I love Utah. And if you’re a runner, you should love Utah, too.

Honestly, we live in a state that is paradise in every sense of the word. Not only are we surrounded by beautiful mountains, canyons and open spaces, but the running community is as strong as any other in the country.

I take pride in being a Utahn and will brag to anyone who will listen about the races our great state offers to those of us who like to pile on the miles.

So, imagine my immense sense of pride as I was in the middle of running the Boston Marathon and off on the side of the road I saw a huge banner advertising the Utah Valley Marathon! I just beamed. Not only was that representing my state, but a great race that I had actually run before.

And I plan to run it once again. Yes, registration for the Utah Valley Marathon has begun, and if the last couple years are any indication of its growing popularity, this will be another Utah racing success.

My first experience running this race was in 2010. It was also my best experience. It was a drizzly, cool day, the perfect day for a run. I had high hopes and started off by running with the 3:10 pacer. For those unfamiliar with my jargon, pacers help runners meet time goals by keeping them on pace throughout the race. Running in a pace group also offers encouragement and company, which can be especially important during the darker moments of a marathon. And there are always dark moments.

I stayed with the pacer until the halfway mark when I started to drift behind. While I was a bit discouraged, I did what I could to hold an even pace and made it to the finish line with a personal record. I was tired, shaky and exhausted but elated.

Like a drug addict chasing her next fix, I was chasing that elation again when I signed up for the 2011 Utah Valley Marathon. It would be my third marathon of the year. Three marathons in three months. This was a first, and as any experienced marathoner will tell you, a challenge in and of itself.

The day was beautiful but a little warm. The course, which starts in Wallsburg, offers more gorgeous, scenic Utah views as runners make their way down the canyon toward Provo. The downhill nature of the course sends runners gliding through the miles with smiles. Well, some runners, at least.

See, in my quest to set another personal record, I went out too fast and by mile 15 was suffering. But my suffering was more mental than physical, and that’s the worst kind. I can handle pain, even expect it and embrace it. That’s what marathoning is about. How much can your body tolerate? How much discomfort are you willing to accept? For me, the harder the challenge, the bigger the payoff.

No, the mental suffering is far greater. The miles don’t click by quite so fast. Doubt creeps in and suddenly your legs are dragging bags of rock behind them. My 2011 race was by no means a failure but was the toughest personal challenge I had ever met in a marathon.

The obvious next step is to sign up again, right? Of course!

I cannot leave my Utah Valley experience on a negative note. I am ready to do battle again. I’m confident that I can and will do better in 2012.

Part of my confidence is justified by the simple fact that each year this race is staged, it gets better. This year’s finish line was a great improvement over 2010’s finish. There were plenty of volunteers, mounds of food and drinks, beautiful medals and fantastic views for the spectators. It was open and airy, which invited runners and supporters to mingle after the race, to compare notes and injuries, to relive the good and the bad, take pictures and just soak in the day.

Those who qualified for Boston were rewarded with an extra tech shirt that says “Boston Qualifier” on the front and back so you can advertise your accomplishment to the world. It's a bonus that is more than just an extra shirt. It’s a sign of respect and admiration to those who take on the challenge.

There are a lot of Utah marathons to choose from, but if you’ve never done Utah Valley, I highly recommend you give it a try. There’s a reason it’s growing so fast each year. Runners are flocking to Provo, as they should. Registration is open now. I know it’s early, but make this an early New Year’s resolution. Not up to the full marathon? They have a half marathon option, which is essentially the last half of the marathon course. You get some of the same beautiful canyon views and half the pain! Want to share the pain with those you love most? Sign up for the relay option. Really, there’s something for everyone. Even the kids have a free Kids K this year.

A race that end in Happy Valley should have a happy ending. And I’m out to get mine.

Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, 24-Hour Fitness instructor and marathoner who finds the mental challenge of tackling endless loads of laundry far more daunting than the endless miles of a marathon.