Entry 7: Big Cottonwood Marathon

Big Cottonwood Marathon S Curve

Big Cottonwood Marathon S Curve (Photo Courtesy of RunRevel.com)

About three months after the Utah Valley Marathon, I ran the Big Cottonwood Marathon with a dear friend of mine, Natalie Brown, aka rockstar.  Natalie and I started training together that summer and I was so impressed with her strength and drive. Seriously, this woman is amazing.

The Hanson Marathon Method Book

The Hanson Marathon Method Book

We trained using the Hansons Method. This was a new method for me but one that Natalie’s husband, Clint, had had success with. (Another post will be dedicated to talking more about this method, but I am a fan of it.) Training with someone was so much more enjoyable, and since the marathon was in September, this also meant we could do the majority of our training outside–so much more fun than running on the treadmill. Our goal time for this marathon was a 3:40 so Natalie could BQ.

Doubletree Hotel Big Cottonwood Marathon Race Swag

Doubletree Hotel Big Cottonwood Marathon Race Swag

For this race, I flew in from Denver and my husband stayed back with the kids. (Thanks, Stephen!) I stayed one night, (Friday) and then came back on Saturday after the race was over.  I arrived into the SLC airport and was picked up by my hotel’s shuttle–we stayed at the Doubletree Suites in Salt Lake–one of the recommended hotels for this race. (This hotel was great for the race, except it was too far from the finish line. That is the only reason we won’t be staying there for the race this year. ) Upon check in, they gave me a complimentary bag they had put together for marathoners that included race day information and food–see pic.

After getting settled into the hotel, I walked a block to get on the FrontRunner train which took me straight to the expo–it was really slick.

Natalie Brown and Krista Miner Sidwell at the 2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon Race Expo in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Natalie Brown and Krista Miner Sidwell at the 2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon Race Expo in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The expo was really well-organized.  I hung out there for a couple hours while I waited for Natalie and Clint to drive in from Colorado and then we got our race bags and bibs and headed to the hotel.

2014 Big Cottonwood Race Bag Contents

2014 Big Cottonwood Race Bag Contents

Our race bags for this race were great.  (Revel, in general, puts on really great races. Great expos and race bags, free photos, refundable entries if you need to cancel, organized courses, expansive finisher’s areas with free massages, nice-quality medals and shirts etc.) The mylar blanket, gloves, bracelet, and kodiak oatmeal set this race bag high above your average bag.

After the expo, we grabbed some food at Noodles and Company (Penne Rosa–mild and some flatbread) and then took some time to drive part of the course.  We mainly wanted to study the out-and-back section and from there to the finish line.  The out-and-back looked a little hilly but we were still feeling confident in our preparation for the course.

2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon Kit

2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon Kit

We prepared for bed, laying out all of our items and getting our food ready for our early wake-up call and then hit the pillows.  It is sooo much more fun to be running a race with a friend. We had trained together and had the same goals. We had the same hopes and the same fears. We were in this together.

Unlike the Zermatt hotel, for the Utah Valley Marathon the June prior, this hotel was extremely quiet, and had a microwave. I slept very soundly.

We woke up, prepared, ate our oatmeal and juice, grabbed our bagels and were ready to go downstairs and catch the shuttle.  Race mornings are such a mixture of nerves, excitement, fear and adrenalin.  You always wonder what this race will be like.  Will all the training pay off? Will the weather cooperate? Will it be windy? Will you have to use the bathroom? Will your body perform? Will you pace it correctly? Will you hit the wall? Will you make your goal? Did you carb load enough? Did you get enough water? Will you get sick? Did you eat well the night before? Did your food digest well?  All these questions run through your head. Every marathon is different and this was a completely new course for both of us.

That morning, there was a line of athletes in the hotel lobby all waiting to get on the shuttle. People had come from all over the United States to run.  (One of my favorite parts of racing is meeting and talking to the other participants before and after the race. Everyone has such a different story and history with their running.  Race morning everyone is talkative and friendly.  Everyone is keyed up and excited for what they are about to do.  You don’t know these people, but you know you share a passion for running and a respect for the race. You are all collectively feeling similar emotions and somehow instantly friends.)

After the 30-mile ride from the hotel to the race start we began the routine of cycling through the porta potty line and trying to stay warm. The space blanket helped a ton. You get to a point in all the waiting that all you want to do is start running.  We talked to the different pacers and tried to decide if we wanted to stick with the 3:40 group, or pace a 3:38 ourselves–to give us some cushion.  In the end, we decided to start off with the 3:40 group, but look at our pace bands/watches and decide if we needed to break off from them or not.

So, we started the first of 16 downhill miles through the canyon.  It was beautiful. We had perfect racing conditions. The pacers were going faster than our pace bands recommended and we were a little concerned by this but we were feeling really good so we didn’t worry about it (rookie mistake). A couple miles in we started to worry because they were still going faster than we thought we should be going so we decided to break into our own pace. This is where we–unintentionally–lost our ultimate goal. These few miles at the very beginning that felt so easy, but that would, in the end, mean that we had spent too much too early.  We finished the first half of the marathon at 1:42 (a 7:50 minute-per-mile average).  That should have clued us that we were running too fast, but we felt so good and the course was distractingly beautiful so we weren’t really worried. (Revel also puts signs up all along the course with motivational statements and funny comments.  They are fun to see and look for. This course has no crowd support until about mile 23, but the canyon is breathtaking.)

