“You’ve never run St. George? And you’ve done how many marathons?”

I’ve heard this a lot. Enough times, in fact, to want to run the race simply not to hear those words again. No, prior to this year I had never tackled what could arguably be the most well-known, and certainly the largest, marathon in Utah. I entered the lottery a few years ago, only to be denied. I was disappointed, but with so many other races to choose from, that disappointment soon faded into the red-rock sunset.

This year, I had to do it. This year I was running the Grand Slam sponsored by the Wasatch Running Center, a local running store and favorite haunt of mine. The Grand Slam is an exercise in patience and endurance as participants run four Utah marathons in one year. Those with the lowest cumulative times win either overall awards or age group awards.

The four races required for those competing this year were Utah Valley, Park City, Top of Utah and, of course, St. George.

So, with the snack bag packed, cowbells securely hidden from the children in the car and my ibuprofen close at hand, our family headed south toward a new adventure.

I’m one who is critical of critics. If someone tells me a movie is a “must-see,” I usually skip it. I know Harry Potter and Twilight movies are big at the box office, but I have to admit I don’t like either. I even fell asleep in a Star Wars movie once. In my defense, it was the one that starred Jar Jar Binks.

So when I heard the hype around the St. George Marathon, my Doubting Thomas came out.

“St. George is the easiest Utah marathon.” I laughed. As if there are “easy” marathons.

“St. George is beautiful as the sun rises over the Veyo hill and you run toward Snow Canyon.” I shrugged. I’ve seen beauty in every race in this state.

“St. George is the friendliest marathon.” Okay, but I find most people are kind and compassionate at any race where runners look like embattled soldiers and carnage is splayed on the side of the road.

“St. George is rated one of the fastest and best marathons by Runner’s World Magazine.” Well, that may be true, but like movie critics, I’ll believe it when I see or run it.

Skeptical of the hype, I boarded the bus early Saturday morning to do just that — find out for myself if St. George is all it’s made out to be.

St. George is my 15th marathon, but before I even packed my bags, I knew this one would be special.

First, it seemed as if every friend I knew from high school to today was either running or cheering runners this weekend. My Facebook was overloaded with good wishes, cautious hopefulness and countless detailed weather reports. On the trip down, my phone pinged with constant updates from friends at the expo, pictures of proud bib number holders and invites to dinners and pre-race gatherings.

This didn’t seem like just another marathon. This seemed like an end-of-season celebration. Friends I had met at past races were all gathering one more time to put the season to rest with a 26.2 mile victory lap.

I will concede to the fact that St. George is, indeed, a friendly marathon. Everyone from the bus driver who woke up in the dead of night to take runners stinking of BioFreeze up the canyon to the volunteers on the sidelines greeted everyone with a smile and best wishes. The spectator support was phenomenal. It seemed that just at the very moment I needed encouragement, they were there. Even the solitary man who cranked up his stereo with a chorus of recorded cheering crowds put a smile on my face.

I will also concede the fact that St. George is a gorgeous race. Veyo was breathtaking as the sun peaked over the mountains. The air was warm but not yet too warm. While there was a definite hush as we charged up the hill, you could hear people quietly taking in the beauty. And Snow Canyon is beautiful in a way that we just don’t see in the northern part of the state. It is a unique sight to behold, and I was so happy to be running and taking it all in.

For a moment I felt sorry for those who only drove or biked through the scenery. They didn’t get to soak it in like we did.

I will concede that the course itself is a fast course. While it is a net downhill, I loved the undulation. I may be the only one who even enjoyed the uphill as it gave my knees and quads a bit of a break. I revel in the challenge of a good climb and also appreciated the gentle downhill portions that let me catch my breath.

My personal experience on this run was one that forced me to find strength in myself and my legs that I doubted I had. While I’ll leave the details for a later article, I will say that as I struggled my way to the finishing chute, the crowds and volunteers gave me the injection of power that I needed at that very moment.

It was as if the organizers of the race had run the course themselves enough to know the very moment where personal struggle is at its peak and told the crowds, “Stand here. Show these runners how incredible and inspirational they are. Show them that they are the reason we are all here today.”

I must have looked like I was shuffling across the finishing mat, but I felt like I was giving it every last drop of effort I had. My reward wasn’t just another medal to add to my rack. I was immediately greeted with the open arms of a kind- hearted volunteer who saw my sobs and tears and didn’t care that I reeked of salt and body odor and gave me the longest, most wonderful hug. I don’t know who she was, but her sincere words of praise meant everything to me and made me feel as though I’d won the race. I insisted that she be in my finish line photo, she meant that much to me.

I was also greeted by friends, new and old. Syd, one of my new friends, was right behind me and guided me to food, water and family with more kind words. She, too, had just won her own victory, and I felt that special bond runners have amongst each other.

Tyler, an old friend and running partner, took off to find me some ice. Alicia, a friend from high school soon followed, and we limped away together for some pictures, saying hello to so many other friends who had gathered that day.

Yes, friends, St. George is special. It’s not the size of the race. It’s not the course. It’s not even the medals and swag. It’s the people.

The race organizers put on a race that makes every runner feel like they are to be admired. The spectators are as dedicated as the runners as they cheer for total strangers, hour after hour. The runners, whether familiar or new, congratulate each other and even compliment those they saw on the course.

I felt a deep sense of pride as I walked around with my medal around my neck the rest of the day. When I’d see someone gingerly limping their way around town, we’d give each other that nod and smile. We had an unspoken bond. We were St. George marathoners.

And like the famous line from a movie I have actually seen and even enjoyed, “I’ll be back.”

Kim Cowart is a wife, mother, 24-Hour Fitness instructor and now Utah Grand Slam overall female winner who has developed an affection for ice baths and BioFreeze.