The (Elevation) Map Is a Lie – The Monday Mile

At the Finish of the PA Grand Canyon Marathon

At the Finish of the PA Grand Canyon Marathon

This weekend I completed the inaugural running of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon Marathon. The race takes place on the Pine Creek Gorge just outside of Wellsboro, PA. As noted, this was the first running of the race, which always means watching organizers work out the bugs in the system in real-time. I had gotten a couple of obscure comments from one of the leaders of a local running club group on Facebook, so I was watching what happened over the course of the pre-race and race-day events.

It was a race and a weekend that left me conflicted in many ways about the race and my own performance. But rather than blather on, I wanted to just list a few things based on my race, as well as some good and bad things from the overall experience of running of the event.

Here are a few personal observations:

  • Heavy Rains are a Pain: the morning of the race the forecast was a 40% chance of rain. As we were running, a going joke was that what they really meant was that 40% of our run would be in torrential downpours. As a result by mile 3 we were all totally soaked … and there is no such thing as lightweight shoes when they are soaked with a pound of water!
  • overdependence on GPS Watch: I depend on my Garmin to track my time and distance, and to also differentiate my actual versus perceived speed (if I am feeling good or bad). But as I discovered (and should have learned) when I forgot my GPS on my first half-marathon – when in a race setting, I tend to go out too fast unless I manage it … and I did a poor job managing my pace. In the heavy tree cover of this race, my Garmin spent much of the race in la-la land.
  • The Hills Took Their Toll: the hills of the race were more grueling than described on the race info, or detailed on the elevation map (more on how dramatic the expectation vs. reality difference was later). Given everything else (rain, mud, rough paths), the race felt like it was uphill both ways!
  • Disappointment, Yet Not Too Bad: The first male finisher came in nearly 30 minutes later than estimated (just barely broke 3 hours), the next person was nearly 10 minutes later and the first female was another 30 minutes later. It was a *slow* course. My time was about the same as last fall in the Wineglass Marathon, and about 20 minutes off my goal. And today my thighs are still reminding me ‘ouch, hills, ouch’ … but I came in the top 20% at 79th out of nearly 500 entrants, with an incredible percentage not even making the ‘cutoff’ 6 hour time (which was suspended). So it wasn’t a victory, but I at least felt comfort of the ‘misery loves company’ type!

Here are some cool observations from the day:

  • Great setting I had never heard of the ‘Pennsylvania Grand Canyon’ until we moved to the Corning NY area, when we found it was a great hiking spot – and it is! We’ve only been once, but definitely want to return. And Lisa and I had a great ‘packet pick-up day’ around Wellsboro, a quaint town with gas-lights and local game and book stores and boutiques and so on.
  • Very organized for runners you show up, get shuttled, dropped off, guided to the starting line. There were loads of porta-potties (I did one race where the start was delayed to allow people to get a final visit), and the course itself was well-marked.
  • Amazing group of runners: yeah, I know – EVERY race has great runners, we are an unusually awesome subset of the population! :) But as I was running along, we were all having fun and chatting – even when we were NOT having fun and didn’t feel like chatting. And everyone I saw afterwards was friendly, and we even snapped a couple of downtown Wellsboro pictures for the female winner and her daughter (who ran her first marathon).
  • Super Helpful Volunteers again, in EVERY race I have ever run the volunteers are the best! And this was no exception – and I was a bit surprised as I expected race organization to be a bit of a mess. As I noted, starting was great, and volunteers braving downpours to get us water and directions and so on were all excellent. There were only 3 places for supporters – the start/finish, and two other places which both required >30 miles of driving to reach – so having a bunch of folks at each sport was highly appreciated!
Grand Canyon Marathon Setting 2

Grand Canyon Marathon Setting

Here are a few of the complications and problems from the day:

  • Crappy for Spectators: there were two choices for spectators – drive to the start/finish area or take a shuttle bus. The former was strongly discouraged due to very limited parking. Sadly, the driving description for the shuttle parking was pretty much useless, and the maps handed out were worse – especially given the poor weather conditions and the fact that there was no road-sign pointing to the facility used as a reference marker!
  • Course elevation description wasn’t helpful: as I noted, this was a hilly course. However, the course description only talked about the flat outer rim trail and mis-labeled the max-min elevation (188 ft) as the ‘total elevation change’. The reality was that the total elevation change was more than 30x that number, 5248 ft by my tracking!
  • Limited into given in-town: when my wife and kids were having a rough time finding the spectator parking area, they headed back into town. They went to the hotel where we picked up packets, and to a couple of local sponsor stores … and no one had any info, and most didn’t know about the race at all.
  • Terrain Was Not as Described: the terrain was described as “a road, just not asphalt for the most part.” I am sure that in some ways that is technically true, but once the soaking rains started, the course was mud and rocks and muck and flowing muddy water … worse than many ‘technical trails’ I have run on. My entire calves were caked with dirt, and my shoes filled with small gravel to the point I got a couple of point calluses on one foot. Running on a very hilly course of mud is very different from the expectation of a flat course of packed gravel roads.
  • Lack of in-progress indicators: the description noted we wouldn’t get the ability to electronically send out our progress, but that we would have periodic timers showing our pace. What we got was the start/finish, one at just over 14 miles, and one on the back of a motorcycle when it was heading out to the 14 mile mark. That was at just about 3 miles – and should have been my first indication to slow down, as I could see the 3-mile mark and the timer was just over 18 minutes (for non-math types that is just over 6 minutes a mile, a pace I DO NOT DO!). There should really have been at least two more timers.

