Friday, December 23, 2016

Race Report: Revel Big Cottonwood Marathon

It's no secret that I've always enjoyed my trips to Utah.  The state is teeming with some of the most beautiful natural scenery I've seen in my life.  I've been to Salt Lake City and its environs a few times in the last year (especially since flying into SLC is key for affordable flights in order to get to "far flung" locations such as Idaho or Wyoming...)  I have been DYING to make a trip to the southern part of Utah, as it is famous for having several of America's most beautiful natural parks.  In the entire state, there are five national parks, and all of them are in the southern half of the state.  Among them are Bryce Canyon and Zion, in the southwestern/south-central part of the state, less than two hours drive from each other, and near Cedar City and St. George, both considered "gateways" of southern Utah.

In July, I shot an email out to Revel about the possibility of singing the national anthem at the start of the Revel Big Cottonwood Marathon, a race I'd heard a lot about in the past, and one that would be a huge challenge for me, as it would be my first ever downhill marathon... and what a doozy of a "first" it would be.  The race starts at 9,688 feet above sea level at Guardsman Pass at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon, and ends nearly a mile lower in elevation at 4,432 feet in the city of Cottonwood Heights.  I had driven the canyon road before in one of my visits to Utah, driving up to Guardsman Pass and then taking the road on the backside of the mountain, the Wasatch Back, all the way to Park City.  The timing was just right, as the race directors were literally JUST about to post a message on social media calling out for a national anthem singer at the start of the marathon (I was told that the half marathon wasn't able to have an anthem because the start was located in a campground in a national forest, and they weren't allowed amplified sound).  I confirmed my participation, and I was ready to prepare for my first downhill marathon come September!

I flew from New York on Friday after work and arrived late in Salt Lake City that night.  Rather late, actually - as I arrived at approximately 11pm.  My friend Eva picked me up from the airport, and we drove to her home north of Salt Lake City in Bountiful, and thankfully she had gotten my bib and all other necessary items the day before (she decided to go all in on the challenge of running a downhill marathon as well!) Because of my late arrival, and our VERY early morning, I was already anticipating very little sleep.  I got to sleep at midnight, and then woke at 3:30am. We left her house at 4am, and arrived in Cottonwood Heights at 4:30am, parked the car and boarded a bus up to the top of the mountain.

Eva and I bundled up at the chilly start
The entire way up, I tried to keep my eyes closed (the drive up a canyon with switchbacks and the elevation gain always makes me woozy), and we arrive some 40 minutes later.  It's not as cold as I thought it would be, but we'd realize eventually that... YES it's cold.  We were in the middle of nowhere, 9,000 feet up a mountain.  The sight of hundreds of people wrapped in foil blankets, and sitting on the ground is quite an interesting one.  It got cold enough that we had to take out the hand warmers.

Come 6:30, I brought my bags to the gear check truck and proceeded to meet up with my race start contact Josh.  He handed me the mic, and I was to be ready to sing in about ten minutes.  I manage to be able to be in the Maniacs photo near the start just before I began the anthem. The anthem goes off without a hitch and at 6:45, we're off!

The wonderment of Utah
As expected, the first three miles are nice and fast, all sub-9 minute miles.  I'm feeling pretty good, and I'm making some good time, potentially hitting a first half very close to two hours or even less. Also expected was the 100' hill that we had to climb right after the first 5K into Brighton Ski Resort.  Knowing my breathing is of great importance, I walk a good amount of this uphill, forcing a 12 minute mile.  But thankfully, as we finish the loop around the ski resort, the course went downhill again, and it would continue to go downhill all the way until mile 18.  It was up here as I was leaving Brighton Ski Resort that I ran into Eva, who had gotten in front of me, but stopped to find me as we continued to head downhill.  She stopped at mile 5.5 to use restroom, but I continued on and I wouldn't see her again until we were on the out-and-back at around mile 20.  After the race, she told me she had caught sight of me eventually a few miles later, and had me within sight for quite a bit of the remainder of the race, until we reached the "dreaded" mile 18.

Running alongside Eva a few miles into the race...

Check out that hairpin turn!

