A half moon towered above. Stars speckled the pre-dawn sky. The faint heat from nearby bonfires buffered the morning chill in the Pine Mountains.
At the starting line of the St. George Marathon, at 5,243 feet above sea level, thousands huddle for the start on a highway desolate 364 other days of the year.
It’s in this place, on the first Saturday of each October, where runners converge to chase their hopes for finishing 26.2 miles. The starting area teems with activity and life: volunteers hand out Mylar blankets, gloves, oranges, bananas, Vaseline and other essentials for distance runners. A line of portable toilets stretches further than the starting area. An emcee interrupts the uptempo beat of music every so often with welcome words of encouragement, race statistics and records, and important reminders for those about to embark on a journey down the mountain.
The previous evening, I joined friends, both accomplished runners and Boston Marathon finishers, for conversation and food at Buca di Beppo. Later, back at the hotel, we discuss race strategy, mainly derived from studying the course’s elevation map and their drive along course.
Now, at 6 a.m. on race day, we each go through our pre-race routines and small talk keeps my mind at ease. The course nets a drop of about 2,600 feet, including several hills that don’t show up on a tiny race chart. There is 904 of elevation gain on the course, meaning it drops 3,500 feet overall from start to finish.
Some running website threads discount St. George because of the elevation drop, speculating it gives a 5-10 minute advantage to other courses. My guess is most of the critics haven’t run the course. If it were so fast, St. George should be among the top courses — percentage wise — for Boston qualifiers. It’s not — the most recent statistic was 16.9 percent of runners qualify at St. George, which doesn’t rank it in the top 50 marathons for percentage of runners hitting the mark.
Overall, a large number of St. George runners do qualify, which one would expect when you consider it is among the 15 largest races in the U.S. By volume, the southwestern Utah marathon qualifies 800 to 1,000 runners for Boston each year, but more than 5 times that number do not meet the mark.
Find My Marathon, a website allowing comparison of courses, shows St. George is 1 minute, 26 seconds faster than Chicago. It is only 1:32 faster than Fargo.
There are no grand illusions for me. This marathon, my 17th, will not be easy, regardless of the net downhill. Training went well and I completed several long hilly runs, but I expect my legs to take a pounding. My intention is to run hard, and I know it will hurt.
As a marathoner, if you take 26.2 miles for granted, you will have a bad day.
For months I told myself that I would push the pace — downhills, uphills, altitude and anything else this course would serve up. If it doesn’t hurt, I told myself, then you’re not doing it right.
Sixteen times I’ve previously asked my body to carry me the marathon distance. Now, 11 months after New York, I would again call on my body for another long haul.
To be continued …