SALT LAKE CITY — Nathan Peters descended the paved trail of Memory Grove Park, rounded the final bend, and crossed the finish line to the enthusiastic cheers of a handful of spectators Saturday morning.
He did it — he broke the course record.
Peters completed the Wahsatch Steeplechase trail run in 2:11:42, passing the previous record by two minutes and 45 seconds.
"I knew that I had to have a really good run going uphill," Peters said. "And before we got to the bouldering, the rocky section, I needed to have a good lead because there's a lot of guys in the field that are really good downhill athletes."
The race, in its 35th year and the longest continuously operating trail run in Utah, is a rugged, 17-mile celebration of the summer solstice. The trail begins in Memory Grove Park, immediately ascends 4,000 feet across 7.5 miles, enters an area populated by rattlesnakes, and winds over a rocky area known as "The Crags" before reaching the summit of Black Mountain.
Runners then make their way back down the 4,000-foot elevation change, along Smuggler's Gap, which descends 2,000 feet in just two miles, through Rotary Park at the top of City Creek Canyon, onto the road for a few miles, and then back into Memory Grove Park.
"The title 'steeplechase' comes from there's river crossings and log jumps and the crags, which are a class-five rating up on the summit ridge and they make it special," said race director Butch Adams, who added that it was named one of the top six trail races by Runner's World a few years ago.
"The course is so varied with the stream crossings and the crags," Adams said. "You get a little bit of road, it's really beautiful up there on that summit, you get great city views, the wildflowers are awesome — it's really cool course."
The event, which is capped yearly at 300 runners, included 240 men and women this season. Although the race is more than nine miles shorter than a road marathon, the different challenges along the trail result in comparable race times.
Peters, however, would rather run on the trail.
"I ran a lot on the road and track when I was in college and lived in Michigan," he said. "I moved here three years ago and try to minimize my road miles, just stick to the trails."
He was gunning for the course record a year ago, but came up short with a second-place finish. He trained on the course a number of times during the year in between, and that made a difference in his performance on Saturday.
"(It helped in) knowing what to expect and knowing how the legs might feel," Peters said. "It's always a little different in a race setting."
Beyond the physical challenge of having a strong performance on the way out and then running well enough to maintain his gap on the way back, Peters said the most difficult part was between his ears.
"The mental fortitude to get the legs moving again," he said. "Once you come down through Rotary Park, you've already battered your legs on the uphill and on the switchbacks coming down. Getting onto the road makes it really, really tough."
Still, with the sun shining and a blue sky on the first day of summer, plus a course record under his belt, Peters was pleased with the outcome.
"Really good race, awesome volunteers, great organization — great day to be out running."
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.
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