Pacing in the Canyons; Top of Utah Marathon

Top of Utah Marathon Anyone?
Top of Utah Marathon Anyone? Photo Credit: Nicole Smith

Due to the extreme jump in demand for places at next year’s Boston Marathon, people were scrambling around in late Spring or looking for earlier fall marathons to BQ, an acronym referring to Boston Qualify to my non-runner readers.

Plans for Tiffany to run Chicago in mid-October were revisited, we knew that race fell too late in the year, so we landed ourselves in Logan, Utah, a small town situated just off the base of the Wasatch Mountains and a few miles shy of Idaho.

The race (Top of Utah Marathon) was picked for many reasons. The date, the course profile (starting elevation 5,500 dropping over a 1,000 feet), the  scenery (through a canyon in the mountains) and those fabulous moose medals!

The real draw to the race was the moose medals!
The real draw to the race was the moose medals! Photo credit: Top of Utah

Initially, I planned to jump in as pacer for the second half of the race. Realizing that the first half (18 miles) was the most scenic, I upgraded my pacing duties and entered the whole race. I was just hoping she wouldn’t go too fast as my 100K race in Colorado was the following week. No, seriously, I was very concerned!

Net downhill!
Net downhill!

Needing a BQ of 3:35, was not the concern for her. A 1:31 half and a couple of 19 minute 5K’s told her she was in 3:05-15 shape. A 20-minute cushion to fall back on and a limitless faster window was the game plan going into it.

We took a bus from our hotel at some ungodly hour and transferred to a second bus situated at the finish area which climbed up and through the canyon road, the same one we would descend. It felt like the Utah’s version of Boston all being crammed on a school bus with loads of excited….well, adults!

The combination of 6 AM and 5,500 feet above sea level made our start location anything but normal mid-September weather for what we are used too back in New York. We competed to see who could look more ridiculous with the most amount of layers on. I recall at least five for me and am claiming victory on this post!

Just prior to the start, we did a mini shake out in front of the start line. When my eyes locked on a guy wearing exactly the same kit as me, my instinct said ‘How did he get that kit?!’ I approached him, a skinnier version of me and then realized it was my Team Novo Nordisk teammate, Seth Pilkington, whom I had never met and clearly neither of us knew we would be here. He said he was going for the win so we backed off a few steps before the gun was fired.

7 AM and the sun was barely rising as we were moved off down the canyon. The strategy Tiffany was using was the 10/10/10 rule which translates to the non-runner as the first 10 easy, the middle 10 focused and the last 10K with all your heart. I have used this strategy myself. I particularly like recalling Jack Daniel’s quote which is almost identical;

“Run the first two-thirds with your head, the last third with your heart”.

After the first couple of miles, the easy part got thrown out of the window, we were running 7:05 pace. I tried to convince Tiffany to bring it back to 7:15-20 but she wasn’t having it. A sea of people lined the single lane asphalt in front and behind us. This was the only sign of anything man-made for miles. It was just a road, a canyon and lots of very happy runners.

The sunrise hit one hillside and left the others dark. The scenery was perhaps more spectacular than we had predicted it would be here. And this race only attracts 2,000 runners. Go figure?

Goofeballs!

Goofballs descending! Photo credit: Marathonfoto

By mile 7, the pace had dropped to the same number. This was shaping up to be a fast day! Tiffany was in about 10th place for the women. Every mile or so, we would see one more further ahead and gradually reel that person in. Their was not much banter between them. They knew they were all fighting for top spots in the race. I was beginning to feel like the only guy in the front row of The Bachelor Tells All. Shouldn’t really be part of this but as I am, I’ll take the best seat please. (That was also a public confession to watching The Bachelor FYI – what a show!).

My role was to ultimately to limit the pace to 7 minute miles. The canyon descent was so inviting as well as seeing the next target ahead but we had agreed to not hammer down the 1,100 foot descent. That’s why we had a plan after all. There would be flat miles to finish, 8 to be precise, in the Cache Valley which had a risk of feeling anything but fun on worn out quads at the current pace.

A pit stop at a rare man-made object at mile 11 wasn’t ideal but ultimately, the 30 second break we both got from the pace seemed to do us both good. The 7:35 on the watch was in essence another 7:05. We lost a female place in the process but caught back up to her within the next mile to resume as we were in 6th or so. The pace was dropping and we went as low as a couple of 6:30’s which bemused a couple of guys working the same system as runner and pacer as we bombed passed.

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Exiting the canyons having way too much for 16 miles into a marathon.           Photo credit: Marathonfoto

Coming down lower we got to see more humans other than very nice aid station volunteers and/or runners. Crowds formed first in patches and then as a mass section at a fork in the road at mile 16. We ran through the aid station smoothly, grabbing our fluids and turned a slight right. I asked for confirmation that she was in 6th place but got a quizzed look from a spectator. Tiffany told me to forget about it. If she didn’t care, nor should have I but we both knew a top 5 meant prize money, a nice little extra for her efforts today.

We pushed on through some flat roads at the base of the canyon among small bungalow homes heading north towards Logan. But now begun the mind games. 18 downhill done and 8 rollers to get home. Mile 19 produced the slowest mile other than the pit-stop. it was time to dig in. Luckily for Tiffany, she had a female to focus on ahead, that we assumed had to be the elusive 5th place.

The next few miles were tough. The gap would close but at every aid station, Tiffany would take her time to hydrate and collect herself and the gap expanded again. With 5K to go we finally reeled her before turning onto the main high street. it had taken 5 miles from initially seeing her to taking her down. This fly on the wall pacing gig was awesome!

Up main street for a long mile, we could see in the distance what looked like another female runner. Once confirmed, it was game on again. This gap closed but we were running out of time. The advantage we had, was that we could attack from behind without her (competitor) knowing.

On the turn, she finally noticed but like a deer in headlights literally froze knowing this was the end of her luck. We went past and I was adamant Tiffany had pass with utmost conviction. And we did but somehow her competitor kicked back. It was now game on for the last mile.

Tiffany slowly stretched the gap as we ran full stride. Her breathing was heavy, it was really gutsy and awesome to watch but nerve-racking too. All I could do was encourage and lie a little bit. “How much is the gap?” she asked me approaching the last turn. “Not enough” I replied although it probably was.

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Incredible push for home to snatch 4th place female right at the end. #proud. Photo credit: Marathonfoto

Tiffany ran that final straight so hard, I barely kept up! She clocked in at 3:05 and some change and I finished between her and the disgruntled fifth place female. At first, the news was coming through that her time meant she had beaten her PR Berlin but alas not to be true. She missed it by seconds but that did not put a damper on the post-race festivities.

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Two happy marathoners. Photo credit: Marathonfoto guy with our phone!

Somehow I managed to snag an age-group award for my pacing duties and for that I earned a small moose trophy but the show deservedly went to Tiffany with a giant moose for 4th overall and $500 cash. Take that Uncle Sam! What a day and what a fun race at the Top of Utah. Post-race five-hour drive to Zion National Park ahead and a full six days to recover before my inaugural 100K in Colorado. The fun never seems to stop.

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