My run: The Mount Lemmon Marathon

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

The mans body lay motionless in the middle of the narrow, mountainous road. Startled, I looked for help, but there were only desert rocks. I was alone, utterly exhausted, and this was the third body I had come upon. I was running the Mount Lemmon Marathon, “The Toughest Road Marathon in the World” and the carnage I was witnessing, quantified its namesake.

A marathon covers a distance of 26.2 miles. To finish one is a true accomplishment. It takes dedication and hard work to train your body to cover that type of distance. You have to run slower than you want at the start so at the end you have enough left to finish. The longer you go, the more tattered your body becomes. Your legs burn and tire, your thoughts dim and your energy saps.

What makes The Mount Lemmon Marathon different is that the entire course is run up hill. There are over 6000 feet of elevation gain from start to finish. This is enough distance to cover three very distinct ecosystems: the desert, the pine forests and the craggily barren rocks of a mountain top. To make things more interesting, Mount Lemmon sits just outside of Tucson, Arizona, which is at 3000 feet above sea level. The mountain summit sits at 9000. The further you go in this marathon, the less air there is to fuel your body.

When I heard about Mount Lemmon, I knew I had to run it. Having visited Tucson, I’ve fallen in love with the desert, and the challenge of running “The Toughest Road Marathon in the World” would not stand unanswered. I signed up for this marathon so far in advance, no airline would sell me a ticket. I had to wait another three months just to be in their scheduling range.

(Big shout out to Southwest Airlines, because they treated me fairly and once I bought my tickets, there were no scheduling changes for the five months I was in possession of them.)

I live in Apex, North Carolina which sits at 500 feet above sea level. Because of the drastic difference in sea level, I knew this run would be a massive challenge for me. I used my Polar Heart Rate Monitor to train. To find out your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220 and you will have a starting point. That gives me about 178. I knew with less air in AZ, my heart rate would be higher with less effort. My training theory was over the summer bring myself to a point of being able to maintain a higher heart rate for a longer period of time so that in AZ I could back my effort down a bit and last the entire run. The Polar Computer I chose to train with was the RS800CX (PTE) because with this one unit I can monitor the cadence on my bike, my heart rate, my running and (Most importantly) I could monitor my altitude.

During training I would task my body harder than my environment would allow: I ran with weights, rode my bike at a higher cadence, ran hill sprints in the first part of the week and distance runs later in the week. I pushed myself to the point where I could run a half marathon pushing hard enough to maintain an average heart rate of 170.

The shoe I chose was the Asics Gel-Nimbus 13. This shoe is built as a comfort trainer lighter than most with great air flow and  it fit my foot like a glove. For an endurance event like Mount Lemmon, this shoe was perfect!

The one rule The MLM staff had which I can’t say I liked was they would not allow you to wear headphones. Their reasoning was (first) the Mount Lemmon Highway was a narrow mountain road which is prone to rock slides and (second) they did not want to have emergency vehicles being held up by some jackass who can’t hear over the Miley Cyrus blasting in his earphones. But…Dude…I need my music. Their rules didn’t say anything about a small speaker… Sooo I found a small rechargeable speaker that would attach to my iPod Shuffle and I zip tied it under my hat! (This was my attempt at being clever.)

The Mount Lemmon Marathon gave me 7 hours to finish. I wanted to do it in 5. Having ran the Wrightsville Beach Marathon in 4:16 earlier in the year, I thought 5 was realistic. I trained, I ate good quality foods, and kept my eye on the prize. The day came and I boarded the Southwest airliner.

Thanks to Google map I found Trader Joe’s within a mile of the hotel and walked over there to shop. Walking there made my head woozy. This was going to be fun.

The Expo was intimate enough that I saw everything, but big enough it all interested me. Cool clothes, water bottles, Tucson info, and crazy running people to chat with. One older man asked if I was a triathlete. “Why yes I am” I said proudly. “Yeah I can tell, because you don’t have a runners body.” The vain egomaniac in my skull only heard “You have a big fat ass and a muffin top that could feed Guam.” Thanks Pops.

Race day began with a shower. Some runners don’t bother, but it is a routine with me. Lay out the clothes, photo a diorama of the things I will use for the race: number, compression pants, singlet, shoes, water bottles.

I get nervous at the Starting line, not the night before, so my race morning ritual is important. Massive breakfast, and brain prep myself for the day ahead. I walked to the bus pick up area and shared a conversation with a man who, saddly, I can’t remember his name. We rode the bus to the Start Line together. I wished him a great run, and the next time I saw him was a month later in Florida… but that’s another story.

The Mount Lemmon Start Line was a quiet place. There were hundreds of people around me, yet I felt as if it were set up just for me.

The Start Line of any endurance event is a special place; it is the focal point of weeks, months and possibly years of training. It is the reason we run, the reward of the sacrifice. Unlike the Finish Line, which is the judge and jury of your efforts. The Finish Line is for the photo, and friends. The Start Line is all about you.

And then we began to run. The sun was still just peeking out over the Sonoran Desert, outlining centuries old saguaro cactus. The red rock cliffs loomed above us.

At Mile One I smiled and began to listen to “Sweet Disposition”  by The Temper Trap. The road twisted back around to the right and I got my first views of Tucson as the sun rose and changed the colour of the sky. It was breath taking.

In running a marathon you will find yourself in a ‘click’ of runners. To occupy my mind I make up little sayings or stories about them. Sometimes I will make songs about the colours of their running kit: “Blue, blue, blue, yellow, yellow, orange!” Sounds nuts, but it works.

The music on the iPod was better: “I’m so sick” by Flyleaf

Mile Three was my first water stop and I took some of their water.