Natalie Brown and Krista Miner Sidwell at the 2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon, Salt Lake City, Utah

Natalie Brown and Krista Miner Sidwell at the 2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon, Salt Lake City, Utah

Even at mile 16 we still felt great. It was after mile 16 that we started the out-and-back portion of the race and then things weren’t so great.  The grade on the hills felt much steeper than when we had driven this portion of the race. We started to slow down, but because of all our negative splits in the first 16 miles, we were still okay even easing up on our pace.

What I didn’t know then was that my running partner had hit the wall.  She is so strong, and so tough that I didn’t know that she was hurting.  We had never hit the wall during training practice so I didn’t know that her silence meant she was hurting. I continued to push her and her limits and she was in agony. I felt so badly about that later when she told me where she had been those miles.  I know what the wall feels like and I am still in awe of what she did for 10 miles in the face of it.  (When your glycogen stores are used up, your legs are just done.  You can try and make them work, but the muscles stiffen and they don’t respond like they should. They are dead weight on your body.)

From mile 22 to 26 you have a slight downhill grade.  It was quite a relief to hit it after the long 6-mile out-and back, but even with that we weren’t able to make up the time we had lost.  We saw the pacer go by us with his 3:40 sign and we kept trying to catch him, but just couldn’t make it happen.  However, he was still in sight and I knew that we had started after him.  Our chip time, and my pace watch told me we were still under 3:40. That is when I started to get loud.  Really loud. (Probably really annoying.) I did not want Natalie to give up. We were so close, I knew if we pushed just a little harder she could do it.  Natalie was amazing.  I have never seen such determination.  She was hurting, but she was pushing herself so hard. We crossed the line 40 seconds shy of our goal and finished with a 3:40:40.

Natalie Brown and Krista Miner Sidwell at the 2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon finish line.

Natalie Brown and Krista Miner Sidwell at the 2014 Big Cottonwood Marathon finish line.

That was an emotional ending. She deserved to BQ. She definitely had earned it. She had been so close. I was sad for her that she hadn’t gotten her BQ, but at the same time, I was so incredibly happy for what she had just done! What she had accomplished.  In just 18 weeks of training, she had taken more than an hour off her time. She had gone from a 10:28 pace at the Salt Lake Marathon to an 8:25 five months later! Like I said, this lady is a rockstar.

We hit the massage tables, then headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up and grab some Inn and Out Burgers and fries.  (It takes me a few hours before I want to eat anything after a race. Water is always great, and I try to at least take in the chocolate milk they offer at the finish line for muscle recovery, but I usually just don’t have an appetite.  Then even when my appetite returns,  the last thing I want is anything sweet for several hours–probably due to all the simple sugars from the gels that I take during the race.  Salty foods are definitely desirable.  I assume that has to do with sodium depletion from sweating.)  A juicy burger and salty fries a few hours after a marathon taste so good.

Natalie and Clint drove me to the airport and I was on my way back home.  It was fun to see so many other marathoners at the airport sporting their racing jerseys.  Like me, they had only flown in for the race and then were headed back to their homes.

All I could think about on the way home was conquering that course in 2015 and what race Natalie and I could do together immediately to leverage all her training and to get her the BQ she earned!

That story continues with the Canyon City Marathon.

Tips/Lessoned Learned

  1. Stay at a race-affiliated hotel close to the finish line. Check the marathon website for hotels they recommend.  Not only will this get you a discount, but they usually also provide you with a shuttle to the race start and a bagged breakfast.  Book early, because they fill up fast! Even if you have family in town you can stay with, if you are traveling with your kids, it is helpful to get a hotel room for the night before the race just for you, you and your spouse/friend/fellow racer. You need a good night’s sleep with no distractions.
  2. Don’t rely on a pacer if you have an aggressive goal. Get a pace band and a reliable pace watch and pace yourself.  Sometimes you get a good pacer and sometimes you don’t.  Talk to the pacers before and ask what their race strategy/splits are.  If they are in line with yours start with them, but if they aren’t staying with the goals you have or with your pace band splits cut them loose.
  3. Don’t bank time.  This is NOT a race you want to bank time on.  They changed the course for 2015, so there is now 18 miles of downhill as opposed to 16. This should help the overall experience because now the out-and-back section will be shorter, BUT you have to be careful not to go too fast on those fast, downhill miles.  It will feel easy at first, but you will pay for it later.  Instead, try and stay at an even pace. Keep your splits even. Conserve in the beginning and if you have more juice after mile 23, then you can pick it up.
  4. Train for downhill. For the first 16 miles of this course you are descending at a 5 percent grade.  If you haven’t trained for that, you are going to feel that during the last 10 miles of the race. You lose about 2800 feet through the course of this marathon. Train for it!
  5. Mentally Prepare for the Out-and-Back. Once you exit the canyon–at about mile 18.25, you will begin a 4.25 mile out-and-back on Wasatch Boulevard to the edge of the Old Mill Golf Course.  They shortened this section of the race this year (starting you higher above Guardsman Pass) but you still have 4.25 miles that you have to run on this hilly, mundane part of the course.  Prepare for this in your training–both physically and mentally with visualization techniques.  Prepare for this when you are running the 18 miles before this section–conserve. Be strategic. This is the hardest part of the course, but definitely conquerable.
  6. Pack your Space Blankets. You wouldn’t think you would need them in September, but up in the canyon at 5:00 am it is cold.
  7. Have Fun!!


  • Shoes: Pearl Izumi H3s (I chose the H3s for this race because of the added heel support since I was going to be running so much downhill terrain.)
  • Clothes: Pearl Izumi singlet, shorts, compression calf sleeves, toe socks–to help prevent blisters.
  • Flip Belt
  • Earbuds and iPod shuffle
  • Garmin Forerunner Pace Watch

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