A bus accident...
At mile 7, we had made it to the third water stop, and I was feeling good so I skipped this one... but not too long after, runners had a road hazard we had not anticipated dealing with! It seemed that a charter bus for Brigham Young University had somehow swerved and hit a tree just after mile 7 of our course, and the bus was obstructing traffic, positioned diagonally across the road.  Cars and runners ended up sharing half of a lane... Yikes!

Shenanigans on the course...
For the next several miles, it was a lot of beautiful scenery and the screaming downhill, already beginning to take a toll on my legs.  The sun was out as well, and there was a marked difference in feeling when we were running in the shade vs. running under sunlight. For a few miles, I would end up playing leapfrog with the 4:25 pacers, which made me think very strongly of potentially PRing on this race - a 4:25 would be 12 minutes faster than my current PR!  But that was short-lived, because they would end up speeding off around mile 17.

Down down down we go...
Further down...

And even more downhill.  But that 4:25 pace group just passed me.  Dang!

Desolate street on the out-and-back
Finally, we began to come out of the canyon at mile 18 of the course.  This was maybe about mile 9 of the half marathon course, and there was a noticeable change in the air.  This was the approximate elevation of Salt Lake City's inversion, an area where normal atmospheric conditions (cool air above, warm air below) becomes inverted.  With the warm air layer above, it acts like a lid, trapping pollutants in the cold air near the valley floor, a sensation similar to how smog is visible and trapped in the air in Los Angeles.  The air tasted somewhat metallic at this point of the race, and then the split happened.  Half Marathoners got to go straight down into Cottonwood Heights, but the marathoners had to deviate to the right onto Wasatch Boulevard, taking an out-and-back for the next four miles that was BRUTAL.  Not only did it seem like it was never going to end, the whole section was actually hilly... like, rolling hilly.  And so many cars were trying to maneuver their way through the streets while the race was going on (not a surprise, considering this part of the course was heavily residential.) The turnaround point was WAAAAY up Wasatch Boulevard at mile 20.4.  On this out-and-back, I was able to spot my friend Lisa, and finally Eva.

Official race photo.  Lookin' and feelin' REAL good.

Cottonwood Heights
At that elevation, I ended up walking quite a bit, and any attempt to try to break my PR from San Antonio in 2015 began to fade by each mile marker I passed.  Leaving the out-and-back couldn't have come any sooner.  We finally came off of Wasatch Boulevard and turned right, onto Fort Union Boulevard and into Cottonwood Heights.  We were in a city, and it was a stark contrast to the first 18 miles of the race, with all the cars and the buildings.  The downhill really took its toll on my leg muscles, and while I had begun to walk quite a bit from the start of the out-and-back, my momentum came back on a 300 foot downhill drop that came at mile 24.

Closer and closer we came, and then I could see it -- the finish line!  Finally, the finish line.  I officially crossed in 4:45:59.  While not a PR, it was a new PR for the year, beating my Green Bay time by over 10 minutes!  Immediately as I cross the finish line, my hamstring cramps up, and I hobble my way over to the medical tent.  Peggy, ever the attentive friend who was waiting at the finish, comes to meet me and help nurse me back to health (thank goodness she is an RN!); I get my hamstring iced and wrapped.  Tracy, a friend I met in Missoula, comes across the finish line not long after me, and she too has hamstring problems.  She joins me in the medical tent, and we gorge ourselves on PIZZA, water, and more electrolytes (Lord, water gets annoyingly painful to gulp down after a marathon).

A PR for the year! I haven't touched a sub 4:50 all year - Now my third fastest lifetime!

Victory Headstand at the finish line!

I love my friends!
A little while later, Lisa and Eva finish.  I'm finally feeling a bit better, so I emerge from the cots in the medical tent over to meet with them, and just walk a bit more on my tired legs.  Eventually, I meet my race contact, Anna, who I had only communicated with through emails, and she introduces me to Craig Sweeney, who directs the Louisiana Marathon, which I will be running (and singing at) in January!  After another slice of pizza, we decide to take cover from the blazing sun and head back to Bountiful.

