Mile 4: Starting around mile 2.8 and ending just before M4 we spur up towards Brighton. As per Garmin, it looks like a steep 9+% uphill for the first .25M before the grade reduces a more moderate incline for the remainder of the mile. All of this happens at about 8700 feet.
I warned Dave about Mile 4. I told Dave that when we hit the start of M4 my plan was to go into my pain cave, find my happy place, and not come out until I start going downhill again. No thinking. No assessing. No stopping. No walking. Just trusting that no matter how awful it feels, it will get better.
Once through M4, we head back downhill without any relief until mile 20. It seems to get steeper after M13. Then flattens some as we approach 20 on a bike trail. There is nothing you can do to stop the mountain from beating you up from the ground up. But in return your splits look like magic.
If you have not done anything to prepare for the relentless beat down that the mountain will give you (and even if you have done some work), your quads will turn into lifeless jello by the time you leave the glorious canyon. The is not the race to aim to finish the last 10K faster then the miles before it. Not for me at least.
The last 10k was new this year. I think it felt harder to me than the rolling highway that used to end the race. It was about 35 degrees warmer at the bottom than the top. The beat down and then the heat up together made those last 6.2 miles a challenge. Anything flat felt like it was uphill and anything uphill felt impossible. All I could was try to control the fade, to try to hold on to my negative split by watching the average pace screen. I wanted a negative split (first half vs second half). All I needed to do was not let the last 10k eat me alive.
I do believe that if I can hold on, absorb the shock, and tolerate the altitude, this course has the ability to gift me about 15-20 seconds per mile (more or less) faster than what I could run on flat course.... if all goes well. This is just my opinion but Grade-Adjusted Calculators and websites that compare races help me identify how to set expectation for a goal time. It fast but hard. I don't plan to move well for a few days longer than I would after at other less punishing race.
Struggling to Prepare and Risk Acceptance:
The first year I raced Big Cottonwood was in 2016. I did everything I could think of to prepare for a gravity beat down and it worked. I ran my first sub-3 there with a negative split. I was able to race a half marathon 1 week later. I was in great shape.
This year I was unprepared for hills. I knew I should train for the decent but I had to avoid hills because my achilles was not doing well with climbing until recently. It's hard to run down a hill when you can't run up one. I did add jumping- literally 2 minutes of jumping x 3 sets, 3 sessions per week for a few weeks. I knew this wasn’t going to be enough but it was what I could tolerate. I arrived minimally prepared and I knew this was very risky. I decided to accept the risk for the opportunity to do something I love in one of the most beautiful places I get to enjoy.
Deer Valley & Park City: One of my most favorite places to be,
We got out to Park City on Wednesday afternoon and immediately ran my favorite high altitude Deer Valley 3 mile loop - twice - before doing anything else. It is a beautiful loop, especially at sunrise. It drops and climbs between 8000 and 8500 feet altitude. The grades of the climbs are up to 7-10% in some places.
The uphill start of this loop makes me dizzy immediately, but I learned that by the time I get around it once I feel better going up on the second lap. Sid runs one lap with me and Dave. Dave and I go out for a second lap, testing our downhill speed, happy to see a 7:28 mile on the descent without much pain or effort.
The next two mornings (Thursday and Friday) I run 5-6 miles around the top of the mountain before breakfast. Dave runs with me. We accidentally discover a Strava segment on the loop (a 0.23 mile climb at 6.1% grade). We think we can "win it" but we aren’t sure where it starts and stops. We try on Thursday morning and check later to find that we stopped too soon. We do some light hiking that afternoon, so we can keep moving and enjoy the mountains. But because Dave and I are idiots, and we don’t want to get sucked into spiriting up a mountain the day before we are supposed to sprint down the mountain we decide to go back after the kick, run over to the segment and complete the job. I am happy. I get extra miles and some hard work. Dave crushes the segment at a 6:00 pace which is outrageous because sprinting up a 6.1% incline at over 8000 feet when you live close to sea level is hard. I took the ladies top spot in 6:35 pace. This helped us build some confidence for “Mile 4.”
Dave and I woke up at 3 am and were on the race provided bus outside of our hotel by 4 am. I anticipated it would be cold on the mountain in the dark but it wasn’t too chilly at all (about 47 degrees with no wind0. I had already eaten and drank everything I want to. We had two hours until gun time. This was a long time to do nothing.
I learned over the years that the top of the mountain is cold and dark. Bring layers to stay warm and a headlamp. The race provides mylar blankets and gloves in the gear bag. Everyone seems to use these while waiting around. I wish I brought a warm wool hat. There is a drop bag truck and bag that can hold a lot of gear. I checked a protein shake and my warm up clothes and a few other things. Next time I want to check training shoes to get out of my racing flats as soon as possible post race.
