Updated: Mar 30, 2021
If you are looking for a fast race, this is the race to sign up for, just beware the downhill! I have run in several races, but have always avoided the full marathon until I knew that I had time to adequately train and qualify for the Boston Marathon. Sound familiar? I've heard this from several people. I figured that after I qualified and ran Boston, I would be done with full marathons--wrong. I'm hooked now!
The Revel Big Cottonwood Marathon starts at 9,626ft and ends at 4,440ft, losing 5,186 ft in elevation. This course kicks off fast for the first 3 miles. It hits an uphill at mile four, then is literally all downhill until you come to the start of mile 19 at Wasatch Blvd. At this point you have a 4-mile out-and-back. It is fairly flat, but a bit rolling. After the out-and-back, you have a flat portion that begins to gradually decline until mile 25, where you hit a steep downhill, losing about 200 feet. It then levels out more gradually for another 0.25 miles and continues a steady decline all the way to the finish line!
PROS & CONS
Fast downhill course
Well organized, even with any cons below.
Plenty of near-by parking in the morning
Bus system runs smoothly and on time
Plenty of aid stations
Cool medals and shirts
Great medical staff
Free photos and video, plus lots of photographers along the course
Crammed and narrow starting area
Couldn't hear announcer at the start line
Out-and-back, miles 19-22 (some people avoid this race because of it)
Temperatures can shift from very cold (50 degrees F) at the start to fairly hot (mid 80's) at the end
Need more photographers just for the finish line
The Race & Course
That first mile is fast! I was doing my best to hold back, but with all that downhill, holding back was more work then just opening your stride and letting gravity carry you down the hill. I clocked a 6:02 min/mile and averaged 6:30 min/miles for the first 8 miles. At mile 4 there is a mean little incline. There are a few small inclines prior to that, which trick you into thinking that you passed it, but you'll know it when you see it ahead. It's over faster than you think.
At mile 7, I decided to change my nutrition strategy a bit from my races in the past. I'm always hesitant to do any thing different with food, because my stomach usually wigs out on me. However, after bonking hard while training for the marathon, I started practicing eating more food and drinking Gatorade along the way. So, I devised a plan to eat a GU at miles 7, 11, 17 and 20.5 where there were aid stations with water to wash it down. In between these aid stations, I also drank a Powerade, washed my mouth out with water, and threw water on myself (I overheat really easily). At one point, I even braved a small banana on the out-and-back at the end of mile 19, by squeezing it in my mouth like Popeye and a can of spinach. Not too shabby.
My hamstrings were a bit stiff for the first 7 miles from over doing it a couple weeks before, but I experienced zero pain. Awesome! By mile 8, they were completely loose. At mile 9, I realized that I was well under my primary goal of a 3:05 marathon. This is where I started telling myself, "Race the course, not the competitors." So I dialed it down to 6:50ish min/miles for the for the next 4 miles.
Around this time we started running along side with the back of the pack, Half Marathon runners. This was by far my favorite and the most inspirational part of the race. It was a privilege running with the half marathon runners in the back. I loved running next to these amazing people and saying, "Good job," to each of them that I possibly could, and then hearing them cheer me on too when I needed it most later in the race. It was awesome! Seriously. I don't care if you run a 5-min pace or 30-min pace. I don't care if you run less than one mile a week or 100. I don't care if you weigh 100lbs or 400lbs. You inspire me! Anyone with the audacity to run a half marathon or marathon has grit!
The proceeding 4 miles (13-16) had another nice drop that I was saving up for. Swiftly losing more than 1,200 feet in elevation, I clocked a 6:13, 5:53, 6:17 & 6:14 min/miles respectively! I flew past guys that were ahead of me and never saw them again. It felt great! I was dreaming of a 2:45 marathon (even though I was actually closer to a 2:55)...but I knew that I needed to save up for the out-and-back. Plus, my calves started to feel a bit stiff and I didn't want to overdo it. So, at mile 17, I dialed it back down to 6:45 min/miles, which was perfect timing because the decline was more gradual.
I continued to feel great for the first part of mile 17, when out of nowhere, my calves both started spasming--yikes! I slapped them like a caveman and kept my pace steady. I knew that if I could maintain 7 min/miles I could still easily get a sub-3 marathon. However, the spasming continued until my calves completely seized (Whyyyy!!!???...I think we all know why...dang you miles 13-16!). Soon, a couple of competitors I had not seen yet passed me, I told myself again, "Race the course, not the competitors." I made it to the out-and-back in one piece and was still on pace for a sub-3.
Normally on this course, the temperature starts to warm up by this point. It was supposed to get into the mid-80's by 10 am. However, I felt a little trickle on my shoulders and looked up to see nothing but big beautiful clouds covering the expanse of the sky. I raised my arms up, thankful for clouds and a few sprinkles to help me along, particularly knowing what I was about to face.