All that said, in my ways I met my expectations – I definitely went out too fast and managed my pace poorly, something I need to work on – but I also registered for this marathon late and with travel and vacations knew I was really only properly ready to attack a half-marathon with any seriousness. And what I found was that after a fairly fast first half (between miles 14 and 15 there was a nasty hill with lousy traction and flowing water where I felt within myself that the next 11 miles would be rough – and they were).

Of course, one thing I cannot fail to mention is that I am blessed with the greatest support system. As I mentioned, Lisa and I had a great day after picking up my packet, including lunch, shopping and ice cream. On race day, my boys got up at 3AM to come out for me (they are 15 and 16 … let that sink in for a minute). They endured heavy rains, getting lost, waiting and worrying when my expected finish time passed, and so on. And they were right there at the finish getting me food and drinks and so on. Makes it all worthwhile! And Lisa kept getting texts from my brother and Judie – also great to have such a supportive bunch! Here I am with my #1 supporter after the finish!

At the Finish With My #1 Supporter

At the Finish With My #1 Supporter

I have already noted that Wellsboro was a great area, but after the race we headed into town for lunch before heading home. We hit the Wellsboro Diner – which is one of those classic cable-car style diners. And it was excellent – I could see my older son was hesitant, but as he was eating he noted the food was better than most ‘real’ restaurants. And we all agreed. The sun had come out at mile 24, so we got to enjoy a walk around town, and wander through a classic bookshop with people who knew and were passionate about books.

The race people indicated they wanted feedback, so I have already mentioned everything to them that I noted here. And going back through their site I can see that they had changed many things since I signed up and even since the race packet was printed! Of course, an unmarked website change is of little comfort mid-race!

Have you even done a race of any type that was not as described? How did it differ and what did that do to you as you went through the race?

Categories: Health and Fitness, Outdoors


5 replies

  1. Michael, my quads are still sore from those hills also. I use a Nike+ GPS watch and I never lost my signal. According to Nike+, we had 6 climbs of over 150 feet; the hill between 5 and 7 was over 250 feet, and the hill between 14 & 15 was over 200 feet. I dealt with the footing and the hills by keeping my pace slower than planned. Also- I planned to run with an iPod & bluetooth headphones, but the rain shorted out the headphones within the first 10 minutes. Fortunately I enjoyed running without music much more than I thought I would. It was a very challenging course, but I beat my last marathon time set on a very flat Hyannis course by 15 minutes, so I’m happy with what I did

    • Thanks for the comment and congrats on your time!! I actually have a Nike+ GPS, but find the Garmin more accurate. I was thinking about using it but lost my foot pod on a business trip earlier this year and haven’t gotten around to replacing it. Definitely going to do that now!

      You key in on something critical I totally screwed up – pace management. I have done so much better with it in the past, so I was disappointed at how poorly I managed my pace – and I run much steeper and longer hills (though not so many) on a weekly basis in my area.

      I am not a music listener, preferring to be ‘one with nature’ during my runs. But I saw loads of people with headphones, and as the rains began I wondered how they would do!

      Did you run the Hyannis marathon? That looked great. I am contemplating the Cape Cod Marathon out of Falmouth later this year – I lived more than 40 years in Mass, and absolutely love the Cape.

      • Yes, my youngest son & I ran Hyannis Marathon in Feb and then PA GC Sunday. Hyannis is a flat & fast course – only 50 feet overall change in elevation, mostly in 10 foot increments- but the Cape in February…it was cold & wet this year and got wetter & windier on the second half, making race conditions about as brutal as you can imagine. My hands went numb at mile 20…but overall it was a fun race. Important tips if you ever think about going- the main event is a Half, and the Marathon is a double loop of the Half course, so pace management can be a challenge as you might be inclined to run out with the crowd. Race day parking near the start fills quickly; staying at the Race Hotel would eliminate that issue, just be aware that registration there fills quickly. The expo, the pre-race pasta dinner (definitely recommended) happen in the Race Hotel, and the race start/finish is right out front.

  2. Wow, that sounds like a tough race! I have run a few races in the pouring rain and it’s never fun on the road, let alone on a “road”-turned-trail! Also, I didn’t know you live in the Corning area. My uncle lives in Horseheads (near Elmira) and I’m planning on coming up for Wineglass next year!

    • You’ll never guess the town I live in … 😉 Corning is the huge employer for the whole region, and with Gorilla Glass and all is more of a recognizable name than Horseheads.

      Wineglass was my first marathon, and doing it this year as well. So you’re doing 2014? Awesome!