I knew it would tighten up more after the race.  I wasn’t noticing many other issues.  I had a little soreness in my hamstrings, but it didn’t feel like an injury.  My quads still felt OK.  My back wasn’t bothering me, despite the impact of running fast downhill.

At 20 miles, I figured out how fast I would have to run to break 3:30.  I had known for a few miles that breaking 3:35 was in the bag.  Now breaking 3:30 was also in the bag.  I just needed to run the last 10K in 59 minutes.

Here, the road began to level off.  It was still downhill, but it sometimes seemed flat in comparison to the earlier miles.  The strong tailwind was the only thing making it feel easy.

By 21 miles I was getting noticeably hot.  My tights and warm hat kept me warm enough in the early miles, but now they were making me sweat.  Everything’s a trade-off.  I knew I would get hot.  At this point in the race, I could tough it out.

By now, I realized breaking 3:25 was also probably in the bag, provided I didn’t have a meltdown in the last five miles.

Shortly before 23 miles, we ran a short out-and-back segment.  It was about a quarter mile each way.  They had to add this section to compensate for another change to the course that eliminated a half mile loop.  Going out, this segment was slightly downhill, and the wind was still at our backs.  Coming back, we were going slightly uphill, and the headwind was strong.  It was only a quarter mile, but it was tiring.  During that section, I passed the 23 mile mark.  I ran that mile in 8:06.  It was the first time since mile one that my pace was slower than eight minutes.

I was relieved when we turned and got out of the headwind.  Then I noticed we would still be going uphill until we reached the next turn.  It was about two blocks.

There was an aid station at the corner.  I stopped to drink.  As I turned the corner and resumed running, I noticed it was still uphill for about two more blocks.  At least we had our tailwind again.

That section nearly broke me.  I was tempted to just run easy the rest of the way, but I knew I could break 3:25 if I ran nine minute miles.  This was the most difficult mile of the race.  If I could break nine on this one, I was confident I could hold the pace for the last two.

I never saw the 24 mile sign.  On the other side of the street, I saw the 11 mile sign for the half marathon.  That was 24.1 miles for us.  I looked at my watch.  My time for 1.1 miles was well under 10 minutes, so my pace was well under nine.  I picked up my effort.

I never saw the 25 mile sign.  It may have been right at the last aid station.  I was pushing as hard as I could, but I had no idea what my pace was.  I eventually heard a spectator say we were “almost there.”  I could see the finish line, so I wasn’t almost there.

After a right turn, I saw a sign in the distance that looked like a mile marker.  It was 26 miles.  In the distance, I could see what looked like a finish line.  I checked my watch again.  I had picked up my pace more than I realized.  I was easily going to break 3:25.  I would be closer to 3:22.  I fought hard to finish strong and crossed the line in 3:21:57.

After finishing, I eagerly accepted a water bottle from a volunteer.  After getting my medal, I started looking for the post-race food.

Race bibs often have tear-off tags for T-shirt, medal, or drinks.  This one had tags for pizza and pie.  I wasn’t that hungry, but the cherry pie looked awfully good, and I never turn down post-race pizza.

They had a results tent in the finish area.  Other races do that, but they usually print a slip that looks like a grocery store receipt.  The ones at Revel races look more like a post card.  It’s one of many small details that I like about these races.

At the expo, they had backdrops for photos with signs saying BQ or PR.  I didn’t take a photo there, because qualifying for Boston was still just a goal.  I had to do it first.  I was hoping they would have the same signs in the finish area, but I didn’t see any.

Sign or no sign, I qualified for Boston with 18:03 to spare.  This was by far the fastest I’ve run in the last two years.  I’d like to say I ran a really fast race, but it’s more accurate to say I ran well on a really fast course.  With the tailwind, it was ridiculously easy to run fast.

My time for the second half was four minutes slower than my time for the first half.  Based on the elevation profile, I was expecting the second half to be about five minutes slower.  That suggests I paced myself appropriately.  Accounting for the more gentle grade in the late miles, I ran the equivalent of an even splits race.

I had to catch a shuttle back to the parking area.  As I was getting in line, I started to notice soreness in my quads.  That’s to be expected.  I also noticed some moderate soreness in my lower back.  That’s also to be expected.  It wasn’t as bad as the soreness I felt after sitting on an airplane for three hours on Friday.

More troubling was the increasing tightness in my left Achilles tendon.  Since the race, I’ve been periodically stretching it.  It’s a concern, but I think I can keep it from becoming a major issue.

After a race, I usually have one or two “hot spots” on my feet, but I seldom develop bad blisters in a road race.  This race was an exception.  When I took off my left shoe, I saw a large blister in the inside edge of my foot.  My right foot had a large blood blister in the same spot.  Evidently, that’s where I was getting extra friction running downhill for so many miles.  They looked bad, but after I drained them, they didn’t bother me. They’ll heal in a few days.

I didn’t have to fly home until Sunday, so after the race I had time to have dinner and drinks with a few friends.  We started at a restaurant in Summerlin and then moved to The Strip.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:21:57
Average Pace:  7:42
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  333


  1. After posting this, I looked up the time qualifications for the New York City Marathon. For my age group, it's 3:23. If I want to run the NYC Marathon in 2018, I can get automatic entry.

  2. Congrats! I'm sure it feels good to be "back" after the previous injuries you've had to work through. I have a long road of training before I can even think to run a BQ, but would you recommend any of the Revel races (this one or another) as the best BQ race? I've done a mostly downhill race before, so I think I can handle that aspect...once I get my weight down and my training in order.

    1. Having done three different Revel races, I think this one is the easiest. The elevation at the start isn't as high, and the grade is more uniform. We got lucky this year with the tailwind. I don't think you can count on that.