The out-and-back is a physical shock to the legs. With soooo much downhill, my calves didn't know what to do when everything leveled out. In some ways it was a relief, but slowing it down so dramatically caused my calves to continue their vengeance. But I persisted and ran like an old cowboy that just got off his horse after a long ride. This unique stride looked especially dramatic, because when my calves seized, so did my ankles. Regardless, my out-and-back pace was on mark with what I had planned all along--just under 8 min/miles. I still had a chance at going sub-3!
As I approached the end of the out-and-back, any thoughts of sub-3 ended almost as soon as they started. I finally had to stop and stretch. I knew that in the end, if I wanted to meet my goal of 3:05, or at minimum qualify in my age group for Boston at 3:10, I needed to stop and stretch. So I did. Four or fives times. Each time costing me about 20-30 seconds--but I knew it was worth it in the end.
A couple more guys caught up to me and eventually passed me, including an ultra runner wearing an Ultimate Direction (UD) hydration vest and holding steady. I thought, "This dude is crazy for wearing that vest, but hey, he's holding strong." After the race, I realized that "this dude" was actually an old co-worker from 10 years ago. Hey Kendall! He hit that sub-3 mark, hydration vest and all. At a boy!
Regardless of being passed, I wanted to continue play my cards right and hit under my main goal of 3:05. "Race the course, not the competitors." Mile 22 clocked in at 8:21. Mile 23 was an 8:45. Mile 24 was a 7:55. Although I was bummed to see those times, I had a specific reason for slowing it down and stretching during this part of the course--I was saving myself for mile 25!
When I came to the beautiful downhill slope of mile 25, which I had run many times over the years, I felt great (holistically speaking)! My calves were still spasming, but not enough to hold me back! Taking advantage of the hill at the start of mile 25 got me back into the groove to finish those final 2.2 miles strong.
Mile 25, I brought it back down to a 7:19 min/mile. Mile 26 was a 7:35 min/mile. Then finally, the last 0.20 was a 7:06 min/mile pace all the way through the finish line--just enough to beat my original marathon goal by nearly 3 minutes! Officially, clocking in at 3:02:16 and qualifying for Boston (for the age group under me), while placing 9th in my age group, 42nd in men's and 44th overall!
Coming up to the finish line, it was amazing to hear my wife yelling, "Woooo! Go Hun! Your'e killing it! Awesome!...You're totally Boston Qualifying! Love You! Woooo!" It was great seeing my kids, family and so many others cheering me on in those final moments of victory. Special thanks to my brother Andy for watching all four of my kids and his own daughter so that my wife could run the half (read her review of the half marathon here), while I ran the full. My brother was brave and brought all the kids just to cheer!
After I passed through the finish line, I came up to a volunteer and collapsed on her shoulder. That has never happened to me before. It was really more of a mental collapse than physical. I just saw her and realized I was done. I'm grateful the she was there to catch me and for everyone volunteering their time. Needless to say, I got an epic photo in a wheelchair and a couple great ones that make me look like a feeble old man (See the end of this post), hahaha! I'm just sad that the photographers missed me actually coming through the finish line.
Regardless of all the ups and downs (pun partly intended), it was all worth it! This marathon didn't ruin me by any stretch of the imagination--in fact--now I'm addicted! All I could think during those last 10 miles of with calves spasming and seizing was, "If I play my cards right and still BQ with my calves freaking out, I know I can run sooo much faster." And so I will my friends. Until next time.
Mind Games & Nerves from Coming Off an Injury & Fall Cold/Allergies
Don't over-train, eat right and get good sleep. Don't let nerves get into your head. Two weeks prior to the marathon, I ran the Fish Lake Relay and crushed the downhill leg in preparation for Big Cottonwood. Then a few days later I got overly excited about a trail run with Altra and ended up over-training my hamstrings. I worked out my hammies for two weeks and even went to see a massage therapist. In addition, my annual combo-pack of fall cold and allergies hit me full blast the week leading up to the race. During the bus ride, I kept telling myself that I could just use this race as a gauge to see how my body handles a full marathon, then I could qualify for Boston another time. However, deep inside, I was truly terrified that this marathon would ruin any taste I may have for future marathons...or even worse...running all together (stupid long bus ride to the start line getting in my head!)
Don't Get Too Excited
I pulled a classic mistake for a first-time, full marathon runner. I ran too fast too early, because I felt so great! Granted, I think the downhill would have crushed my calves either way, so I am not too sure I would change my pace strategy. But this is something I have seriously thought over several times.
