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Mt. Lemmon Marathon: Running For Boston

Guest Author: Michelle Mulholland


At the beginning of the year my friend Corrine told me I should try to qualify for Boston. I told her there was no way I would be fast enough to qualify and I didn’t really want to do a marathon, let alone two marathons if I did qualify. So, I didn’t think much else of it.

Then in August I ran the downhill Mt. Nebo Half Marathon down Payson Canyon in Utah. I was quite shocked when I finished it in 1:33:16. I was just aiming to run under 1:43 (my previous PR). Corrine kept telling me I could get under 1:40. Well, she was right. Suddenly, I began to have the confidence I lacked that just maybe I could qualify for Boston.

I asked Corrine what she thought, and she said I could definitely do it. Just to be sure, I asked her what percentage of a chance she though there was that I would qualify. She said over ninety percent. Wow! It definitely is nice to have someone else believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself.

I knew that my friend Kristen, who lives down in Arizona, was planning on running the Revel Mt. Lemmon Marathon down in Tucson on November 2. So, I started considering the idea that maybe I could train for the next two months in order to qualify at this downhill marathon with an elevation drop of 5,595 ft. I figured it would be a similar steepness of the Mt. Nebo Half Marathon. Maybe there really was a chance.

I still wasn’t ready to commit. I did a few long runs and on my third long run I felt like I was dying. My confidence was slowly disappearing, but Corrine continued to tell me to believe in myself, and to just commit and move forward. So, I finally did it. I signed up for the marathon, made arrangements to stay with friends, figured out babysitting for my kids back at home and booked my flights. I was committed.

Corrine then helped me come up with a race plan. I decided to just do 4 days of running a week with cross training or rest on the other days. I don’t like to run more days than that because of risk of injury. She said that the two most important runs during each week would be first my speed workout on one day and my long run on the other day. The other two days could just be easy runs.

For speed workouts I started out doing mile repeats, then worked my way up to doing three fast miles in a row and then eventually up to 5 fast miles in a row. I also did some track workouts of 400-meter repeats and 800-meter repeats.

For the long runs, she said I needed to add three to eight miles at marathon pace. This scared me at first, but gradually it got easier and easier. I felt like this was key to getting my legs ready for the marathon and to boosting my confidence that I could really do it.

Another important component of my training was downhill training.

The Mt. Lemmon Marathon has 21 miles straight of downhill. This has the potential to really increase your speed, but it can also destroy your legs if you’re not prepared. Luckily, I live in Utah by several different canyons. So, I planned downhill runs for almost all of my long runs. I ran down Millcreek Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Provo Canyon, down from the Suncrest neighborhood, and down Glenwood Canyon in Colorado while on fall break. Needless to say, I was able to give my legs plenty of downhill preparation. I also did some of my fast tempo miles downhill in my neighborhood.

Eventually race week arrived. Corrine dropped me off a gift bag with some snacks and a sweet note telling me that I could do this and that I had been training for this race since Junior High when we ran track together and would stop at Arctic Circle for ice cream on our runs. Ha ha!

Friday, I flew down to Mesa where my friend Kristen picked me up and drove us to our hotel in Tucson. The packet pickup for the race only went until 6pm so luckily her husband was able to pick the packets up for us, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it in time. We went out for some carbo-loaded pizza and stayed at the Sonesta ES Suites, which was about 13 minutes away from the race start.


The next morning, we set our alarm for 3:50 am so that we could make it to the start to get on the buses. The line getting into the parking lot was pretty long and took longer than expected. We ended up running from our car and making it there close to 4:45 am which was when the last buses that were supposed to leave. Luckily, we made it onto the last marathon bus.

It was a super nice comfy tour bus. On the bus ride, Kristen wrote down the miles that the aid stations would be at on our arms. We were hoping this would help break the marathon into smaller increments and give us something to look forward to. We wanted to be mentally prepared for the race.

I wanted to run the marathon in under 3:25 in order to give myself a 5-minute grace window to get into Boston. This averaged out to about a 7:49 pace. I knew the first 21 miles of the race would be downhill so I planned on running those between a 7:30 and 7:40 pace in order to bank lots of extra time for the last 5 miles which were almost flat with just a small downhill grade. This would allow me to slow down to 9-minute miles in case I hit a wall.

We arrived at the top of the canyon at 8,164 ft. elevation. I was expecting it to be cold but was pleasantly surprised to see I didn’t need to wear my hat or gloves or long sleeves. It felt like it was in the 40’s and felt perfect! We went and used the bathrooms, shed all of our clothes into the drop bags, and lined up according to time. They had tons of pacers there for different times, which was nice.

I was also pleasantly surprised when my friend Stephanie Daich saw me at the start of the race. Neither of us knew the other one was running it or that we were both trying to qualify for Boston. What a shocker!


Finally, the race began. The start of the race was absolutely beautiful. There were forests of pine trees all around and sweeping vistas of the valley below. The best part was when we were greeted by the sunrise. It was absolutely gorgeous and full of vibrant colors. I wanted to take a picture so badly but was too committed to running fast in order to qualify for Boston.

