Park City is a ski resort community located in the mountains outside of Salt Lake City. "Ski resort community" means that it is up pretty high. The scenery around Park City is an interesting mix and backwards from what I'm used to seeing. My Colorado and Pacific Northwest experience is that the lower elevations are where you find trees and lots of green. As you move higher and get above the treeline, things are sparse. Still quite pretty, but very different. Park City is the opposite. Down low, the scenery is basically high desert - scrubby vegetation with absolutely no trees. Then, as you move up past Park City towards the higher ski resort of Deer Valley, you find trees.
The Park City Marathon is a small event (with a bigger half marathon) held in late August. Late August in Salt Lake City can be 90 degrees. Up at Park City, it'll be quite a bit cooler. In fact, race morning can be very cold. I ran this race last year. It was the weekend before my first triple; I ran it as a long run and intentionally didn't push things. Without knowing much about the course, I figured this would be a 4:00-4:15 finish. I was popsicle-frozen at the start (no gloves!) and didn't really warm up much. I had more difficulty with the 6500-7300 ft elevation than I thought I would, and I really underestimated the hills along the way. I finished at 4:15 which was close enough to my goal, but it beat me down.
Let me tell you about those hills. The course is a basically a loop, but with an out-and-back section in the middle. It's like running three wholly different races consecutively. The first race is a challenging, roly poly 10k on the roads below Park City. "Don't go out too fast" is important advice for any marathon, but it is particularly true here... as you are trying to thaw yourself and find your rhythm, this first 10k is busy taking all of your energy. Then just past M6, the course turns onto a rails-to-trails conversion.
Here we go. My standard spiel on rails-to-trails. By definition, these are wide bike trails that were railroads at one time. Trains can't go up or down steep grades, so rails-to-trails never have steep hills. But trains DO need to get where they are going, which may be up higher or down lower. And so, rails-to-trails have gentle ups and downs that can be very long. Ridiculously long in running terms. They are completely runnable; the hills are never so steep that you say "wow, I think I'll walk this". But after miles and miles of running up and up and up, or down and down and down, your legs will be tired of the whole rails-to-trails scene. And your brain will be mush.
Especially on this trail. Where possible, rails-to-trails go thataway. No sharp turns. Not even curves unless curves are absolutely required. The Park City Marathon turns onto the Union Pacific trail just past M6 and heads up. 10 miles up. Straight as an arrow, except for a couple zig zags along the way. Actually, only 8ish miles are on the trail. As the course nears Park City (wave as you go by!) and M14.5, it jumps back onto the roads for the 2 mile each-way out-and-back push up to Deer Valley. This is the steepest part of the hill.
At M16.5, the course turns around to head back to Park City. Per the elevation chart for this race, you'd think that the last 10 mile section is a look-out-below downhill to the finish. In fact, the few spectators and all the aid station volunteers along the way provide tons of "it's downhill from here!" encouragement.
Ok, the general tendency is downhill. Generally. But there are a couple ups along the way, including one incredibly steep hill inside Park City. The kind of steep where you run it, the guy next to you walks it, and you both get to the top at the same time. Also, a lot of what looks like downhill on the chart seems flat when you are on the course. This last 10 miles could definitely be harder... but starting at 7300 feet after 16+ miles of hills, it's plenty challenging even with gravity helping out. "It's downhill from here!" Yeah.
That's the course. The weather on race morning was basically the same as last year: dark for the first 30 minutes, then dawn, then blue skies. The light breeze made it chilly, but it wasn't nearly as cold at the start as last year. Great running weather overall. Of course, I was in two shirts, those trendy (but really geeky looking) sleeves, and gloves while most people were in singlets. Heh. At least I didn't have on long pants.
As I mentioned, last year I chose to run this course conservatively because of the following week's triple. This year, I had nothing like that in my schedule. Then again, what I thought of as 'conservative' last year turned out to be plenty hard what with the course's challenges. Plus I'm still recovering from a skinned heel. I decided not to be tricky with training goals - I just set out to beat my time from last year ("beat 4:15"). I also wanted to run a more even race. Last year, I was completely wiped out afterwards. This year, I wanted to be more coherent. Knowing the course in advance, I figured that I could run it smarter and not get psyched out by the long hill and everyone lying to me about the downhill. I was a little worried about my heel.
I won't give a mile by mile recap. I managed to run the first 10k evenly and without incident. The 10 mile hill went by. Slowly. Part of the trail runs through open range, and sure enough, there were cows on either side of the course. I suppose I could have stopped to pet a cow, but nah. I hit the halfway point at 2:00... one minute faster than last year. That 2:01 last year meant that I finished the race with an ugly 2:01/2:14 split. And I felt like crap. This year I wanted to be more even, but as I hit the halfway point, I realized that this meant I'd need to be a lot closer to 4:00 than 4:15. Maybe I went out too fast.
Last year, I wasn't expecting the steeper grind up to the Deer Valley resort. I think I walked a bit of it, and I know I shuffled a lot of it. This year, I ran the whole thing albeit slowly. I was certainly in a much better mood as I headed back towards Park City this year.
It's called the "Park City Marathon", but the start/finish is about 6 miles outside of Park City proper. The course does cruise through town near M18, including the steep hill. Like last year, I walked this hill. Theoretically, I was on the downhill now. I hit M20 at 3:06. I'd have to stay steady to finish somewhere around 4:00. I was out of the trees and back down into the high desert area. There's a famous white barn in Park City. The Marathon even incorporates the barn in their shirt's design. I think I passed the famous white barn at M21. I'm not sure, though, because there's another white barn at M25. I was confused in my report for last year's race. I wrote about a band playing at the white barn near M21. That was incorrect. They were actually near the second white barn at M25. And they were there again this year. 14 or 15 year old guys playing a blues riff. I know it was early on a Sunday morning and God bless them for being awake, but they needed a lesson in music theory. The guitars were playing their not-really-in-tune riff in one key while the electric piano guy was noodling around in a wholly different key. It made me run faster, though. I needed to get out of earshot :-).
My last 6 miles were fairly even, around 9:00/mile pace. This was a big improvement over those last miles up the hill between M13 and M16.5. The last two miles were pancake flat and wandered around the perimeter of a couple condominium complexes. It seemed more like 10 miles.
Finally, under bright blue 60 degree Utah skies, I hit the finish. 4:02. Well, I beat 4:15. I also ran an even race: a 2:00/2:02 split. I felt basically normal too. Of course, 4:02 is far too close to 4:00, and so I immediately began wondering if I could have beaten 4. I don't know. This is one of the very few races I've done without any potty stops at all... so I couldn't say "well, if I hadn't had to stop..." because I didn't stop. And aside from the steeper uphills, I ran evenly. No magic places from which I could have compressed time. 4:02 will have to do. My heel held up too, which is great.
Next up: The Super Jock N' Jill half marathon on labor day near Seattle. Super Jock N' Jill is the original Seattle running store with the really weird name. There are lots of great marathons to run on labor day weekend, but I signed up for this half because once upon a time, this was going to be my go-fast attempt to break 1:30. Too bad I screwed up that plan and other plans by running the White River 50 and messing up my heel. Slowly my heel has gotten better... but I've had to skip important training during the last month. And then a few days before the half, I had to have a little "procedure" that left me with stitches in my back. These stitches pulled (ok, as I write this, they still pull) if I stretched my back or my legs too far in any direction. Wonderful.
So Super Jock N' Jill did not work out as my warp speed run. I did finish, though. Nowhere close to 1:30. More on that Real Soon Now.