On August 31, I ran the Pocatello Marathon. This was my fourth marathon in Idaho. My previous six marathons were all trail marathons, so I enjoyed the opportunity to run a road marathon for the first time since June.
Several of my friends were at this race, including my friend Stefanie. I first met Stefanie on a trip to Costa Rica in 2014. Later that year, I paced her at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, where she got her first Boston qualifier. More recently, Stef has been mostly doing ultras, but she wants to return to Boston. I told her I could pace her at this race if she could fit it into her schedule.
I flew to Salt Lake City and drove from there. The drive time was about two and a half hours. I arrived in Pocatello Friday afternoon. I stayed at Clarion Inn, which was the host hotel for the race. After checking in, I was able to pick up my race packet right at the hotel. Stef wasn’t arriving until later in the evening, so I picked up her packet too.
Our race packets each included duffle bags. They were already labeled with our names and bib numbers, so we could use them for the gear check at the start of the race.
I had dinner with my friend Karen at Mackenzie River Pizza Company. Later, when Stef arrived at the hotel, I brought her race packet to her.
I didn’t have any trouble getting to sleep, but I only slept for three and a half hours. Then I had trouble getting back to sleep. The air conditioning was too noisy. When there was no longer time to get back to sleep, I got up and started getting ready. After a hot bath and a cup of tea, I felt OK.
This race has a point-to-point course, starting at the top of the Buckskin Saddle and finishing in Ross Park in Pocatello. The elevation ranges from 6,000 feet at the start to 4,450 feet at the finish. That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is that we descended 1,550 feet. That’s enough elevation drop to make it a fast course. The bad news is that the air is thinner at that elevation, which makes you get tired faster. That could potentially make it a slow course.
I was hoping the downhill course would more than make up for the high elevation, but pacing on this course was tricky. Most of the elevation drop was in the first half. The second half had rolling hills with very little net elevation change. That meant the first half would be fast, but the second half would be tiring.
To qualify for Boston, Stef needed to finish in 3:35. To actually get into Boston, she probably needed to be faster, but we had no way of knowing how much faster. Three minutes might be enough. Four minutes would probably be enough. Five minutes would definitely be safe. The race had pace groups, including one for 3:30. We decided to start the race with the 3:30 group and see how it felt.
The forecast high was 93 degrees, but that was misleading. We wouldn’t see temperatures that high during the race. When I woke up, it was 61 degrees in Pocatello, but the temperature was still dropping. It probably got down into the low 50s before the sun came up. We were starting at a higher elevation, where I expected the temperature to be at least 10 degrees cooler. Once the sun came up, it would warm up quickly, but I still expected we would be done before it got into the 70s.
I opted to wear shorts and a singlet. I had a Tyvek jacket that I could wear in the early miles and then tie around my waist when I no longer needed it.
To get to the start, we had to take a bus, but the buses loaded just down the street from Clarion Inn, so that was convenient. The buses started loading at 5:00. Stef and I were on the first bus, and we got dropped off about an hour before the race.
It was still dark, but they had a generator powering some portable lights. It wasn’t as cold as I was expecting, so I put my jacket in my gear bag. I started the race with gloves, but I could put those in my fanny pack as it got warmer. While we were waiting for the race to start, I bumped into several other runners I know.
Before the race, we met the pace leader for the 3:30 group and asked him what his plan was. He was planning to take the first half in 1:41 or 1:42. That seemed reasonable to me, given how much easier the first half is.
We ran the first mile in 8:04, but quickly settled into an average pace of 7:45. The plan was to average 7:45 in the first half and 8:15 in the second half. That’s the same pace I would have started if I was on my own.
Although it seemed relatively warm in the start area, I felt a cold breeze once we started running. I was generating enough heat to keep from getting too cold, but just barely.
Before the race, I went to the bathroom, but I couldn’t get everything out. Once we started running downhill, I struggled to hold it in. I knew I would eventually need a bathroom stop, but I also knew it would take time. If I stopped for two or three minutes, I might never be able to catch up to the group. I held out for five miles, but the next time we reached an aid station with port-o-potties, I stopped. I told Stef I needed to make a bathroom stop, but I would try to catch up to the group.