Pay More Attention to My Body & Prepare Better
When I was flying down miles 13-16, I felt stiffness in my calves. It would have been more worth it to stop at that time to stretch once or twice, then 4 or 5 times later. Also, I will definitely get calve compression sleeves for rigorous downhill races in the future. I have never run with them before, but it was obvious how they could have saved me a lot of trouble.
Game Plan My Nutrition Better
I really didn't give much thought to nutrition for the race. I usually use one GU for a half marathon, and just figured that two GU's would be fine for a full marathon. But, by the time I hit mile 7 into the race, I knew I needed twice that much. Thankfully I mapped out in my mind which stations had what items for the different miles. Kudos to Revel for having awesomely organized aid stations!
Aid station volunteers should always present energy gels, Powerade and then water to runners in that order. That way runners can get an energy gel or a Powerade, then wash it down with water immediately after.
Drinking from the Cups
Prior to this race I have never accepted Powerade or Gatorade. Its always too strong for me. However, I prepared this time to drink it. In the past, I always just splashed water down my mouth and didn't care if it got everywhere, but Powerade is too sticky for that. So I quickly learned mid-race to bend the edge of the cup in a small v-shape, opened my mouth wide and funneled it all in mouth in one chug. That was soooo much easy and less messy.
This year they held packet pick-up at the Mountain America Expo Center. The actual pick-up time was extremely fast. In and out without any hiccups. Heck, I even got a call from my wife asking me to sign her up for the half marathon at the last minute. Super easy. What was lacking at the expo, were more vendors. There was only one vendor with running clothes and only two with energy gels. Expos are awesome for bargain hunting great running gear and energy gels. So I was disappointed to see the lack of...not to say that I didn't end up purchasing a few things still (I officially bought my shortest pair of running shorts to rock my short legs in. Oh ya baby!)
Catching the Bus in the Morning
Good Morning! You need to catch a bus between 4 am and 5 am to ride 20+ miles up Big Cottonwood Canyon. Don't worry, there is plenty of parking for both races. I arrived around 4:30 am and was close to the tail end of the bus line. Last year, I ran the half marathon and the process was quick and easy. This time it was still fairly smooth, but I think that a couple drivers ahead of us were struggling with directions. As such, my nerves were through the roof! I was getting cabin fever to the extreme. Several people kept asking to get off the bus once we got up top, but our bus driver was smart and would not allow it because they would have slowed the whole line of buses down, especially because it was pitch black outside.
The race starts at the top of Guardsman pass, headed toward Park City, UT and all of the ski resorts. The start area is a really tight fit. Everyone is crammed on one side of the road with dozens of port-a-potties, the bag-drop truck, and the starting line. Meanwhile, the buses take up the other half of the road. On each side of the road is a hill up or a hill down. Strangely, it was warmer up there than at the half marathon start--about 5 degrees more so.
The bus drops you off probably a little more than a quarter-mile above the start line. It was a bit of a pain to rush to the front of the start line with buses one one side and people everywhere on the other side. Also, the port-a-potties were further away from the start and toward the middle, along the stretch of people sitting and waiting by the bag-drop truck. It wasn't too hard to get into one of the potties, but several runners (men and women alike) waiting at the start line were just going on the side of the road. The potties were too far from the start line to run uphill and get back in time if you had a last-minute urge to go.
Finally, the runners at the start line could not hear anything, including the staff and volunteers there. That's because the loud speakers were closer to the bus drop-off. None of us heard the National Anthem. The start was super anti-climactic (which was good or bad, depending on your nerves), because a race crew member basically just said, "go" to those in the front and everyone else just followed. I'm sure they probably did a bullhorn or something more grand up higher, but we couldn't hear it.
The best part of the start line was actually running into a friend I have't seen in several years--"Hey Marie!" (She also rocked it and BQ'd!)
I live in the area, but there are a couple dozen places to stay with prices that range from $60 to $160. Everything is within a few miles of the bus pick-up area. Probably a 5 to 20 minute drive at most, depending on where you end up staying. Click here to see what's near by.
WHAT OTHER HAVE TO SAY
ABOUT THE AVERAGE JOE RUNNER
Well, his real name is actually Dave...but "The Average Joe Runner" seemed like a catchy name for a blog. Born a sprinter, but converted to distance running in adulthood, Dave has run for more than 25 years. He is the father of four awesome kids and the husband to one amazingly talented, smart and fast-running wife.
The Average Joe Runner blog and website was born after Dave continued to get questions from friends and family alike for running tips and gear advice. However, this blog is also meant to hear from other Average Joe and Jane Runners out there. You can contribute to the blog by clicking Submit or Request.
Follow The Average Joe Runner on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @TheAvgJoeRun. Read More