Eva and I go back to her house where we are greeted by some chalk art done by her lovely husband Dave and son Jonah.  I was able to make time to take a quick shower, before Dave drives me over to SLC Airport (for the third time in a week - remember, last week I ran in Jackson Hole and flew through SLC!) to pick up a rental car.  Because the race is on a Saturday, I plan a trip to drive down to Cedar City in the afternoon and get my chance to explore southern Utah!

Proud of this one!

Being sassy with Violet, Eva's dog.

I leave Salt Lake City (after an absolutely necessary coffee and a Jimmy John's sandwich) around 3pm, and drive the four hours down to Cedar City, arriving a little before 7pm.  Of course, lots of gorgeous scenery on the way down to southern Utah - it gets so different from the area around Salt Lake City! It just so happens that the Utah Shakespeare Festival, a world renowned Shakespeare festival, is happening on the campus of Southern Utah University, and that evening is the closing night performance of night performance of Henry V at the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre. I'm able to get a ticket to see that evening's performance, and it's well timed when I get to the box office, as I qualify for student rush, and get a 50% off ticket!

A little culture for the weekend...
With some time to spare, I check into my hotel, a Rodeway Inn, requesting first floor, as my legs really can't take stairs too well after the beating they took the day before.  Note to anyone who stays here or anywhere in Cedar City - there are DEEP curbs on the edge of the street, and I was so scared I would wreck my car's front or back fender because it would scrape as I drove over them.  After checking in, I bring my bags in and chill for a little bit before heading back out to campus to get to the show.

What's awesome is that the sunsets here are remarkable, and the show begins just as the sun is going down.  I try to sit through the whole production as best as I can with my tiredness and my hunger, but being that it's Henry V, one of Shakespeare's history plays, it doesn't offer the same amount of excitement I'd hold if it was one of his comedies or tragedies.  At intermission, I decide to head back to the hotel, making a stop at one of the very few restaurants still open at that hour of night - Tacos El Jefe.  It was actually really quite good.  After putting myself into a food coma, I crash for the night.

Driving eastward toward Cedar Breaks
Cedar Breaks, up close and personal!
 The next morning, I sleep in a little bit (at least compared to the day before), but know that I have a packed day of sightseeing to get through in this huge swath of southern Utah, especially with my flight leaving at 8:15pm that night.  I drove 40 minutes east of Cedar City, on one of the most beautiful stretches of road I've had the pleasure of driving down to Cedar Breaks National Monument, a natural amphitheater, stretching across 3 miles, with a depth of over 2,000 feet.  Like the better known Bryce Canyon National Park, this beautiful location has a canyon featuring thousands of hoodoos, the tall, thin spires of rock that protrude from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland.  The hoodoos here at Cedar Breaks can rival those of Bryce Canyon because of the proximity of the geologic formations to the pathways along the rim of the canyon.  The whole area allows visitors to see these awesome formations close up!  Wildlife is also quite abundant here, and I got a little show from a cute little golden-mantled ground squirrel, with the beauty of the amphitheater in the background.
A posing squirrel!
The beautiful views of Bryce Canyon
I then headed an hour and a half northeast to Bryce Canyon National Park.  With an itinerary in mind, I head out to see a few important viewing spots in the park, including Rainbow Point, Natural Bridge, and Inspiration Point.  The park was quite impressive, and I loved being able to see the humongous Bryce Amphitheater, dwarfing the Cedar Breaks space by an immense amount - the basin stretches 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep.  The hunger pangs quickly came, so I opted to have a quick lunch at the Bryce Canyon Diner before making my way out to the east entrance of Zion National Park, about another hour and a half drive to the southwest.