This was going to be a long stop, but it got even longer when I discovered nobody had used the toilet paper yet. It took much longer than it should have for me to remove the outer wrap from the roll of toilet paper.
That stop cost me about two and a half minutes. Ordinarily, it would have been almost impossible to make that up, but the first half of the course was mostly downhill. I’m getting pretty good at running downhill, as long as I’m on roads. After my bathroom stop, I used the downhill to run as fast as I could.
I didn’t want to take the time to put my gloves on, so I stuffed them into my fanny pack. When I resumed running, my hands got cold. They were cold for several miles, but I knew I would warm up eventually.
When I got to the six mile mark, I checked my watch. Assuming the 3:30 group stayed on a 7:45 pace, I was now about 2:15 behind them. I continued to race downhill as fast as I could. I was passing runners left and right. I assumed I could make up at least 15 second per mile, but at that rate, it would take nine miles to catch the group. I tried to go faster.
I felt one of my insoles slipping forward in my shoe. That typically happens when my shoes are wet or I’m on a steep downhill grade. This wasn’t that steep, but my fast pace probably made it more likely to slip.
In the next mile, I saw the runners ahead of me making a sharp left turn. When I made the turn myself, I saw a few runners coming back from the other direction. We were on an out-and-back section. It couldn’t be downhill both ways. Going out, it was uphill. Coming back, it would be downhill.
I wouldn’t normally push the pace on an uphill section, but I still had a lot of time to make up. I continued to run fast enough to pass most of the runners around me. Going downhill, I never noticed the elevation. Going uphill, I really felt it. I quickly got severely out of breath.
Eventually, I saw the 3:30 pace leader coming back on the other side of the road. Later, I saw Stefanie. She had fallen behind the group. I pressed on and eventually reached the turnaround.
As I made the turn, I wondered if the sharp 180 degree turn would make my insole slip forward even more. It didn’t. It actually seemed to get better. That was short-lived, however. As soon as I caught my breath, I started to push the pace again. Then I felt my insole slipping forward again. There wasn’t anything I could do about it. That foot was going to be uncomfortable for the rest of the race.
I eventually caught up to Stefanie, but not until the nine mile mark. Over the previous three miles, I averaged seven minutes per mile. I rarely run that fast, even downhill. I couldn’t help but wonder if those three fast miles would break me. Did I catch up, only to later find myself unable to keep up? If nothing else, those three miles gave me a good speed workout.
Stef fell behind the pace group because she struggled with the uphill section. Going uphill, she really felt the effects of the elevation. By now, I had already recovered from it, but it took longer for Stef to recover. Elevation affects some people more than others.
I could see the 3:30 pacer about a minute in front of us. We didn’t try to catch him. We just kept him in sight. When we got to the next mile marker, I checked our pace. We were back to running 7:45 per mile. We were on the right pace, even if we weren’t keeping up with the group. Over the next three miles, we actually ran a little bit fast.
In the early miles, there were cold breezes blowing through the valleys. Now, it was warming up, but we were still shielded from direct sunlight by the surrounding hills. It wouldn’t feel hot until the sun was on us.
There was a half marathon that followed the second half of the marathon route. As we approached the halfway point, we could see runners lined up for the half marathon start. We reached the halfway point in 1:42.
Before the race, the 3:30 pacer told us he planned to run the first half in 1:41 to 1:42. He was at the fast end of that range. Stef and I were at the slow end of that range, but we were still on a good pace. A few minutes later, the half marathon started. Soon, the fastest runners from that race were beginning to pass us. I wondered if that would make us lose sight of the 3:30 pacer.
The course was noticeable downhill for one more mile. At the end of that mile, we could still see the 3:30 pacer. Then he had to make a bathroom stop. We passed him while he was in the bathroom, but I assumed he would catch up to us.
