Logan, Utah sits at the base of beautiful Cache Valley National Forest. It's a wonderful little college town that is home to Utah State University, and the hometown of NFL great and Little House On The Prarie star Merlin Olsen. It has a great small-town feel, with a great community atmosphere. There were signs posted throughout Logan counting down the start of the marathon which made visitors feel welcome. Logan has a historic Mormon tradition, and although it is not the faith I practice - some of the old buildings and temples are very scenic pieces of architecture. A couple of places to visit in Logan are Runners North, The Blue Bird Fountain & Candy Shop, Merlin Olsen Park, the historic Utah Theater, and the beautiful campus of Utah State University.
There's plenty to do and a ton of great places to eat in Logan for such a small town. Many times before a marathon, I'll see a movie at a local theater and this was no different. Logan had a very nice multi-screen theater where I saw "The Town", the night before the race.
The race expo and packet pick-up were held at the Spring Hill Marriott. This was probably the smallest race expo that I've attended for a marathon, but it was adequate. There were limited hours of pick-up, 5-9pm the night before the race, so when I arrived, there was a little bit of a line do to everyone being there at once. But the volunteers were fast, friendly, and efficient. And as I recall, I think there were only about 3 or 4 booths from vendors, but I did get a Top of Utah Marathon t-shirt.
Shuttle to the Starting Line & Pre-Race School buses acting as shuttles to the start of the race begin lining up at about 5:00am at Merlin Olsen Park in the center of town. The park also hosts the finish line area and post-race activities. There is plenty of free parking in the downtown area if you arrive early enough. I showed up at about 4:15am. But if you wait until closer to the time the buses begin departing 5:15-5:45am, you might have a little bit of a walk.
The buses take the runners from Merlin Olsen Park in Logan, UT to Hardware Ranch which is 26.2 miles away in Blacksmith Fork Canyon. The first half of the race is literally all downhill, so the bus gradually grinds uphill for most of the trip to the starting line.
Once you arrive at the starting area, the first thing you notice is the temperature. It's cold! The temperature at the starting line the year I ran was high 30's & low 40's. However, you warm up very quickly as you head down the mountain. Also, there is a huge heated tent for runners stationed directly adjacent to the starting line, so there's not much trouble keeping warm before the race. The organizers also have music playing and plenty of volunteers with adequate pre-race water and Gatorade. It's also very dark.
A lot of folks bring "throw-away" sweatshirts to run in for the first couple of miles until their bodies warm up, but if you can bear the cool temps at the start, they don't last very long. The sun soon begins to peak over the mountains and light-up portions of Cache Valley. And once in you are out of the Mountains and back in Logan, you wish for some cooler temps. It warms up fast to around 60 degrees, and can get a little uncomfortable for the last few miles of the race.
There are no spectators at the starting line as the Valley is closed to traffic on race day. But one unique detail of the Top of Utah Marathon is that the start of the race is signaled by several folks dressed up in traditional frontiersmen & native American attire, firing muskets into the air. It was different and memorable.
The course drops 1,045 feet over 26.2 miles, and the first 18 miles are down hill. But even though you are actually descending fairly rapidly, you never feel out of control or like you are running too fast. The decline is only at a 1-2% gradual grade and does not hammer your quads like some steeper, shorter down hills. The good strategy is to "manage" the first part of the race and control your descent. During the last 8-9 miles, the energy is supplied by you and you alone. It's a little bit of mental bump you have to get over. After running for two hours without much effort, the energy level and muscle use changes a little. If you're not prepared, you'll potentially slow down a little.
The race is held in the fall, so the leaves are in mid-transformation and provide a beautiful view as you travel the winding road out of the mountains back into Logan, UT. Miles 18-26 are through the suburbia type neighborhoods of Logan with no incline ascending over 100ft. The race finishes in the center of town in Merlin Olsen Park - a small, but very nice city park.
Even though the course was very beautiful, at about 10 miles into the race, I was ready to see something besides trees, lakes, and the backs of other runners. There are no spectators along the course until you get into town in Logan, but at that point there were several people watching the race and cheering you on.
Even though the race starts at over 5,500ft at Hardware Ranch in the mountains, it drops over 1,000 ft during the course of the race. Honestly, I didn't notice the altitude as a problem. However, I had the "luxury" of training in oxygen deprived 90% humidity most of the summer in Missouri, which probably helped prepare me. The gradual downhill slope of the first half of the marathon definitely helps with the thin air since your heart rate is not as elevated as it would be by running up hill.
As with every race, running the tangents is very important. This is easy to do in the first half of the race down the mountain's winding road, but when you enter the town of Logan, there are quite a few twists and turns. I spent the day before the race driving the last half of the course a few times so I was very familiar with it. Also, the Top of Utah website had a great Google Earth link so you could view the actual course on line. I spent a few weeks before the race looking at the houses and businesses I would be running by ... but then again, I'm a little obsessive.
The finish line area is very small, but nice. The people of Logan are very supportive and cheer you on throughout the day. The race wraps up with a post-race festival in Merlin Olsen Park. Of course I'm a little bias to Top of Utah because it was my first BQ, but for a small town race - it is a beautiful, good marathon experience.