Yesterday was interesting in several different ways. I completed the Valley of Fire Marathon, one of the more beautiful and difficult marathons I’ve done, one that almost didn’t happen. And I ran in support of a cause important to me – the Breast Cancer Fund.
A couple of months back, I was ramping for a fall marathon. The summer had been pretty busy, and my training had taken a hit. I’d been getting antsy to travel to an event, something I’d not done since April of 2008. My training ramp jibed well with a small event in a state park in Nevada. Valley of Fire had been on my list for several years – but just hadn’t quite worked out. I like small-low key events, in new places – so this one seemed to fit.
While I was mulling this, a good friend of mine from college told me she’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. I read and re-read the message, thinking I must have read this wrong. I reflected that another friend had been diagnosed several months earlier, and my mom had battled this back in 1992.
I decided to dedicate my next event to help stop breast cancer before it starts – by supporting the Breast Cancer Fund. I ramped my training and raised some money. At this writing I’ve raised about $1340, closer to $2000 when I include corporate matching. I also got some great help from our friend LaVonne, who hooked me up with people at the Breast Cancer Fund. Laura Domingo provided lots of help, enabling me to set up a fundraising page :
There were two things left to do. Obviously one was to run the race. But something that I let slip until the last minute was to find a shirt to run in that was purple and would start some conversations and build awareness for this cause. Come to find out, when you leave this to the last minute, there really aren’t any options for purple men’s running shirts. So I had to get a bit creative. Below are the two shirts I wore during the race – women’s XL’s, with my outer layer being the nice floral-ish pattern.
Valley of Fire State Park is located about seventy miles northeast of Las Vegas. It’s noted for its beauty, and has actually portrayed other planets in movies several times. By the time I finished this event, I felt a bit like I’d travelled through outer space too.
I landed in Las Vegas two days before the race, and immediately headed for the Hoover Dam – a place I’d heard was an interesting trip. Very worthwhile too – what an incredible feat of engineering.
On my way from the dam to my hotel room in Overton, I turned off the road at a trailhead along the Lake Mead waterfront. I spotted a guy loading his bike onto the roof of his car, and figured he’d know the trails well enough to tell me where I might get a nice easy run in. The guy was a 76 year old triathlete, who’d sported a 2:59 Boston Marathon time some years back. I love meetings like this – the endurance sport community is a very nice one. He also alerted me to the fact that I could take this same backroad all the way up to Overton, bypassing the need to head back into Las Vegas entirely.
I spent the day before the race taking in sights in Valley of Fire State Park, unsure how many things I’d get to see while running. More time well spent – the scenery was incredible, and so much was visible with a minimal amount of walking. Beautiful red sandstone formations, and tons of petroglyphs from the Anasazi.
I attended a small pre-race pasta dinner the evening before the race, in a small old schoolhouse in Logandale, a small town about 15 miles north of the park entrance. There were perhaps thirty attendees, and many of them had travelled some distance to get there. A modest, but nice gathering.
Race day found me up and ready to go early. I drove down to the east entrance to the park, where the rangers on duty informed me that the marathon had been cancelled due to high winds. Wow – very disappointing. I’d spent hundreds on this trip, and would have to give my friends and donors some bad news. I mulled options as I drove the five miles to the start. I could simply do the Seattle Marathon the following weekend, but that wouldn’t get me a Nevada marathon. Frustrated – I considered simply doing the half course twice and calling it good.
It turns out the race director was one step ahead of me. By the time I arrived, just thirty minutes before the start, she’d put word out that we could do a marathon after all – indeed two out and back trips along the half marathon course.
So we lined up for the start, feeling very fortunate that things had worked out. They sent us off, and I immediately saw that this course was not going to be a fast one. We climbed steeply along the road winding through some red rocks, and were immediately struck by how amazing the landscape was. I’d driven this same road the previous day, but there’s nothing that rivals seeing this on foot. You have more time to appreciate it.
By the time we hit the first mile marker, I knew this would be a very challenging race. My pace was pretty good, but I knew I couldn’t maintain it, if the terrain continued to be like this. We passed the trailhead to Mouse’s Tank, where I’d seen so many petroglyphs the day before, and I tried to settle in for the long haul.
The second climb took up to Rainbow Vista, where the first aid station was. Just passed an amazing set of stark red rock formations, we turned off the road and headed for a short out and back run to Silica Dome. This stretch was fun – nice soft ground, and very quiet. Then we came back out to the road, and hunkered down for a good four and a half miles of up and down road running.
When I look at my split chart, it’s clear to me that I was not prepared for this course. In the early miles, I’d held out some hope that I’d be able to break four hours. I’d surmised things would be easier, given that we were no longer doing a 1000 foot ascent as we began the second half (because the course was changed). To illustrate, here’s the profile for the half marathon course (which we did two consecutive times :
And to put this into perspective, below is the original course profile – things could have been much more challenging :
The answer turned out to be that I was very fortunate that the course was indeed easier. For whatever reason, I felt those shorter hills plenty. I was lulled into my delusion by a nice descent between mile 4 and 5 (clocking my fastest split of the day), but the truth became clear shortly after that. By the time I’d hit the turnaround between mile 8 and 9, I knew that keeping the same pace was unlikely. And when I hit mile 10, I’d begun walking many of the steeper hills.
From that point on, I executed like it was a trail race in the mountains. I walked briskly uphill, and held a steady pace running downhill so as not to pound my quads too much. I hit the turnaround slightly over 2 hours, but knew that the second half would be a slower one.
Doing the same out and back course for the second time was interesting. I knew enough about the second half of the run out, to know that I needed to be conservative. The split trend for me went steadily up – walking more, and running more slowly. So – not a fast day for me, but the Mars-like landscape made the time well spent.
As did my fellow runners. I’d give a shout-out to the marathoners heading the opposite way, and saw lots of halfer’s, 10kers, and 5kers, getting good workouts too. I was ready to be done by the time I came back to the Rainbow Vista aid station for the final time, between mile 23 and 24, but reveled in the fact that I’d be able to enjoy the effort even more in about a half hour.
The final stretch has two very nice descents to it. I got passed a couple of times between mile 21 and 24, and didn’t want to get passed again. I could see three men getting within reach of me, and poured in some final effort as I hit that last downhill. I crossed the finish in 4:22:09.
During and after the run I reflected on what my friends are facing as they take on cancer. They’ve told me a bit about the surgeries – changing their bodies forever, the chemo – making them feel lousy, and trying to remain strong for their families. Facing challenges like these with grace and courage is a much bigger accomplishment that keeping oneself moving over some hills for four and a half hours.
When I ran this race, I hoped to use my love of distance running towards helping out, even in some small way. Many thanks to those who supported me in this pursuit. One of the less-anticipated experiences I’ve had, is that people share stories about how their lives have been touched in some way by breast cancer. And understanding the effect this has on people we know and care about makes us all want to try harder.
A postscript – With this run, I’ve completed state number thirteen towards my long-term goal of becoming a fifty state marathoner. Yep – just thirty-seven more to go. As much as I want to accomplish this one, part of me feels the same way I do about reading a good book. As much as I wonder what happens in the end, the journey is the reward. At my current rate, I might not finish this until I’m eighty. But that means I get to enjoy it longer.
Charts and Graphs for Running Geeks
The upward trend in splits tells the story. I was utterly unprepared for the hills. Definitely some lessons learned here, although less about a specific time goal than simply maintaining an even effort through the event.
updated with official race photos 29 November 2010