Richard (Running Denver) and I jogged away from the starting line on the narrow canyon road, weaving through the crowds gathering for the start, toward the back where we could find some room to warm up and stretch unencumbered by the crowd that was hemmed in by a steep, rocky canyon wall, a starting line, and a steep drop to the Colorado river below. If we moved to the river-side of the street, the wind buffeted us, causing our race numbers to flutter noisily. Since the bib with the number contained the timing chip, I was concerned that it might come off, and I would not get an official time for the 36th annual Canyonlands Half Marathon in Moab, Utah.
I had entered a lottery in December in the hopes of getting one of 5000 spots (shared between the 13.1 and 5 mile races). I had heard a lot about this race as it is very scenic, running for 11 miles in a red rock canyon beside the Colorado River into the town of Moab for the finish. It also was at the right time, coming four weeks before the 115th Boston Marathon. The plan was to train my tail off for Boston, run Canyonlands as a “tune-up race” where I could test my fitness and hopefully build some confidence for Boston.
As Richard and I exited the back of the starting crowd with 15 minutes until the gun, we ran into Kevin (Blue Earth) to gain some last minute advice from the veteran of this race. We were quickly joined by Ilana (Ilanarama), and Karah (Kazz). We had all met up the night before to enjoy some good company and some good Mexican fare. In addition to these folks that all were lingering at the back of the pack, the night before included some other friends, including Kevin (Aretequest) who flew in for the race. It is always good to meet some of the imaginary friends with whom I so often converse online. Spirits flowed the night before the race and some strategies and histories were exchanged. In the middle of a canyon road, minutes before the start of a half marathon, the mood was high, despite the prospect of a headwind for 13.1 miles. It felt as if we were all just happy to be running—as it should be. We wished each other luck and headed back through the throngs to the start.
Richard and I both are running Boston this year and our training and race times are similar. Our goals were similar as well: we both wanted to run a PR (personal record) for the half marathon, and, if possible, beat the PR of one of our imaginary friends/training partners. As we headed into the wind and weaved through the crowd to the start, we decided that our friend’s time was safe, but we thought that we could still better our own best times. This well-organized race has pace signs near the front of the pack, so those with aspirations of a speedy race could get in front. There was a lot of space in the sub 7:00/mile area; I joked that there was room for doubt.
The announcer counted down the minutes to the start. I figured that I would stick with my race plan and see what happened. The wind was disheartening, but I wasn’t going to give up, just yet. I knew that if I ran 6:30 per mile I would PR and if I ran 6:20 I would achieve my top goal for the race. So I aspired to keep the pace in that range.
Miles 1&2 (6:02, 6:10)
The start of this race is a steep downhill. The total elevation loss for the course is just over 75 feet, and 60 of them occur in the first half mile. I figured that I would run easily and let the hill and adrenaline of the start carry me and then ease back into 6:20’s. I tried to stay behind people and get a little shelter from the wind. What started as a pack, however, slowly stretched out into a single file line, where it took concentration to stay close enough to get shelter from the wind, but not so close as to step on the heels of the person in front. I hung onto a line for a while, but had to let them go, as they were running a bit too fast for my taste.
Miles 3, 4, 5, & 6 (6:35, 6:25, 6:27, 6:25)
I wound up running alone most of the race, after losing the pace line somewhere early in the third mile. The wind was really tough at times, standing me up and making me feel like I wasn’t moving. I ignored my watch, shortened my stride, and pushed my elbows back. The upside is that the really bad wind would last for a couple hundred yards or so, and then it would shift as the course twisted down the canyon and the wind bounced up the canyon. I heard after the race that it was in this stretch that Richard got close to me, seeing my pace lessen. He was the next place behind me at one point. I had no idea and just churned on.
Miles 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 (6:28, 6:24, 6:32, 6:41, 6:39)
I took a gel at six miles and pressed on. At this point the field was very stretched out. A couple of runners dropped back and I passed them, and a couple moved up. I am pretty sure there were only two who I passed and two who passed me from this point through the end of the race. I tried to look at the awesome scenery, but the cloudy sky muted the colors on the canyon wall and the wind sharpened my focus on the task at hand. Every time it gusted, my tunnel vision tightened. Mile 9 had a short but steep hill that I was aware of, but the wind was really nasty there, making me feel like I slowed to a crawl. There were cool drummers playing at mile 10. The canyon echoed the drums, but I am afraid that the wind lessened the effect a bit.
Miles 12, 13, and .16 (6:56, 6:33, :55—5:46 pace)
I thought the wind was bad in the canyon, but we pulled out of the canyon at about 11.7 and headed South on the main highway through Moab. The scenery wasn’t nearly as impressive, but the wind was fierce! Mile eleven can only be described as brutal. I gutted it out, trying to hold my form and pace, but not daring to look at my watch. The mantra, punctuated with expletives, was “only two to go.” The last mile is through wide residential streets. I just tried to finish honestly. I did not know if the PR was going to happen, as my watch was showing average lap pace and I didn’t look for elapsed time. I just kept plugging along.
I heard, then saw, my friend Steve (PBR) at the final turn, marking .5 to go. I raced against him the last time I set a PR in the half marathon, and he cheered me enthusiastically in Chicago, where I ran my best marathon to date. It was great to hear his voice, but there was no lifting the pace at this point. I just kept working. I saw my and Richard’s families as I ran to the finish line that wasn’t arriving quickly enough. It is a long, uphill drag to the finish, to the point where I couldn’t quite see the clock at first. I heard the announcer say that the person in front of me (quite a ways off) broke 1:25:00, so I thought the PR was a possibility. After passing my cheering section, who assured me that I was awesome, there was another woman screaming wildly for someone right behind me. I dug deeper. The announcer read my name and then mentioned the person behind me—a 16 year old. Damned kids. I dug even deeper. I beat the whipper snapper. I crossed the line and grabbed a trash can, thinking that breakfast might be reappearing. The medical staff was briskly by my side and walked me through the chute where I eventually saw Richard, Kevin (Blue Earth), and Kevin (Aretequest). We shared stories, got our picture taken, got some feed, and claimed our gear as the rest of the Runners World Online crew assembled, including Jen (RunCo) and Steve who had arrived at the race that morning.
We met at Moab Brewery to eat, drink, and celebrate. It was a well-organized race in a beautiful place. I got to spend some time with imaginary friends, some who I had met before and some who I hadn’t. The temperature was good, sunscreen was unnecessary, and the wind was cruel. Good race, good location, and good people--I would do it again, anytime!
Time: 1:25:20 (30 second PR!)
Place: 36/3361 overall, 6/206 AG.
Thanks for all of your ongoing support! On to Boston!