The starting area has become awkward. They used to have us linger around Guardsman Pass but this year were down a little lower on the road, just sitting in one lane of the narrow two-landed, shoulder-free road, with busses coming up the other side dropping over more runners (and leaving in the same direction they came). I would rather them start us one mile down the other side of the pass, where there is an off-road parking area for hikers. Have us run 1 mile uphill first (yes it will be awful. People will walk, it won't be pleasant, maybe get rid of M4 and t this would make the start more reasonable, comfortable, and safe. Maybe have us walk up towards the pass when it get close to gun time?).
The Weather at the start was perfect. Around 48 degrees with low humidity and a light wind that really effect running speed but it made it chilly while sitting around at the start. It actually got cooler as we ran down into the canyon shaded by the mountain. As we opened up into the roads, the last hour was 35 degrees warmer and this wasn’t helpful.
I felt a little off because I wasn’t sure what my target was for this race. I didn’t know the end. I know the net decent was huge. I thought the last 10k would be faster than the prior course’s rolling out and back on a highway but it seemed harder to me. I wanted to commit to something before I started. I decided 3:15 would make me happy but sub-3:10 was my Reach Goal. I would determine what I could do by 20M when the course flattened. Dave and I lined up between the 3:10 and the 3:20 pace groups.
I did want to negative split even with a fade at the end. I know that 13M through 20M was going to be the fastest part of this race, with the exception of the first mile, so the course was setting me up to negative.
I was concerned about my toes. The last few times I ran this race my toe nails were destroyed. I know all the things to do. I trim my nails short. I know the fit of the shoes matter. I know how to run descents efficiently.. I also know that sometimes there is nothing you can do about your toes. Sometimes it is just the way our feet are shaped vs the shape of the shoe vs the conditions were are in. Sometimes you need to accept your toes will get the worst of it.
I wore Nike Vaporfly Next% 3. The shape of the toe box is apparently great for my feet. My toes survived the best this year that any other downhill race. I was shocked after the race ended to see them all doing well.
Mile 4 is just long enough for anyone not used to thin air (like me) to hurt in places I didn’t know I could feel pain. Who knew rib bones could ache from running? Those capable of speaking were trying to utter words of encouragement to the collective struggled. I could only grunt. Someone mumble "Just hold on you got this!" I don't know if he was talking to me or himself. Mile 4 plays tricks with my head. It is cruel. It tells me I suck. It tells me I can't do this. That I have no business being out here. That I should have stayed home. It tells me to give up on my goals. But I know it's a liar. I know M4 wont last. I know that as soon as I pass the Mile 4 Marker and begin Mile 5, my world will get exponentially better with each descending step in every way. M4 is a test of Self Confidence and Perseverance. I was able to hold on tight and get through it at a faster pace than I thought I would. I am very proud of my work. M4 -8:02.
M5-M131, It took some time to get comfortable again. I did settle in and enjoy the ride. My pace window was 7:15-7:26 (3;10-3:15), If it felt easy to more faster I did as long as I left room to grow in the second half. I felt really comfortable coming through the half marathon in 1:34:10 (7:11 pace)
Those who know me know I mentally like to split marathons in to 14/12.2. I feel like I can handle a hard 12 mile run even after a long 14M "warm up". The trouble with running fast is the "warm up" is practically the same pace so this split is just a mental chunking trick. I never want to run so fast in the first 14 that I am not able to try to get faster in the last 12. There is no guarantees. Course matters but most road course can be negative split.
I know this one would have a slow last 10k so with 13.1 to go I got myself mentally prepared to start to do some work. I wanted a strong 6 miles from 14-20 and then I would deal with the end once I got there.
My 14-20M split was actually better than I thought it would be. If the last 6M wasn't awful I might really walk off this race with one of my best marathons. I wouldn't break 3, I know that but anything under 3:08 is going to be one of my top 4 fastest times (2:54, 2:55, 3:03, 3:08).
My research into the last 10k indicated there might be a decline through 23.25, a long gradual uphill through 24.75 and then the last less then 2M were back downhill. I just needed to get to 25 miles and it should get better.
This is NOT what happened. Once off the bike path, it got hot. The neighborhood loop was hilly in places I didn't expect it to be. The climbs felt steep and slow. I fought for every single step. My legs felt like jello and my strength was gone. We were close to 5000 feet and I could feel how this made running hard for me.
I watched my average pace slow and it was hard to watch the fade I couldn't prevent. My goal was to keep the pace from fading to slower the 7:11 and at the very least I would negative split the race.
I wasn't racing anyone at this point. I had no idea what place I was in. I know at the start of the race it felt like 100 women blew past me (I was actually in 76th position at Mile 1). I didn't come thinking I would place. I hear to have fun and I was having fun even in the these final mile. I just needed it to end.
As we approached the final uphill to the finish and then the hair pin turn into the shoot, I was so grateful to get to stop running. My legs were toast. My asthma kicked in. I have my inhaler so that was helpful.
It took some time for result to get clarified but by the time the dust cleared I learned that I had actually run the second fastest women's time on the course but place 3rd overall because of the gun-time rule for podium finishes (which I respect and have no problem with).
Shannon McGinn, JD, MS, MA, EDS, NBC-HWC, ATR-BC, LPAT.