“The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson

Mile Six was the next water stop and I stopped again because the third maned aid station was at Mile Thirteen. There were water jugs at mile(ish) stops between.

“Acid 8000” by Fat Boy Slim

At Mile Nine an American Bald Eagle flew over me, screeching. I wept it was so beautiful.

Had to search for it: “Kings and Queens” by 30 Seconds to Mars. It starts with a screaching eagle…

Mile Thirteen brought me to Windy Point and the halfway mark. As I said, they had closed the road for the marathon, but there were police on motorcycles escorting lines of cars up the mountain. At mile 13 I had to wait for the damn traffic so I could cross the road. The lady at the aid station said “You shouldn’t have had to wait” but I told her I didn’t mind. In my running plan I knew I would stop here for a minute or two. Then I said “I’m on vacation, ya know… I could be behind a desk somewhere, but I’m running up a mountain dressed in spandex like a superhero.” They all laughed. There was a large bowl of banana and orange halves which I happily gnawed on. Following my running plan, I took two Advil. Soon things were going to start hurting.

“Don’t stop believing” by Journey.

Once I got going again I was able to notice the altitude more and more. My arms were becoming somewhat heavier and when I would push myself above 160 I would begin to see flashes in my peripheral vision. When the flashes came I would slow to a walk until they would pass. It was also seemingly getting easier to get my heart rate above 150. I’ll have to keep my eye on that.

“My  Delirium” Ladyhawke.

Mile Fifteen saw an overlook where I could look down and see Windy Point. Past that was the Sonoran Desert floor. Magical.

“Crawl” Kings of Leon.

Near Mile Seventeen it all became really hard work. The points of my pelvis felt as if they were going to rip through my skin. My legs were now heavy and burning. There was a thin sheen of salt on my arms and face left by evaporating sweat. I didn’t dare stop moving because my thoughts were all of rest.

This is where I came across the first person laying in the road. I rounded the corner, and for a half mile in either direction you could not see another human. Exhaustion makes your mind think in funny ways, for some reason I flashed on my days as a Boy Scout in Troop 93 at Camp Durant building a splint… I shook my head clear and yelled “HEY!” He looked up and then sat up.  “Dude, are you OK?” Stupid question to ask a man laying in the middle of the road, right? He said “It is harder than I thought it would be.” I looked at him and asked “Did you come here to quit.” I tossed him one of my gel packs as he stood. “No…” he said as I ran by. “Then come on, let’s go.” He kept up for about another mile.

“Intro” The XX

Mile Twenty was an emotional one for me. In a marathon when you hit a number with two in it, you are past the point of quit.

“Cracks (Flux Pavilion Remix)” by Freestyles.

At this point my heart rate was 140 when I was walking. Every step was higher than the last one. My hip flexors felt tattered and raw. Imagine running on a stair machine for four hours.

Management of The Mount Lemmon Marathon had made arrangements with the local police to monitor the road as we ran up this mountain. The motorcycle police taxied lines of cars up and down the road, but near the end,  I was seeing the same bike cops over and over quicker and quicker. I knew I was near the end.

Around Mile Twenty Three I was walking passed  a group of police gathered on the side of the road. Unprovoked one of them said to me “Don’t let this thing get you. You’re almost there.” It was what I needed to hear.

Running again now.

“Mudshovel” Staind

Mile Twenty Four saw a turn onto a gravel road that was all downhill. I had been running with a woman, but I had to smoke that chic and the down hill became a sprint.

Tons of my running here in NC had been on dirt back roads so I let slip the dogs of war and took a few risks. Going downhill changed the direction the force was now being applied to my hips. At first felt pretty good, but it quickly turned into nauseating pain.

“Army of me (Sucker Punch Remix)” Bjork. (Yes, Bjork.)

Suddenly I was upon Mile Twenty Six. There was some jackass turning a camper fifth-wheel around in the middle of the road and I was not about to wait for him. A motorcycle cop came out of nowhere and stopped the guy.

My Finish Line song always is “We are the Champions” by Queen.

This event was by far the hardest endurance event of any type I have ever done. I suffered a stress fracture on my lower left leg, shredded my hip flexors and toasted myself for a month. I finished in 6:19 adding a little over two hours to my best official marathon time. I had wanted to do 5 but having little training expirence at altitude I had no idea of the effects.

Here is a link to the data recorded by my Polar RS800CX (PTE) on the Mount Lemmon Marathon. If you click ‘Settings’ and check the ‘Altitude’ box it will give the overlay of where I was on the mountain. I started the timer 10 min before the race and forgot to cut it off after. My finish time is the spike at 6:29 on this graph, which is the 6:19 I actually ran. The slam off is the moments by the Finish Line and part of the bus ride down the mountain.

I burned over 5400 calories.

My thanks to the race directors and all the volunteers out on the course. Without you all it would have just been a silly old man running up a hill. I recommend adding the Mount Lemmon Marathon to your bucket list because it is definitely one I will run again! Plus being able to say I finished “The Toughest Road Marathon in the World” is pretty bad ass.

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2 Responses to “My run: The Mount Lemmon Marathon”

  1. You are amazing, Steve!! I love the innovation with the ipod speaker. Having lived in Tucson for three wonderful years, the views take me back. I cannot imagine running up Mt. Lemmon, it’s hard work on a car to drive up it! Well done, my friend, well done!

  2. […] qualifying for the Boston Marathon, but I had a few complicating factors. Just one month ago I had run the Mount Lemmon Marathon in Tucson, AZ which is called “The Toughest Road Marathon in the Wo…and I was still dealing with physical issues from it. I had suffered a nasty stress fracture in my […]

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