The Great Descent
How to crush your goals (not your quads) at the Revel Canyon City Marathon
As the bus to the start line lurches upward through the morning blackness to one of the highest points in Los Angeles County’s San Gabriel Mountains, first-time runners of the revel Canyon City Marathon might wonder what they’ve signed themselves up for. And when the bus disembarks its – now slightly queasy – passengers at a quaint mountaintop campsite called (paging Jason Voorhees) Crystal Lake Café, racers may fear they’ve been seconded for an ’80s slasher movie reboot rather than a road race. But as the sun rises above the picturesque canyon and golden California sunshine fills its stunning rock formations with almost-magical light, it also illuminates the winding ribbon of Highway 39, which will drop runners through a 1,500 m-plus net elevation loss on their journey to the finish line – and, all going to plan, secure them a personal best.
With its huge net downhill, stunning mountainside scenery and small-to-medium-sized field of roughly 1,000 runners, the revel Canyon City Marathon is an undiscovered gem for first-timers and aspiring Boston qualifiers alike. Held just outside of Los Angeles in November each year, the race boasts startlingly low registration fees and countless perks compared to other major American races, along with relatively easy travel logistics from most major Canadian cities. For context: for a registration fee that’s a third of New York City’s and half of Chicago’s, you’ll be handed a race kit that, in addition to the usual race T-shirt, tattoos and samples, includes a snazzy technical running toque as well as gloves and a blanket for the chilly start line; you’ll be greeted at the finish line with all the beer, pizza and Marie Callender pie you can handle; and a few days after you’ve headed home to share your race stories and newly-minted Frankenstein walk (or better yet, zipped back to L .A. to enjoy a well-earned post-race vacay), race organizers will email you your race photos and video, which are included in the price of registration.
There is one small catch, however: you definitely need to know what you’re doing when it comes to downhill racing. As the starting gun sounds and runners begin their descent down the mountain, many of them will be so giddy with the gravity assist that they’ll forego the usual early race conservatism and set new 10k and halfmarathon PBs along the way. But gravity giveth, and gravity taketh away, and as the course begins to undulate in the second half, so do the paces of all involved. Some runners will hang on to run their best times, while others will (eventually) hobbletrot their way to the finish line in the town of Asuza, their quadriceps punished beyond the point of functionality, and their pride hanging on only for the sake of finish line cowbell, beer and pie.
In order to belong to the former group and not the latter, racers will want to carefully heed the “training” page of the race website, which cautions against the two cardinal sins of downhill running form (braking and over-striding) and offers the necessary correctives (a slight forward pitch to help “fall forward with gravity” and a short, high turnover running stride, respectively). Runners training for a downhill marathon should also ideally integrate downhill repeats or longer, primarily downhill runs every 10–14 days – the optimal frequency and intensity to build course-specific strength without posing a risk of overuse injuries. Racers need to devise a unique race plan that acknowledges the course profile, balancing the early advantage it provides with the toll it can take on the legs. As Jon Krashinksy, a Guelph-based lawyer who qualified for Boston at the 2016 edition of Canyon City with an impressive personal best time (3:10:45), points out, you have to find a kind of golden mean between the two. “It’s inviting to just bomb it, but that’s not a good strategy for your splits, and I passed lots of hobbling marathoners in the second half who were clearly regretting their breezy first,” Krashinsky recounts. “However, you also want to take advantage of it and, unlike other marathons, the ‘ banking time’ strategy really worked here for me.” However, Krashinsky banked time cautiously overall, targeting a pace only 10 seconds per kilometre faster than his overall goal pace to accumulate a three-anda-half-minute surplus he could draw on in the second, hillier half of the race – a far cry from the 15–30 minute positive splits posted by those who were less strategic in their pacing.
While all this additional preparation needed for revel Canyon City may seem excessive, your quads and your pride will thank you in the end. Because you know what other race is primarily downhill? That’s right, the Boston Marathon.
Both Air Canada and WestJet offer direct f lights to Los Angeles International Airport ( lax) from Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. Both airlines also offer f lights with just one connection from Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax.
Do-it-yourself, A-type runners who don’t mind driving in L .A. traffic will want to opt for a rental car to make the 60k drive from lax to the Arcadia/Asuza area, where the bulk of race hotels and the race finish line are located. (This option also allows you to drive the course prior to the race, a scenic and informative experience.) The most adventurous and budgetconscious can navigate L .A. County’s impressive public transit system to the race site, saving their hard-earned dollars for a return visit to downtown L .A. when the race is over. Just make sure you allow for two hours in transit.
For an optimal combination of comfort, convenience, affordability and race-friendly f lexibility, the Hampton Inn Los Angeles/Arcadia makes for an ideal revel Canyon City race hotel. Case in point: at our request, the front desk laid out a 4 a.m., runner-friendly spread of continental breakfast and coffee in the lobby the morning of the race, and kindly accommodated a late check out request so that we could stay and watch all members of our party finish the race. The lovely outdoor pool also makes for an ideal pre- and post-race lounging spot.
For pre-race carb loading, Carmine’s Italian Restaurant (311 East Live Oak Ave., Arcadia) offers hearty, traditional Italian fare, an adorably kitschy interior with eccentric chandeliers galore and, for those less concerned with their race times, endless bottles of wicker-basket-encased Chianti.