Just check out this elevation profile, if you don't believe me:
That's a thing of beauty, isn't it? Unlike the city itself and the course... but I digress.
State #17, Marathon #23. I didn't even decide to do this marathon until Wednesday. I didn't really feel like driving to El Paso, and didn't want to give up the idea of doing San Antonio for my Texas marathon. But in the end I registered because 1) that was the mileage I had to do this weekend anyway in training for the Old Pueblo 50, so I might as well do it somewhere different and check off a state at the same time, and 2) I don't really have so much spare cash that I can afford to fly to a marathon, rent a car, etc when I can drive -- cheaply and quickly -- to a different marathon in that same state. So El Paso it was.
I've never been there and was surprised to see how close it is to Mexico. I mean, I know the city of El Paso borders Juarez on the map, obviously, but somehow that didn't translate into being able to lean out my hotel window and spit into Juarez. (I'm exaggerating, of course, but anyway, it was close.) And the first word I associated with El Paso in my head, upon driving through it, was "ugly". The second was "dirty". Not that these were necessarily bad things -- I love several ugly, dirty cities, like Tijuana and Naples, so I did like El Paso when I first saw it. I drove straight to the downtown Expo. I was tired and had a headache from the drive, and when I got out of the car a cold wind was blowing hard. All these things made me cranky, and then I walked into the Expo and got more cranky. It was a tiny Expo, and almost all the booths were local businesses that had nothing to do with running, and the shirt was boring and ugly, and the goodie bag was full of advertisements for more local businesses and didn't even have one single actual "goodie" in it, not even a free pen or something. I got my shirt and walked out and it had gotten even colder. I was planning to run in shorts but I changed my mind and was glad I brought tights "just in case".
The next morning the wind wasn't quite as bad, but it was still blowing. This race was a point-to-point with a shuttle bus to the start. We boarded the shuttle buses downtown where the finish line was. I still didn't know anything about the course except that it had a 1500' elevation loss -- had never looked at a map or anything. On the shuttle bus, I ended up sitting next to this not-very-pleasant guy from Houston. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and if so, this guy was a Texas asshole -- a definitely bigger-than-average asshole. He started out by telling me that he was a sub-3-hour marathoner -- and he said it just that way: "I'm a sub-3-hour marathoner," the way I might say, "I'm from Tucson" -- so he wouldn't be seeing most of these people after the start. Then he told everyone around us that the wind would be in our faces the entire time. Then he went off about how he usually only does small town marathons and if he didn't like this one he was going to drop out and do Beaumont two weeks later. Then he talked about how much he hates Rock and Roll marathons and how the organizers worship the almighty dollar and how everyone who runs them is contributing to the commercialization of running. Then I shut him up by telling him Rock and Roll marathons were my favorite and I didn't care if they were in it to make money -- they're a business, why shouldn't they be making money? It's not like people don't sign up by the hundreds of thousands to run them. He stopped talking to me after that and instead talked to the people around him about how with the new course this year he had heard there would likely be major logistics problems and he was looking forward to seeing what they would be.
Meanwhile the bus headed west out of town and then turned north up into the mountains. The wind got stronger and stronger as we headed up, up, and up. I watched the elevation on my GPS go from 3700' up to 5300. We all watched the wind outside shaking the roadside bushes violently. It even shook the bus. "With this wind chill, it's going to be about 15 degrees out there," the asshole announced to everyone, sounding satisfied, as the bus pulled into the start line area.
I got off the bus for the Porta-John line and HOLY CRAP! It was freezing. The wind went instantly through my clothes. Luckily there were plenty of Porta-Johns and the lines weren't long, but it didn't take long to freeze. If not for the wind, it wouldn't have been bad, 38 degrees. I tried to be positive and remind myself that this was NOT the most miserable I'd ever been at a start line -- that would be Boston, with St. George a close second -- but it was right up there. Luckily they kept the buses parked with doors open and heaters running and we were able to stay on them where it was warm right up until the national anthem was sung at 6:55.
(Let me just say right now that even though I have been complaining nonstop about being too fat for months now -- and I am 24 pounds heavier than I was when I qualified for Boston -- today I was grateful for every millimeter of fat I had and would have happily carried ten more pounds in exchange for a little more wind protection. I have decided I am meant to have extra fat in the winter and that's the way it should be. I am not going to worry about it any more. The end.)
The start line was in a mountain pass and there was a 1000' elevation drop in the first four miles. The first mile was miserably cold, with that freezing wind blowing right in my face so strong my visor wouldn't stay on my head and even my earbuds were blown out of my ears. Then at Mile Two the wind died down and wasn't much of a factor at all on the course, despite weather forecasts predicting wind all day. Those first four miles, running down the mountain, were undeniably scenic, with the mountains around us and the city below us. Then we were spit out of the mountains onto a frontage road and ugly took over and stayed for the rest of the course, except for a brief detour through Fort Bliss. Miles Five through Seven were on that frontage road; Miles Eight through Ten went through the obligatory ghetto that seems to be part of every urban marathon; Miles Eleven through Seventeen were on this long, straight, road that went across the top of Fort Bliss but looked like it was out in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't hot, but the sun was shining full-force. This was exactly the kind of long, monotonous stretch that can cause mental fatigue because nothing ever changes, but, luckily, I was having a good day and got through it passing a lot of people and going at a good, steady pace. At Mile Seventeen the course entered Fort Bliss, and the aid station there, manned by men in uniform, was my favorite one of the whole course. (I forgot to mention that there were aid stations every two miles for the first half, and every mile for the second half, which was really nice and something I've not seen in any other marathon, I don't think.) We were in Fort Bliss for three miles, and then the remaining six miles were a combination of nice residential, a little bit more ghetto, and then some downtown.
My goal for this race was to run it slowly and not even look at my Garmin. I just wanted to keep a comfortable pace, walk when necessary, stop to pee if I had to, and in general just have a comfortable long run. This is my peak week in the training for OP-50, and I also have the Pemberton 50k next Saturday, so I definitely didn't want to go too hard. I didn't see a race clock anywhere on the course, so I truly had no idea how my time was. I did know that I was running comfortably though and wasn't walking at all except briefly through aid stations. As ugly as the course was, elevation-wise it was a dream. Those first few miles of downhill were steep, but after that it was this very gradual, gentle loss of elevation as opposed to the quads-busting kind like St. George. There were only a few tiny bumps of uphill. I felt pretty good by the time I got to the finish, no nausea, nothing hurting except a place where my waist pack was chafing my side, and not too cold or too hot. I was completely ecstatic to see that my time was just under 3:55. My average marathon time is probably 4:10 or somewhere around there, so anything under four hours is pretty good. I haven't run any marathons in less than four hours since Missoula in July 2010, so I was stoked about this one. Based on my recent long run times I was expecting 4:30. Maybe 4:20 if I had a good day.
Even more exciting, when I got home and looked at the results I saw that I got second in my division, which I haven't ever done in a marathon. Okay, it wasn't a huge division with only thirteen people in it, but even so that was still pretty good. I'm just mystified as to why there weren't more very fast times with that course? I know that if I was in the shape I was in when I BQ'd, I would have BQ'd again for sure.
All in all, I recommend this marathon for a fast, easy-to-run course UNLESS:
*You really hate ugly marathons
*You like a lot of spectators (there were next to none)
*You don't like long stretches with no turns and no change in scenery
*A drop of 1000' in four miles is uncomfortable for you