As you might guess we are both fans of downhill running. But it’s not as popular as you might think.
While most runners probably enjoy picking up the pace on the odd downhill section of a course, they are often very wary of too much elevation drop because of the damage it is likely to do to their muscles, and the consequent muscle soreness the day or two after the run. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and we would both say that downhill running is one of ours. In general we haven’t suffered too much after downhill running – well, maybe just a little (!) after this year’s Comrades. So when we came across the Revel Big Cottonwood Canyon marathon in Utah, with its 5,000ft of descent, we decided that this was definitely a race we had to try.
In our last post we wrote about our disappointment at not ‘floating’ down the Cascade mountains – for most of the route the decline was barely perceptible. Big Cottonwood was promising to be different – not floating but hurtling down. And for 19 miles (except for the uphill at mile 3) that’s exactly what we did. So marathon PBs perhaps? A definite possibility for most of the race.
But a few details first. Big Cottonwood Canyon is in the Wasatch mountains of Utah, just outside of Salt Lake City. The marathon is organised by Revel who have a number of events in the Western States. Runners are bussed up the mountain at 4 o’clock in the morning, and the run on closed roads starts as soon as it gets light at 6:45am. The race begins at 9,500ft and finishes at 4,500ft, with an average gradient of 5%. We were assured that altitude would not be a problem as we were running downhill (except for maybe the small issue of a significant uphill at 3 miles; they were right – it took our breath away – lucky we were expecting it!)
So – the first 19 miles are mainly downhill, and then you exit the canyon, and the course changes. It has a 5 mile undulating out-and-back section before continuing downhill for the last 2 miles. It was quite cool in the start area at 5am and layers of clothes were needed. During the run the canyon was shady and a perfect temperature for running; but by the time we left the canyon it was 33 degrees and full sun.
I think it’s fair to say that neither of us was prepared for the change of temperature or of incline. Whilst we had comfortably run the steep downhill section, our legs could not adapt to the difference, and our muscles objected big time (see Strava profiles).
Despite the disastrous end to the race (with Jacquie hardly able to run at all), we still both ran relatively decent times and overall had a fantastic trip. So the 10 ups and downs of The big Cottonwood marathon and our trip to Salt Lake City were:
DOWNS (lets get them out of the way first)
1. Out and back section of course
After the stunning scenery of the Canyon, this section of the course was through a built-up area, with a dusty working quarry – a little disappointing but at least the end was in sight and the supporters were very welcome!
2. DOMS the day after
The Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness was the most severe we have ever had. We flew back to London the day after the marathon, with two changes of plane and very short layovers. We must have looked comical hobbling round the airport with our race T-shirts proclaiming our athletic ability. More specific training needed for our next downhill challenge.
We really should have hired a car, as the area is not designed for pedestrians. The hotel was helpful, but getting to the expo and finding somewhere to run in the days before the marathon would have been much easier if we’d had our own transport.
UPS (and the real message)
4. 19 miles of the most amazing scenery
The great majority of the run was through the most stunning scenery, with the copper-coloured canyon walls towering above us, but close enough to reach out and touch as we ran.
5. Race organisation
The attention to detail in the race organisation was excellent. The website was very informative, and included training tips for downhill running; the expo had vendors with interesting products and presentations by a coach talking you through the course; the goody-bag with a choice of good-quality race vests, short- or long-sleeve t-shirts, plus gloves and two mylar blankets for the cold start; the start area was slightly cramped but with good toilet provision and refreshments; and post-race, there was hot food, beer and an attractive medal. We’d definitely do another Revel event.
6. Race hotel
We stayed at one of the recommended hotels, the Hyatt Place in Cottonwood. It was extremely clean, with very comfortable large rooms, helpful staff, and good local restaurants. We’d particularly recommend the Market Street Grill and their excellent clam chowder.
7. Feeling of space
The whole area had an incredible area of spaciousness. Restaurants were cavernous, hotel rooms were vast – everything was generally spread out. It made a welcome change.
8. Salt Lake City
We went into the city for the evening. It’s not the most exciting place, it was very attractive and manicured, and appeared to be very affluent, but was populated by what at first we thought were the weirdest-dressed people ever – whole families, couples, young and old in the strangest costumes. It turned out that the marathon weekend was also the weekend of the FanX convention, where like-minded fans of every genre imaginable gathered, from Star Wars to Disney, superheroes to fairy tale characters. And on top of all this, we turned a corner and heard a familiar (to Cam, at least) voice – Snoop Dogg, in his manifestation as DJ Snoopadelic, was giving an outdoor performance. We might have seen Salt Lake City at its most exciting!
9. Keith’s PB
By coincidence, a running friend from the UK turn up at our hotel the day before the marathon. It turned out that Keith had come to Cottonwood to run his 250th marathon, and had been training hard in an attempt to get a PB – his last one being nearly 10 years before, at the start of his marathon-running career. Amazingly, he did it – he ran 3:05, taking 2 minutes off his previous best. It was brilliant to be there to witness it and to able to celebrate with him afterwards.
10. Our results
Despite the melt-down towards the end of the race, Cam ran her second-fastest marathon time of 3:38, and in doing so achieved a 10k PB, prompting a comment of “only you could run a 10k PB during a marathon” from a friend. And Jacquie won her age group in a time of 4:21, 50 min ahead of the second place.
For those interested in reading more about the mechanics and ‘adaptations’ associated with downhill running, Fellrnr.com has a very good article.
Tips for downhill running
Posture : to avoid “braking”, which puts added pressure on the body, lean forward from the hips so that your upper body remains perpendicular to the surface of the hill.
Cadence : try to keep a high leg turnover with shorter steps – don’t over-stride
Shoes : tie your shoes to hold your heel in pace to avoid your toes hitting against the front of your shoes, causing blisters and bruised toenails. See this link.
Enjoy your running.