Hoodoos in Red Canyon, just outside of Bryce.
The surreal landscape of Zion
After passing through the ranger station, I knew I was in for an amazing experience - the drive in provided some superbly unique and out-of-this-world scenery, and then the tunnel in the mountain as we drove down the switchbacks to the bottom of the canyon, was jaw droppingly amazing.  Zion was definitely an experience I wish I could've spent more time at, but with only a few hours of time left in my day, I had to make do with the time that I was dealt.  The beauty of Zion is to be experienced through the hikes of varying degrees of difficulty and length that you can take all through the canyon - and as this is prime visitor season, the park offers a free shuttle bus that goes up and down Zion Canyon Road from early April to late October.  The bus stops at all the main trailheads, so I took the shuttle all the way to the end, and then stopped at one of the stops with a shorter hike to have at least one hiking experience at this park, quickly becoming my favorite national park visit to date.  I did the three mile roundtrip hike at Emerald Pools (seeing some wildlife along the way!), before taking the shuttle back to the parking lot and my car to make the one hour and fifteen minute drive back to Cedar City.
Just getting into Zion from the East Entrance...
Views along the Emerald Pools hike
More beautiful Zion!
Wildlife along the water at Emerald Pools in Zion.
The sun began to set as I made my way back to Cedar City, and arrived at Cedar City Airport a good hour and a half before my flight, likely an hour too early.  This was easily the smallest airport I've been to in my entire life.  Apparently, the airport offers two flights a day during the week, and one a day on the weekends.  With its single gate and security checkpoint, I made my way onto the jet for the short 40 minute flight to SLC, and then my flight back home to New York City, capping off yet another successful weekend of running and sightseeing!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Race Report: Jackson Hole Marathon

With Carrie, Nadia, and Donna!
The decision to do the Jackson Hole Marathon over Labor Day weekend was a late one.  I had barely visited it the last time I was in Wyoming; last year, I drove 1 1/2 hours from Pinedale after my half marathon for a quick picture under the famous antler arches in the town center, and then sped off to drive another 4 1/2 hours to get back to Salt Lake City for an evening flight to California. I also knew that flying into Jackson Hole was abhorrently expensive, with flights upwards of $700-800 roundtrip.  I was able to secure a decent $500 airfare to Idaho Falls (not bad for a holiday weekend roundtrip to that part of the country), with a connection in Salt Lake City.  The catch; with the race on a Saturday, I had to get in late on Friday - and that meant arriving at approximately 11pm in sleepy Idaho Falls, and having a two hour drive ahead of me to get to Jackson Hole.

Pre-race corgi!  My first WY Corgi!
I picked up my car (thankfully the rental car was still open, we were the last flight to arrive), and drove those two hours to Jackson Hole.  I had been monitoring the internet for the last week because of wildfires that had sprung up in the area, one of note that could have impacted my drive from Idaho Falls to Jackson Hole, but seemingly it had died enough down to open up the roads again.  Of course, the entire time, I'm white knuckled because driving through this part of the country at night is dangerous because of the ample amount of wildlife.  Not only that, but half an hour in, I see a thunderstorm brewing in the distance, with prominent strikes of lightning revealing the climb I'd have to make through the mountains.  Oh great, driving through a thunderstorm in the mountains, what could possibly go wrong.  My GPS took me through some back country roads with no light whatsoever except for my headlights, almost constantly on high beams, and lightning flashes.  At one point, the rain came, and it was no ordinary rain -- it was horizontal rain.  And I wasn't immune to the wildlife sightings - I noticed several deer just minding their own business on the side of the road (the entire time, I'm literally praying for them to just STAY ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD, PLEASE)

Startline pre-race...
I eventually made it through the mountain pass, and arrived at the Ranch Lot in Teton Village just before 1am.  Because of my late arrival, I decided to do the sleeping bag thing, and not spend unnecessary amounts of money for a hotel room I'd barely spend time in.  So, I get all my stuff for the race the next morning ready, and then jump into my sleeping bag and sleep in my car.  I get about 4 1/2 hours of sleep, thankfully, and wake up at 5:30, just as other runners begin trickling in from Teton Village hotels or from other accommodations nearby.  The first shuttle arrived at 5:40, and I'm able to get onto that first bus to the marathon start; our busload heads down to Jackson Town Center. Upon arrival, we are literally the first ones there - the race organizers are still setting up, and getting the custom antler-pattern "start gate" inflated.

