This weekend I travelled to St. George, Utah to check out the Ironman St. George course. The trip was organized by Durapulse and they graciously allowed us to join in their weekend training camp. It was a slow start with a very long drive up to Utah, via Flagstaff and the very desolate roads skirting the Grand Canyon. We arrived late afternoon and after a quick stop to view the reservoir (should be a nice one loop swim, with the potential for strong current due to gusty winds) we drove the first 20 miles of the bike ride en route to our hotel.
I took copious notes as we drove so that I could formulate the best possible training for the remaining 14 weeks until race day. So the first 20 miles looks like this (which you will understand if you live in Arizona..) 2 mile climb, not as steep as Usery. Small Shea climb with a 6% Mt Lemmon decline. Palisades and Shea climbs. Flat. Quick short hill. Flat. About 1 1/2- 2 miles of Shea and Palisades climbing. Downhill. Flat. So in other words, rolling, punchy hills.
After checking into the hotel, we went for a run on the course. Like the bike course, there is really no flat ground to speak of. If you can imagine for a moment, the course is run in the shape of an 'M', with a little diagonal out-and-back at the end on a street (ironically) named Diagonal. The loop is run a total of 3 times during the marathon. For the recon on Friday, my cousin and I ran one loop. Each leg of the 'M' is downhill, turnaround and come back up hill, across the top of the M, and then down the next leg, turn around and come back up hill, across the top, then down the next leg. You get the idea. After the third leg of the M you continue the up hill to the top of Diagonal and then turn around and come back down.
I really, really like this run course. I am not much of a fan of flat ground when you have to cover 26 miles. My muscles tend to really fatigue with the repetitive motion. With the up and down hills, I am constantly changing which muscles I'm using, and thus allowing the opposite muscles to rest. Plus, given the shape of the course, spectators will be all over the place and the family we have in town will literally be able to see us every 2 miles. That's 12 times in one marathon, plus the finish line. Even IMAZ doesn't have it that good.
After our run, we changed into swim suits to hit a local pool. I think we knocked out a quick 1500 meters, did a couple of 100 meter relays and then hit the water slides before we called it a day. We ended Friday with some pizza and hit the racks by 9 pm.
On Saturday morning, the forecast showed temperatures in the low 30s. This really concerned us as we prepared for our biking tour of the course. However, within a couple of miles I realized I was really overdressed for the amount of effort I was putting out and tied my jacket around my waist. I handed over my gloves to the sag vehicle and rode the course in a base layer and my jersey.
The bike ride was nothing less than eye-opening. A wake up call. We started from our hotel and wove through town following the course through one loop. I got a total of 47 miles in, averaging... wait for it.... 14 miles per hour. Yes, you heard me correctly. 14 mph. 14. I know. Hard to believe that one can actually bike that slowly. But yes. 14 mph. (Can you tell I'm struggling with this reality?)
It went like this: we leave hotel. Durapulse group takes off. I, already dropped, follow. Once we get out of town, it is just a relentless, slow climb for about 30 miles. Mentally, it's very debilitating because it looks flat. You're not climbing mountains. There are no switchbacks. There are really no hills to speak of for most of it. You think you should be going faster, but you can't. And then there is the wind. Oh, blustery wind. Head wind. Cross winds. No, no tail winds. Just varying degrees of every other possible angle. Wind.
The countryside is quite interesting. And believe me, I had plenty of time to take it all in. The hills are stark, bare, rocky. It's desolate. And then you'll drop into a gorgeous little valley with acres of green grass, and a white picket fence. Or cross a little bridge over a small creek. Not breathtaking, but beautiful nonetheless. I believe we had about 4 actual hills which provided a much needed break from the relentless false flat. I'm not sure where this "wall" was that people speak of. Or the switchbacks. I guess when you are used to switchbacks related to climbing a mountain, it is easy to overlook a small hill climb. (I think it's maybe the U-turn that sparks the use of the term related to this course.) Either way, the course was much harder than I expected in the relentless, gradual uphill. And much easier than I expected in that there are really very few climbs to speak of.
And in the same way, the "fast downhill" to the finish has been overrated as well. When we reached the town of Veyo, I retrieved my gloves for the descent back to St. George. We were told, one more hill before the descent. So we cruised up the highway in a very similar ascent to the beeline, maybe a touch steeper, for about a mile and then.... it flattens out. There's no smokin' downhill. I keep waiting and waiting. And waiting. Don't get me wrong, my average pace went from 10 to 20 mph. But we were by no means going down a mountain.
Finally, we see a sign that indicates a 6% grade is coming. So I put my jacket back on and glove up in preparation. And really, it wasn't much. There were a couple of steep sections but it wasn't nearly the mountain that I had built up in my head. I was expecting Mt. Lemmon. I think I got Usery.
So the bottom line is this: I have a lot of work to do. But it's a different sort of work that I had expected. I am going to focus my training on becoming mentally prepared for the unending effort that will be required from mile 20 to 50 and from mile 70-100. I think Mt. Lemmon will be key, not for the sort of climbing that is required, but just in putting forth solid effort for 20 miles at a time. And I will spend plenty of time in Fountain Hills, on McDowell Mountain Road, and repeats up 9-mile.
After returning to the hotel, somewhat dejected, we changed into our running shoes for a quick transition run. I did 2 legs of the 'M' and figured out that it took about 1 1/2 miles for my legs not to feel like Jell-o. I figure I can at least double this for race day. However, it was nice to start on a downhill, and the changing up and down did again provide relief for my legs.
After stretching we said goodbye to the Durapulse group as they were heading back to the Valley. We showered and headed out for a much deserved lunch at Great Harvest Bread Company. They did not disappoint. We spent the afternoon lounging by the pool and soaking in the hot tub. We found a great little Mexican restaurant for dinner.
On Sunday morning, we got up early for our long run. I had planned to do 2 1/2 hours. So I ran one 'M', made a quick stop the hotel to pick up my cousin who ran the last 1 1/2 hours with me. We ran one full loop of the course and finished with a total of 15.5 miles. I ran much slower on Sunday, but a strong consistent pace throughout the 2 1/2 hours. And if I can match that pace on race day, I'll be a very happy girl.
After breakfast we hit the road for home, this time via Las Vegas which proved to be much faster. After soaking in everything from the weekend and realizing that I have a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time, I have decided to forgo attempting another marathon. At this point, it's more important for me to be as well prepared for IM St. George as I can possibly be. In order to do that, I need to focus on building my endurance, strength on the bike, and getting some good long bike rides in. If I am worried about training for a marathon, and being well rested and properly tapered, that goes against everything I need to be doing for IM.
Se la vie. Or if you prefer: I've made my bed, now I must lie in it. Trust me, no one is more disappointed than I am about not being able to run Boston in 2013, but the last thing I want to do is have another bad race (ie: St. George). So I will become one with my bicycle in the next 14 weeks. If I am not on my bicycle, I will be thinking about my bicycle. Dreaming about her. Visualizing the course. Preparing mentally, physically, emotionally for the beating I will give St. George in May.