The St. George Marathon Course Preview
Named one of Runner’s World’s Top 10 Most Scenic and Fastest courses, this stunning marathon begins in the (chilly) Pine Valley Mountains, then takes you on a wild ride back down to the town of St. George. Though beautiful, the St. George Marathon is one of the most difficult runs on the Clif Bar Pace Team’s schedule, and leaves the pacers’ quads beat up for days! The good news is that St. George is a fast course, but only when run properly. Running St. George requires equal parts strategy, patience and determination – and we’re here to explain how to create the winning combination on this unique course.
Have you ever been to the mountains, at altitude, before dawn?
If not, a word of warning: it’s really cold up there. The St. George Marathon starts at an altitude of 5,240 feet, and that’s enough for a deep chill to set in. Dozen bonfires spread throughout the starting area will do a good job of keeping you warm, but make sure you have an ample supply of throwaway clothes as well; this will make your pre-race experience that much more enjoyable. Another surprise? St. George will begin in the dark, and you may not be able to see your watch for a good three to four miles. A headlamp, if you have one, or a small keychain-like flashlight could also make the early parts of your run just a bit less stressful.
Do yourself a favor and don’t hang out at the fires too long; a unique part of the St. George experience is watching all the runners dart from the fires into the corrals at the very last minute. After meeting your pace team in the starting area about 20 minutes before the start, the race will at last be underway. And yes, it’s a downhill start, but that doesn’t mean you should take off sprinting.
The first seven miles are downhill, but don’t be shocked to see a rolling hill here and there. Your entire goal in these first seven miles is a conservative warm-up. Yes, we know you can go faster. Yes, we know you’re going to lose time on Veyo. And yes, we know that it’s downhill. But remember what I said about strategy and patience. One of the best ways to ruin your St. George race is to pound those downhills (and your quads!) during the early part of the race, with so much descent left to come. Save your energy, and save your quads. Your pace leader may go ahead and run only 5 – 15 seconds faster in this section (5 seconds for the 3:05, 3:15 times, going up to 15 seconds in the 5:30 range), but this pace is more the result of the downhill than a concerted effort to “bank time.” With a second half like the one ahead, there’s no need to make a mistake like that! Tuck in behind your pace leader these first seven miles, relax and be patient as you continue your warm-up.
One more thing. Feeling the burn? Not in your legs, but your lungs? No need to stress. While you’re not at “high” altitude, you’re up high enough the first few miles that your breathing may feel a bit more labored than you expected. It will pass; hold your nerves and stress in check and simply focus on the race.
You will need focus as you hit the bottom of the hills at mile 7, where it’s time for your date with the Veyo Climb. Miles 7 – 9 are the hardest and steepest of the race. Although you reach the actual volcano right around mile 9, there’s a nasty little secret about the St. George marathon: you’ll be climbing all the way through mile 13.
I know, I know. Some of you have looked at the elevation map; some of you may be going there right now. You see, after you hit the Veyo volcano, you begin running net descent miles – but you’re still climbing too. Be prepared for multiple rolling hills and more moderate climbs throughout miles 9 – 13, and hold yourself in check. Again: strategy and patience are your best friends on this course.
What about the actual pacing of these miles? Let’s face it, friends: we’re going to pull some slow miles going up Veyo. We’re ready for it, we’re prepared for it, and you need to be too. Trudging up to the Veyo Volcano, your watch should be the furthest thing from your mind, because if you don’t get up that hill with enough energy left for the rolling hills still ahead, it won’t matter that you hit your splits for miles 8 and 9. Relax, breathe, and stay focused. And remember: there is nothing at all wrong with dropping off the pace leader up the hill if you need to go a bit slower or take a quick walk break. Keeping your own heart rate and breathing under control is what will allow you to re-join the group later – forcing your body outside of its comfort zone this early in the race is a recipe for disaster!
The actual pace of miles 9 through 13 should be pretty close to goal; while you’ll be climbing, you’ll also be descending. In these miles, look for your pace leader to push a little on the uphills, and relax into the downhills, letting gravity do the work for you naturally. That’s the determination part of our equation: push (determination) and rest (patience). It’s also where many of our runners re-join the group after dropping a bit behind on the Veyo climb. As in those first seven miles, now is the time to tuck in behind or near your pace leader, and let them pull you through to the halfway mark.
The half marathon point is not replete with fanfare quite like other races; St. George may offer sparse spectators, but it repays you with scenery. Miles 13 and 14 are where the real fun begins – if you’ve been smart and held it together in getting here.
Miles 14, 15 and 16 are STEEP. Not just downhill, but STEEP downhill. These are the miles you came to St. George for, the miles where you’re surrounded by tunnels of mountains and feel as if the ground is dropping out from underneath you. They are beautiful, they are fast, and they are fun. And (buzz kill) they should be used for recovery.
These downhills are going to feel amazing after all that climbing, and the scenery is going to be an easy distraction from keeping your pace in check. The problem is that you’re still only halfway through your race. So pounding the life out of your quads at this point, with more than 10 miles yet to run, is not the best strategy.
You will naturally make up some time here, and yes, the miles are likely to be a bit faster than your average split. That’s gravity pulling you along, and though the miles may come up fast, your pace leader will still be holding you back. Listen when your pace leader holds you back. They are not doing this to ruin your race; they are doing this so you can run the later hills just as strong. You may not see it on the elevation map, but you’ve got two nasty little uphills still ahead – one in mile 16, and one in mile 18. As good as those downhills felt after all that climbing, those climbs might feel equally yucky. So continue to be patient and employ your strategy through these sections. And don’t forget to pause to take in the absolutely stunning views of Snow Canyon at miles 16 and 17.
Once you get through those unexpected rollers in miles 16 and 18, it’s important to take stock of how your quads feel. You’re about to head back down some serious hills – so serious that there are signs on the side of the road with brake warnings for trucks! The really steep descent will start again right around mile 19.5; if your quads are locking up or in trouble, you’re going to need to approach it very cautiously; on the flip side, if you’re still feeling light and supple, this may be the time you decide to start making a day of this race! You’ll face an extremely steep one mile drop from 19.5 to 20.5; however, you’ll be running on steep downhill grades for the better part of the next three miles, right up to your mile 23 marker.
Mile 23 is where you enter town, and the spectators pick up a bit through the residential neighborhoods. No promises, friends, but some years, there has been a family around mile 24 handing out popsicles – and man, are they good. While these last three miles through town and into Vernon Worthen Park are technically downhill, the grade is nowhere near as steep, and it actually feels as if it flattens out a bit.
After all the steep downhill, that can be a real shift in workload, so it’s going to be time to dig deep and call on that determination to pull you through. Focus on the sounds of the spectators, the changing sites around you. Listen to your pace leader’s voice and encouragement, and run from light post to light post or street sign to street sign if you need to. After all that patience and strategic hard work, do not give up now, but simply hang on to that voice and those balloons as you work your way to the final finish line stretch.
One last trick: don’t pick it up too soon when you see that finish line. It’s a really, really long way down that street, so gradually pick up your pace rather than breaking into a sprint right away. Raise your arms, soak up the sounds of the crowds around you and get through that finish line, knowing you ran the very best race you could on a very challenging course. It’s time to celebrate – so go get your medal and that Blue Bunny ice cream. You earned it!