Petrified Forest Marathon: A Recap

Three words I would use to describe the Petrified Forest Marathon at Petrified Forest National Park on October 22, 2016:

Blazing. Hot. Sun.

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Another runner offered to take my picture near the starting line before the race began. From start to finish, everyone – participants, volunteers, and directors – made this an incredibly friendly event.

The main thing that stands out to me two weeks later is that for the five hours I was on the road, there was not a single shred of shade (well, except for the Port-A-Potty, but no-one wants to take respite there for long). And it was really warm for a marathon: temperatures reached record highs in the mid-80s that day.

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No shade.

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Really, none.

Yes, between the heat and the hills, the marathon was tough. I was somewhat prepared for the weather, but because I hadn’t really studied the course elevation profile (reasoning that it was just one more potential stressor), I didn’t realize how steep some stretches would be, including 2 major inclines that everyone walked.

But you know what? I went in prepared, I had a plan, I followed through, and I finished! Despite the challenges, I felt like the entire thing was totally manageable, even when things got a bit tough in the last six miles.

What went right:

1. I picked the right race for me. First, it was a point-to-point course, which I tend to prefer over courses that loop back on themselves in some way. The scenery and terrain were always fresh and unexpected. Second, it was small. The total number of marathoners and half-marathoners combined was somewhere around 100; about half of those people ran the full 26.2. Because it was so small, all of the participants had easy access to all of the race resources. This included the race director, who bounced around the course all day to check in with people. Third, it was special: I got to run through a national park during the NPS’s centennial year, and that felt awesome. (Sidenote: the route through PFNP is almost exactly 26 miles! It was made for a marathon.)

2. I was prepared. I could tell my training, healthy eating, and somewhat obsessive organizing the day before paid off.

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Packet pick-up took place at the quirky Wigwam Motel in Holbrook the night before the race. It looked like something out of the movie Cars.

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I laid out my clothes, gels, headphones, chapstick, and other necessities the night before, then checked and re-checked everything.

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I really loved the bib for this marathon. It definitely captures the spirit of the race.

I also wrote out my running game plan and put it in my front pocket so that I could refer to it throughout the race. The plan outlined the pace I should be running at at various points throughout the marathon and when I should be taking in food and liquids.

3. I rocked the nutrition management. It is so easy, especially early in a race, to convince yourself that you don’t need food, but once you get a couple of hours in, your glycogen stores start to nosedive. You have to replenish them whenever you can. I ate at every single aid station with food, and I had two caffeinated gels that I consumed at predetermined times (one at mile 12, and one at mile 19). Again, having a plan written out and close at hand helped a lot – especially during the last part of the run when my brain wasn’t fully functioning.

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Step 1 of race day nutrition management: COFFEE. I got up early so that I could take my time with breakfast (granola bar, apple, banana) and let the coffee work its, well, magic.

4. I motivated myself with music. I downloaded new tunes the night before and didn’t let myself listen to them until mile 20. So instead of dreading the “last half of the marathon,” as some people refer to miles 20-26, I kind of looked forward to it. I can’t overstate just how helpful music was in those last six arduous miles. I’m going to use this strategy in all future marathons.

5. I alternated walking and running at the end. It was part of my strategy. I figured that what works for ultrarunners can work for marathoners, too: Why jog up a hill and knock yourself out if you can just walk it at almost the same speed? Plus, I walk fast. I don’t lose that much time by doing it when I’m tired.

6. I took time to enjoy the scenery. The rock formations at Petrified Forest are incredible: layers and layers of multicolored sedimentary units that change hues depending on the time of day. I tried to stop every now and then to take pictures, although the sun was so bright that I could barely see the screen on my phone.

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Because I couldn’t see my phone screen, I ended up with this lovely shot of the Port-a-Potties.

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Ultimately, I finished in 5:05. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tiny bit disappointed by that time – I was aiming for closer to 4:40 – but once I saw the other finishers’ times, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who’d struggled with the heat. Everyone lagged.

Two things I’ll do differently next time: 

First, I’ll carry my own water bottle. Aid stations were relatively abundant, but slogging through the desert without water is a little nerve wracking. I hate carrying stuff (and I really really hate hydration packs), but in this case I would have been more comfortable with my own water.

Second, I won’t hold back quite so much at the beginning. I’m glad I paced myself, but I’m pretty sure I could have ramped up the pace earlier without suffering any consequences later on. It’s such a balance: on one hand, you don’t want to go out too fast and wear yourself out, but on the other hand, the longer you’re on your feet, the more exhausted you’re going to feel by the time you approach the finish line.

But that’s it! It went so well. I’m so proud of myself for keeping my wits about me, maintaining a good attitude, and sticking to my plan. And it was beautiful, and the people were super friendly. No regrets.

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Next up: I’m considering a 50K (with another marathon wrapped up into the training plan). This marathon definitely stoked my passion for distance, and once I’m done with this recovery phase, I can’t wait to get back out there and keep pushing myself.

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