Monday, May 07, 2018

A New Marathon PR (2:39) At The 2018 Mt. Charleston Marathon...Thank You, Gravity!


Can you improve your marathon PR with a course that has 5,100’ of net vertical descent? Perhaps finally nab that elusive Boston Qualifier (BQ) time? Or does the promise of going fast down a hill for hours simply end in a quad-killing DNF? That’s the challenge of the fast growing REVEL Series of road marathons/half marathons, now in its fourth year, and one that I set out to test on my birthday weekend at the 2018 Mt. Charleston Marathon. The result? A new PR marathon time of 2:39:35, and a week on the couch trying to recover. It was fast, but it definitely wasn’t easy!

I first noticed the Mt. Charleston Marathon last year when fellow ultrarunner, Ian Sharman, clocked an outstanding 2:20 to win the race, a solid 11 minutes off of his personal best. It was no surprise Ian would do well on a downhill course – if you’ve ever watched him at Western States or Leadville, you know that he is one of the most gifted downhill runners in the sport. But 11 minutes off an already speedy PR?!? That’s insane. Then again, so is the Mt. Charleston course – net 5,100’ descent in a 20-mile stretch of road down Kyle Canyon in the Red Rocks area outside of Las Vegas, then a flat sprint across the desert to the finish. A perfect course for Ian, perhaps a nightmare for the rest of us. But only one way to find out!


My previous marathon PR stood at 2:43:54 going into the race, set at the 2016 Camarillo Marathon thanks to a flat course and perfect weather. In truth, my workouts would indicate I am in 2:48 shape right now, and I just comfortably ran a 2:53 at the stormy Boston Marathon. I’ve always dreamed of breaking 2:40 (my personal “four minute mile”), so I’d need a solid 8-9 minute gravity advantage to do that. I got some great advice from top coaches on downhill running technique, and made some modifications to my training plan to be ready. As ready as possible, anyway!



My bib said “birthday boy” (it was my 49th bday…new age group coming soon!) so there was plenty of conversation in the plush buses that took us up the canyon. Most of the runners were already on their second or third Revel Race, and had great stories about the beautiful downhill courses of Big Bear, Cottonwood, Canyon City, Mt. Lemmon, and other locations. These are all fast downhill courses, but they are also just well run road races in beautiful parks and canyons. For about half the runners, this was a focused BQ attempt. For the rest, it was a great time with friends. In particular, there seemed to be a lot of former regular Rock n’ Roll Marathon runners who were “moving on” now that those races have lost some allure. That would explain the fast growth rate – the Mt. Charleston Marathon is 4x bigger this year, and sold out in just a few weeks.

(Chilling in the Lodge)
The Mt. Charleston Lodge and Visitor Center opened their doors at the start, so we had a nice cozy place to get ready and watch the desert sunrise. It was already warm (low 60’s), and would hit the 90’s by noon, so not quite the ideal snow flurries at the beginning last year. I ran into defending champion Ian Sharman while warming up, who planned to go out at 2:20 pace again and hope for the best. I knew Otter Pops would begin at mile 19 for all of us.

(Ian!)
(Ready to roll!)
The gun went off, and 1,500 of us made a short loop in the thin mountain air before beginning the long descent. Ian and a handful of fast runners quickly disappeared into the horizon, and by mile 2, I found myself trading a 5:40 min/mile pace with the lead woman, Selina Sekulic. Selina’s long strides were amazing (I later found out she was a former Wake Forest Cross Country All American), and I did my best to keep her in sight. Miles went by quickly, and it seemed like I was racked up PR’s left and right at the 5k (16:40), 10k (36:40), and half marathon (1:15:40) before pulling off for a quick bio break. I couldn’t see anyone but Selina for miles.

(Trading off the pace with Selina, who got her own bike escort! Also, free photos for all runners)
(Canyon runs provide a beautiful venue)

When we pulled out of the canyon and onto the flat desert roads of mile 19, I passed a walking Selina and a jogging Neil Galvez, and got my first sense of how much those hills had taken a toll on our collective quads. Ruh-roh! I’ve heard the phrase “blown my quads” before, but honestly I have never been sure what that meant. Now it made sense – first I was having trouble stabilizing each stride, which in turn became a numbness that shortened my stride to a shuffle, and by mile 22, it was involuntary walk breaks every half mile. Add to this that the thermostat was climbing into the 80’s, this was going to be a struggle to the end.

(Loneliness of the sub-elite runner...get 'er done!)

Luckily there were plenty of half marathoners on course, and we cheered each other along. A few said “you’re number 3!” as I walked, which (true or not) was more than enough to get me going again. Otter Pops were a godsend, both as hand coolers and quick bursts of energy. I didn’t look at the clock until I turned into the final chute, and seeing 2:39’ish, sprint hobbled across in 2:39:35 for 3rd overall. My new downhill-adjusted PR!

(Ow.)

As I cheered in Selina (winning the Women’s division in 2:43:31, her first road marathon ever), we stumbled our way to refreshments before crashing onto the grass field. Wow! This course really took a lot out of us. Ian Sharman (2:24) had repeated as the winner, with Preston Gardner (2:35) taking second. Kristen Thorne (2:49) and Sarah Bard (2:50) came within a minute of each other to take the last two podium spots for the Women. (all results)

(Great day all around!)
Once I regained my ability to shuffle, I hung out in the Lagunitas beer tent and heard all the stories of PR’s (most around 6-8 minutes, some as much as 30 minutes), and finally getting that BQ (roughly 30% of the runners would qualify). It was clearly an all or nothing bet for many – Jessi Goldstein took 8 minutes off her best half marathon, and went into sub-1:40 territory, while John Burton flew for 14 miles before coming to a complete stop. For many of the finishers, this race was about the wonderful experience of watching the sunrise in the beautiful canyon as Spring took hold, and a great party at the end.

I might need a wheelchair, and might have to forever put an asterisk next to my new PR, but I am really glad I came out to experience this new race format. After hearing how others prepared, it was clear if I had done more long runs (10k+) downhill and held back a minute more on the first half, I could have found another 3-4 minutes off my time. For those of you looking for a fast and beautiful challenge, I’d highly suggest it! A PR may be waiting for you…