On July 11th, I made the long drive to Cannonville, UT. Along the way, I picked up Wasatch Running Center athlete Brett Hales. We had made a plan in advance to split the gas and camp out at the finish line the night before.
In case you have never driven through South/Cental Utah, here is what it is like:
Just south of provo: “Whoa! All that city turned into nothing pretty quickly there.”
A little further south: “OK time to get off I15, I can feel us climbing elevation (never a good thing for distance runners,) this is still pretty desolate.”
A little further east at the beginning of Bryce National Park: “Ok, this drive is getting really boring-WHOA! This just got amazing.”
The entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park hits you like a ton of bricks. after spending about 3 hours being bored to death by flat, ugly desserts, you pretty much turn a corner and see beautiful red rocks, arches that go over the road, and vast green forrest. I am not much for pictures (especially selfies with other guys,) but we had to get out of the car and take in the scenery.
After getting into the park, the drive got a lot more intriguing (although, admittedly, Brett and I were staying pretty entertained before that reliving our college running days.)
In my opinion one of the best parts about the race is that, at least in the direction we were coming from, we had to drive the entire course to get to Cannonville, where packet pickup was. In my experience, I race a lot better when I know the course beforehand.
Driving the course was also a confidence boosting experience because it is a SCREAMER. Utah is famous for starting marathons and half-marathons in canyons and running downhill. Some think this is a little like cheating. However, there are few races in Utah that finish at an elevation below 4,000 feet above sea level, and while starting up a canyon makes it a downhill course, it also increa
ses the altitude, but I digress. This course put every other Utah Course I have been on to shame. The start line is at about 7,500 feet above sea level (the air is thin up there) and the race finishes at 6,000 feet above sea level. To give you a general idea, most of the large half-marathons in Utah, like the Top of Utah half-marathon and the Utah Valley half-marathon, have around 600-800 feet of elevation loss. That is less than half of what the Bryce Canyon half-marathon has.
Brett and I picked up our packets, did a quick shakeout jog, and hit the sack (by hit the sack, I mean we literally hit the sack. We camped in the lawn of a church that was close to the bus pickup area.) Quick anecdote from our open air camp: After we talked for a bit we settled into sleep until about midnight when someone set off a series of professional grade bottle rockets. This is a town small enough to throw a rock from one side to the other with a few hundred sleeping runners. Looking back on it, it was a pretty funny prank . . . I did not have that thought at the time.
Race morning was the standard: wake up at early o’clock, get on a bus to the start line, stand around a bunch of fire pits like you are in some kind of prison camp, jog a little bit and wonder how it can, possibly, be so cold in the middle of July, take off your warmups and freeze for a few minutes, wonder why you ever agreed to something like this . . .
Then the gun goes off.
I am a bit of a novice when it comes to road racing. At this point, I am just over a year removed from college Track where the longest distance is 10k . . . and that was too long for me. On the track the gun gives you a burst of adrenaline, you jockey for position, then you do your best to settle in, being careful not to relax too much because your race is only going to last a few minutes.
I have learned that the roads are not like that. After taking a few power steps off the line, I reminded myself that there was still over an hour of race left, then I proceeded to try and relax as much as possible. Brett and I had an agreement that we would run through 6-8 miles together as relaxed as possible. Brett was content to split the first and second place prize earnings between us, but I was thinking about trying to run a pr. I was still unsure of what I would do after the halfway point.
Brett did the early pace work. the first mile is flat, cold, and at a very high elevation. We came through in a fairly relaxed 5:24, in the second mile our legs started to warm up and we got a little bit of downhill right at the end, 5:10. When we looked around at the starting line, we didn’t recognize anybody, so we expected it to be just the two of us from the start. However at the 2-mile mark we had one more runner sticking with us. I know Brett’s M.O. is to try and create a gap early in the race and then coast to victory.
True to form, I felt the third mile pick up. To be fair, the third mile was by far the most elevation loss of any mile in the course, and there was a lot of downhill throughout the whole race. That being said we came through the 3rd mile in a nice “conservative” 4:30. Needless to say, we dropped our tail. After the surge we settled into a few more miles hovering around 5:00 pace. We came through 5 miles in about 25:10.
After five miles I started to feel a little fatigued, but it would come and go. There would be a few minutes where I thought I felt pretty tired for how early in the race it was, then that feeling would pass and I would start to feel like I wanted to pick up the pace.
In the back of my head, throughout the whole race, was how absolutely beautiful the course was. you spend miles 3-10 dropping down a canyon that overlooks miles of red rock and forrest. It was a perfect day, the perfect time of day. If I wasn’t in the middle of a rather painful endeavor, it would have been a little slice of paradise.
Another thing that happened around mile five was that I started to form a blister, more on that later.
Six miles in, I made the decision not to chase that pr down just yet. I would stick with Brett for awhile and, if I was feeling good enough a little later, I would go for it. Ironically, that was about the point where any chance of a PR went out the window. for miles six through ten we went from hovering around 5:00/mile pace to hovering around 5:15/mile pace with some miles in the 5:20‘s. However, about 7 miles in I started having more sections where I struggled than ones where I felt good, so I was OK with the slower pace.
At mile 9 I made my first, ever, attempt to take any type of fluid during a race. I grabbed a water cup at the aid station and crimped the top like I had been taught. I proceeded to try and drink some of the water, while the water proceeded to go everywhere except my mouth.
We came through ten miles right around 51 minutes. I had been struggling up to that point; and, although I still didn’t feel great, I started to have confidence that I would be able to at least stay with Brett until the finish line (side note: Brett was still cruising as relaxed as could be) until somewhere late in the eleventh mile when we got to the only real uphill in the course. It is only about 100-200 yards long, but it is fairly steep, and you can see it from about 3/4 of a mile away, so you have plenty of time to dread it. As we came up to the hill I thought, “if Brett made a move right here, he could gap me.” However, once we actually got on the hill, I changed my tune. In fact, if anything I probably threw in a little surge to see if he was feeling tired (he wasn’t.)
I continued to muscle through mile eleven while Brett cruised. shortly after the twelve mile mark Brett said that he was Ok with splitting the 1st and 2nd place prize purse. I was a little surprised that he waited this long to bring it up; because, if there is a chance that I could beat Brett in a half-marathon, it would be in a race that came down to the last mile. However, knowing there were definite points where he could have established a lead on me I agreed, and we ran in together running about 1:07:30.
Overall I was fairly pleased with the effort. It was my second best half-marathon ever. I was, however, a little surprised. My PR in the distance is 1:06:10 at the Top of Utah half-marathon last year, and that was my first half-marathon ever. In fact, that race didn’t even feel that hard. I was surprised that I worked much harder, on a course with almost 3 times more downhill, and ran over a minute slower. I think it was a good indicator that I need more experience at the longer race distances.
The race had a fairly simple finish line, but it was perfect. they had all of the essentials, chocolate milk, bagels, fruit, a big park with plenty of shade and lots of space, and a prompt awards ceremony. In all I give the Bryce Canyon Half Marathon an A+. This race is a gem, it seems small and quaint, but it has great organization and a course that is hard to beat.
Postnote: The blister I started developing around mile 5 grew into a monster. It took up about 1/3 of my left foot, and was all kinds of weird colors. I could barely walk for the rest of the weekend.
John Coyle is a recent Graduate of Weber State University where he ran Cross Country and Track. He now runs professionally. He also manages Teton Running Company in Idaho Falls, ID and is the Marketing Manger for RunnersOnTheGo.com.