From here on out, the course got more difficult, but now we only needed to average 8:15 per mile. For the rest of the race, the course had very little net elevation change. There were downhill sections, but there were also uphill sections.
When we reached an uphill section, Stef had to walk part of it. She started to feel light-headed. The elevation was affecting her.
After the hill, Stef was able to resume running. Our next mile took 8:04. That was fine. We only needed to average 8:15 the rest of the way to break 3:30. The next mile took 8:16. That was also perfectly fine. At that pace, we would still break 3:30.
The 3:30 pacer eventually caught up to us. We followed him briefly, but fell behind the next time the road turned slightly uphill. Stef was doing OK on downhill sections, but she needed to take walking breaks on every uphill section. The elevation was really bothering her.
We fell behind the 3:30 pacer. Then we were passed by the 1:45 group for the half marathon. We couldn’t keep up with them. At some point, Stef told me I should go ahead on my own if I wanted to break 3:30. I’m sure I could’ve done that, but I had nothing to prove. I already have a qualifying time that will get me into next year’s Boston Marathon. I stayed with Stef.
By now, we sometimes had direct exposure to the sun. The temperatures were in the 60s, so I was sweating more. I noticed some chafing on my legs and realized I forgot to apply Aquaphor before the race. I had a small tube in my fanny pack, so I told Stef to go on ahead. I stopped long enough to smear some Aquaphor to the areas where I’m prone to chafing. I fell behind, but I was confident I could catch up. We were on another downhill segment, which helped. I could really pick up the pace going downhill. It didn’t take too long to catch up.
By now, it was obvious we wouldn’t break 3:30, but we still had a good chance of breaking 3:35, which would still be a Boston qualifier. We just needed to average 8:30 per mile. Unfortunately, each uphill section forced Stef to take walking breaks. After an 8:43 mile, I was a little bit worried. After an 8:53 mile, I was more worried. The 22nd mile had the most tiring hill. Stef had to take multiple walking breaks. At the time, she thought she could still rally to break 3:35. When we got to the 22 mile mark, I did the math. That mile took roughly 9:30. Over the last 4.2 miles, we needed an average pace between 8:15 and 8:20. When I told Stef, she said that wasn’t happening.
With a heroic effort, Stef might have been able to break 3:35, but it probably would have hurt her chances of recovering in time for her next race. A time barely under 3:35 probably wouldn’t get her into Boston. She has another race next weekend, and that’s on a faster course. It made more sense to conserve her energy and try again next week.
For the rest of the race we ran at whatever pace felt manageable. I stopped looking at my watch. At this point, our time didn’t matter.
We chipped away at the remaining miles. Psychologically, it got easier now that we were only focused on finishing. We eventually reached Ross Park in Pocatello and crossed the finish line within a few seconds of each other. Our official times were 3:37:38 and 3:37:40.
Although Stef didn’t get her Boston qualifier, she’s optimistic about next weekend. That course is gentle downhill the whole way, and it’s much closer to sea level. This weekend, it was the elevation that caused her problems. That won’t be a problem next weekend.
My next race is in two weeks. It’s on the same course that Stef is running next weekend. It descends 2,050 miles from start to finish. Today, I ran the first half in 1:42, and still felt good. I had a reckless three mile section where I averaged 7:00 per mile, and it never came back to haunt me. Going into this race, the only thing missing from my training was speed work. I think I did that today. I’m now confident that I can break 3:25 in two weeks.
We lingered in the finish area long enough to have some post-race snacks and retrieve our gear bags. It was 70 degrees and sunny. It felt warm enough that I was perfectly comfortable standing around in shorts and a singlet. For the runners who still had several miles to go, it would get hotter. They would also experience a higher sun angle. Karen still had several miles to go. By the time she finished, the pavement got so hot that it melted the soles of her shoes. After the race, she sent me this picture.
Stef and I caught the next bus back to Clarion Inn. After taking time to get cleaned up, we had a late lunch at a brewery that has pizza and vegan entrees. Later in the day, I had dinner with Karen.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 8:18
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 383
Idaho Marathons: 4