I started out running pretty fast. In fact, I was running with the 3:10 pacer. He was super talkative and fun to listen to so I figured I would stay with them for the first few miles until they drifted ahead. My first two miles were a 7:15 and 7:13 mile. Honestly, it felt so effortless to run downhill. I just felt like I was falling down the mountain. I knew I shouldn’t go that fast though, in case I burned out later.

I slowed down to around a 7:25 pace for the next several miles. It still felt pretty easy, although at mile 5 I noticed my energy was waning a little. I realized I should have eaten something right before the race. I had eaten breakfast 2 hours before, but my energy was starting to run out. I made the decision to take my GU at mile 5 instead of mile 7. I was glad I did. I soon felt much better with my energy restored.

Around this time, I also tried to start talking to another runner who I found out was from D.C. She was breathing pretty hard though and informed me that because she was from D.C. she couldn’t breathe at this elevation and thus couldn’t talk during the race. She then put her headphones back in. I realized I was grateful I was able to train at higher elevations in Utah because the elevation didn’t bother me at all. But it may be a challenge for those coming from sea level.

I continued running at a comfortable pace, closer to 7:30 and 7:35 minute miles. Eventually, I noticed two girls up ahead running at a similar pace and one of them had a sign on her back that said, “Running for two." I went up and asked if she was pregnant and she said she was. Then I started running with her and the other girl. They both had the same goal as me to qualify for Boston. They were going for the same strategy as me to run the downhill miles faster in order to bank extra time. It was perfect. I ran with them for the next 15 miles or so. It was awesome and they made the time fly by. I enjoy running so much more when I can talk to someone.

Gradually, the scenery changed from pine tree-filled forests to giant-sized saguaros and other beautiful desert plants that were so unique. We continually got to see more and more sweeping vistas of the valley below. I loved it! We also hit a few uphill sections that were relatively short and looked worse than they felt to run up. Overall, they didn’t slow us down too much. The canyon also had some wind in it. Sometimes it was blowing against our backs, which felt great, but other times we were running against the wind which wasn’t so awesome.

The temperature felt pretty good, although it started to warm up in the second half of the race and we were super grateful whenever the sun would go behind the clouds. I made sure to drink at all of the aid stations and was grateful they had them about every 2 miles.

Eventually, around mile 16 my pregnant friend fell behind, she told me later that her legs started cramping up. I guess this was a problem for a lot of runners including my two friends who did it with me. I don’t think their legs were prepared for the intense downhill and it got pretty warm at the end of the race. The other girl I was running with stayed with me until about mile 19 or 20 and then I went ahead.

Around mile 21 the awesome downhill of the canyon finally ended. I was able to run those first 21 miles between 7:25 and 7:40 minute mile splits, so I banked lots of time for the last 5 miles. I’m so grateful I did. Coming out of the canyon was a bit demoralizing. It switched from a windy beautiful terrain to a long straight never-ending flat road underneath an incredibly hot sun. Suddenly, it felt so warm and the aid stations were still only every 2 miles which wasn’t enough. At this point I needed water at every mile. I still felt okay for mile 22 and ran it close to an 8-minute pace.

Mile 23 is when I hit the wall. Out of nowhere I felt a complete energy loss. My legs were still okay, but my energy had disappeared. Suddenly, the thought of walking sounded like a really good idea and laying down sounded like an even better one. It also didn’t help that so many people were walking around me. It seemed like everyone was hitting a wall at this point.

I was strongly considering walking when I saw my friend Stephanie up ahead. I figured if I could just catch up to her and run with her then I wouldn’t have to stop. I also thought that I couldn’t disappoint my friend Corrine who had helped and coach me to get here. So, I kept running one step at a time and eventually caught up to Stephanie. I could tell she had hit a wall too. I think it helped both of us to keep going when we ran that next mile together. I ended up running mile 23 close to an 8:33 but then ran mile 24 and 25 closer to an 8:55 pace.

Miraculously, when I finished mile 25 some of my energy suddenly returned. It was a really strange feeling and I don’t know where it came from. But I was able to slightly pick up my pace. I ran the last mile closer to an 8:46 pace and the last part of the race close to an 8:11 pace. I was so excited to be done with the race. I finally crossed the finish line with a time of 3:23:43. Hurray! I had qualified for Boston with over 6 minutes to spare and I ended up taking third place in my age group!

At the finish they gave us wet wash cloths to put on our necks which were nice because it was so hot! We got some water, chocolate milk, and a banana. We also could turn in tickets on our race numbers for a piece of pizza, a dessert, and beer which I passed on. Honestly, I couldn’t eat any of it because my stomach had shut down but it was nice that they offered it anyways.

After the race my calves started cramping up pretty badly. I was at least grateful they didn’t cramp up during the race like they did for a couple of my friends. If you’re trying to qualify for Boston, then I would only recommend running this race if you’ve been able to do downhill training. Otherwise, your legs will scream in pain and you might have a hard time finishing the race the way you hoped. It seemed like almost everyone’s times tanked in the last 5 miles. So be prepared for a major slowdown.

However, with proper downhill training and confidence you will surprise yourself in reaching goals that you didn't even think were possible, like I did in qualifying for the Boston Marathon.



Michelle Mulholland has run for more than 20 years. She is always up for an outdoor adventure with her husband and four boys. She now excited to gear up to crush Boston 2021!


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