Wasatch Back Marathon and the beauty of hard things

Published: Tuesday, July 10 2012 2:53 p.m. MDT

Amy Donaldson halfway done and feeling hopeful during Wasatch Back Marathon.

Provided by Amy Donaldson

MIDWAY, Wasatch County — Somewhere between mile six and eight, I considered the very real possibility that I would quit.

This wasn't my usual, "Gee, I'm hurting; do I really need another medal?" or "What was I thinking when I signed up for a race that clearly exceeds my abilities?" This was genuine doubt (and even a little sadness) about whether or not I was capable of finishing the Wasatch Back Marathon on June 30.

I am not proud of very many of my athletic feats. I am very aware that in some circles my sports accomplishments wouldn't be seen as much more than enthusiastic participation. But after 11 marathons, nearly 20 Ragnar Relays and a bunch of half marathons, I feel really proud of one thing — I have never failed to finish.

I have had some brutal experiences that tested me in ways I never expected or planned. But for some reason, after that first marathon in 2005, I've always been confident — and admittedly a little proud of — one thing. I always finish.

Mark Nelson never intended for the Wasatch Back Marathon to be just another race.

"I've run a lot of marathons," said the founder of the two-year-old marathon. "I've run St. George 22 times; I've run Boston a couple of times. … As I've gotten older, trails appeal to me more and the road appeals to me less."

So naturally after a decade in Midway, Wasatch County, he started to wonder if he could host a race that showed off the beauty of the Wasatch Back by asking runners to navigate the area's trails. The problem is that the elevation starts at 5,613 feet and climbs to 8,156 feet before winding up and down along the mountains that border the Heber Valley.

It is breathtaking in every way.

Very few courses offer the views that the Wasatch Back Marathon offers. The course takes runners to little-used trails that give a stunning view of Mount Timpanogos and at the same time the Heber Valley.

Blame Nelson's parenting and Scouting philosophy on the decision to route one of the toughest marathon courses possible.

"I am a Scoutmaster, and both in raising my own children and in managing the Scouts, I believe people need more hard things to do," Nelson said. "There are way too many easy things to do in life."

The morning of the race, I woke up with a migraine. I was so sick, I couldn't keep down my breakfast, and I worried that running at high altitude in the heat would exacerbate the headache. Still, I had enough troublesome issues in my life on that sunny Saturday morning that I needed to run anyway. So, I thought, I'll just go and do what I can.

The problem is that once I started the race, I kept thinking of my one and only streak. If I started a race, I finished it. It isn't much, but, in addition to just being proud of the fact that I make exercise an important (and enjoyable) part of my life, it's something that motivates me on tough days.

At the start of the race, Nelson repeatedly said the course was "hard." He suggested adding an hour to your normal marathon time — minimum. I talked to a couple from North Carolina (training at 67 feet elevation) before the race, and they said they'd flown in just for the marathon.

Nelson met the same couple, only he got to know them as he repeatedly drove out to them on the trails offering them water and a way out.

"They kept refusing," Nelson said. "They told me, 'We had no idea what we were getting into.' They were shocked at how difficult it was. They said, 'We're going to go back to North Carolina, and we'll never be able to tell our friends how awesome this was, how amazing a thing we just accomplished."

They were the last two runners to cross the finish line in a little over eight hours and 30 minutes. Nelson and his crew stayed, despite the official warnings that the race cut-off was six hours, to give them an official finish time and a medal. Listening to them rave about a nearly nine-hour race experience reminded Nelson why he decided to create races in the first place.

And as I accepted my second-place ribbon (age 40-44 division) for my worst time ever, six hours and 59 minutes, I remembered why I continue to put myself in situations I'm not sure I can handle.

The streak isn't anything to be proud of if it's made up of tasks I know I can accomplish before I even start.

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

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