Soon, more of the marathoners began to appear at the start area, while the sun began to rise.  I had gotten in touch with my friend Nadia beforehand to pick up my race bib, and after taking photos with the Marathon Maniacs and 50 Staters at the race, I ran back to their hotel nearby to pick up my bib, before returning to the start.  It also just so happened to be Nadia's "Titanium" race, elevating her to the highest level in Marathon Maniacs; and her boyfriend Halbert's birthday race!  Upon returning, I got to hang out and chat with Donna, Seth, and Carrie, who had all also made their way into town for the race.  I quickly got my bag over to gear check, and then got the opportunity to sing the national anthem for the small crew!

Singing the national anthem at the start of the race

Running through Jackson
The race was to start at 7am, but for some reason or another, we're a little delayed to start.  Our 7am start becomes 7:07.  We took off, heading southward on Center Street, then immediately turning left onto East Broadway.  Within minutes, the 6,000+ feet of elevation I'm running in begins to rear its ugly head.  In addition to the elevation (and the slight 85' uphill over the first mile), the lack of sleep is also taking its toll.  After a 10:46 first mile, I begin walking. At first I was going to do a 9 minute run, 1 minute walk, but with the elevation, I then decide to do a 4 minute run, 1 minute walk.  The course, lit by the early morning sun is absolutely beautiful.  After running by the National Elk Refuge within that first mile, the course passes through through residential East Jackson. We turn right onto Nelson Drive, and then right again on Hansen Avenue.  We continue weaving through the residential streets of East Jackson, before heading down onto West Snow King Avenue.  Along this road, Donna and I end up leapfrogging for awhile.

Along the Wyoming Centennial
Scenic Byway.
We run by the Snow King ski hill before joining the Community Pathway system by Flat Creek.  Thankfully, most of the route up to this point was gradually downhill, but it's barely detectable because it's very slight (just under 200 feet over 3 miles).  At about the 4.5 mile mark, we join up with the trail running right alongside US Route 89, cosigned with US 189, US 191, and US 26, and also known as the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway.  Running alongside the highway was absolutely beautiful.  We were on here for awhile, but we were treated to gorgeous views of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the mountains surrounding the area, even the Grand Tetons themselves in the distance. Much of the trail was rolling hills, but I still managed to keep up my 4 minute run, 1 minute walk for the first 10k of the race.

Horses playing around in the pasture, with the Snake River Range in the distance

Coming up on mile 8!
4 1/2 miles along S Park Loop Rd
As we approached mile 8, we finally are able to get off of the highway, turning right onto S Park Loop Road.  I see Nadia and Halbert, and pass them, but not for long - Nadia passes me just past the mile 8 marker, and quite literally JETS off.  We continued along S Park Loop Road for quite some time, and while we're treated to magical views of the valley, it's probably one of the more monotonous parts of the course. Unfortunately for us, at mile 10, the elevation gain begins, and it just gradually continues to go uphill all the way to the very end, save for a VERY slight downhill section at mile 15.  I end up doing "walking fartleks" - a method of "run to that phone pole, then walk to the next," something I'd do all the way along this part of the course.  It turns out, I wasn't alone in doing this - Carrie admitted to having to do that for the second half of the race herself.

Cows, cows, everywhere.

The one short downhill at mile 15.
Looking back at what I just ran...
Finally, an unobstructed view of the Grand Tetons

Where's the moose?
At mile 14, we finally we came off of S Park Loop Road, and joined up with the sidewalk alongside the Teton Pass Highway.  We continued along the path alongside the highway until we reached a bridge that took us over the Snake River just before mile 17.   After crossing the river, we took to trails that took us out to the western suburb of Wilson. The section in Wilson was tedious, as the sun was beginning to take its toll, as we scooted along a lane of the highway, before returning to the Community Pathway System leading through a grassy park area.

Crossing the Snake River!
Eventually, we emerged out of the park trails to Moose Wilson Road, where we would run on a paved pathway right alongside the road all the way to the finish.  At mile 20, my achilles decides to rebel on me, screaming "WTF are you doing;" so for the last 10k of the race, I end up walking. I still tried to continue my run/walk segments, but on a very small scale.  Along the way, I met some recent Michigan grads who happened to be out visiting the area, and decided to run the marathon on a whim.  More power to them... 26.2 miles on a whim in this kind of elevation is NO SMALL FEAT!  And I was treated to some local beer at the final aid station at mile 25.  I decided to have fun with it, and drank the can of beer, while walking the remainder of the route all the way to the finish line in Teton Village.  Basically, I had no more fucks to give, haha!

Beautiful framed photo with a ranch gate
Just a few more miles to go!!
Told you.  Beer!
I get to Teton Village, home of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and the iconic Red Tram and Clock Tower.  After crossing through the parking lot, I walked over the grass to cheers from friends who stuck around to watch me finish!  Nadia, who had passed me at mile 8, was among them, and she went off to finish her milestone race in a sub-5, well under her anticipated 5:30.  I also got to see my Cali mom and dad, Jann and Mike, who ran the half marathon on their journey to complete half marathons in all fifty states!

After waiting up for other friends who weren't too far behind me, I went off to do my victory headstand and then meet the race directors, to offer my thanks for putting on a great race and for giving me the chance to sing the national anthem.  After a quick picture with Jann and Mike, I took off to head back to my car, as I had the rest of the day to sightsee, and had a pretty set schedule I was planning to follow... covering two national parks, and then drive all the way back to Idaho Falls.

Running to the finish line, beer in hand!

Victory Headstand!
Reunited after our race! (Photo by Donna Dullys)
Photos from Grand Teton
I end up changing and freshening up a tiny bit before heading up to Grand Teton National Park and stop at a few locations to get some beautiful photos of the views all around.  I had been warned about the park police being pretty stringent about speed limits through the park, and with it being a holiday weekend, they were out in full force.  I was very cognizant about how fast I was going on the road, making sure I was within the bounds of the speed limit.  However, along the way, I ended up seeing some flashing police lights in my rear view mirror, and realize that those were for me.  Of course, my heart stops - I have never gotten a speeding ticket in my life.  I pull over, and get questioned by the park policeman.  Turns out, there was a hiker/climber who went missing, and I matched the description of the missing person.  The gate attendants that let me into the park had flagged the park police to find me as I drove through the park.  After showing my ID and them realizing I wasn't this person, I was let go, and I continued... slightly shaken... along the road leaving the park and heading northward toward Yellowstone.

Entering Yellowstone!
In the lead up to race weekend, northwestern Wyoming had been suffering through some unfortunate wildfires, wreaking havoc to the air quality in the area.  In fact, there was some speculation as to whether the race would continue if the air quality was poor.  Of particular note was a fire that was first discovered in late July.  This fire, called the Berry Fire, was managed by Grand Teton National Park for ecological benefits.  Initiated by lightning, the fire began on the west side of Jackson Lake but then quickly spread, at one point making a six-mile run and impacting two 1½ mile stretches of the highway between Grand Teton and Yellowstone.  For approximately a week, the road was closed, forcing visitors who planned to visit both parks, to make hours-long detours.  However, in the days before the race weekend, the fire was able to be managed and suppressed enough to reopen the road and the south gate to Yellowstone National Park.

Old Faithful amongst the clouds
My second time at the Continental Divide - the first was in Montana when at Glacier!
The Grand Prismatic Spring!

Colors at the Grand Prismatic Spring
Along the way you could see the fire damage almost immediately to the trees alongside the highway.  Eventually, I crossed over into Yellowstone National Park, and made my way through some crazy holiday traffic to see both Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring, which were completely mobbed by tourists.  With the afternoon fading away, I made a decision to leave Yellowstone through the west entrance, so that I could get onto the road back to Idaho Falls before the sun completely set.  Of course, I encountered some crazy traffic on the road toward West Yellowstone, which I thought was due to another fire which I had read about that was impacting that part of the park.  However, it was something completely different -- a bunch of elk decided to hang out in a gully within full view of the road.  Practically every car heading westward was clamoring to try to figure out where to park so they could capture photos of wildlife in their natural habitat.  After sitting in traffic for an extra twenty minutes, I was able to get out in good time, grab a quick meal in West Yellowstone, and eat it as I drove back to Idaho Falls to my hotel, a rather nicely remodeled Motel 6.   Early the next morning, I had my flight to head back home through the cute Idaho Falls Airport.