What the Hill

On September 28, 2017 · 3 Comments

My wife keeps signing me up for running races. I guess she wants some company during her crazy pursuits. It seems harmless enough so I join her even if I’d rather be doing something less competitive. Those are the kinds of compromises one makes to keep peace in the house, and we’ve been together a long time so something must be working. Anyway she got a great discount on a whole series of races sponsored by a local running store because she bought them as a set. Wait, is this a geography blog or a running blog? Don’t worry, I’ll work geography into this. They’ll share equal billing while I examine an interesting overlap.

Clarendon Day

Clarendon Day 5K
Clarendon Day 5K. Photo by John Sonderman on Flickr (cc)

The Clarendon Day 5K in Arlington, Virginia came next in the series (map). My wife actually ran both the 5K and the 10K back-to-back, although as I mentioned, sometimes I question her sanity. Nonetheless, 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) seemed quite enough for me on Sunday. We could walk to the starting line from our house so I couldn’t find a reasonable excuse to skip it even if I tried.

Running came to me only recently — really the last couple of years — although I enjoyed hiking, biking and other outdoor activities well before that. I discovered pretty quickly that I could run decently well, at a respectable pace although not spectacularly, and I generally finished just barely within the top ten percent for my age group. Ditto for Clarendon Day, 4th out of 48 in the geezer man category.

I got a great time, shaving almost a full minute from my Personal Record, finishing in 20:46 with a 6:41 mile pace. I’d never completed a 5K with a time of 20 minutes in front of it nor managed to keep a pace with a 6 in front of it until then. How was that even possible? Gravity.

Clarendon Day Elevation
Clarendon Day 5K Elevation Elevation
via Pacers Running

Some readers might remember the race I described in Regurgitated. I ran down that same steep hill and then back up! This time the course only went down the hill. I wanted to finish with a sub-20 which is one of those iconic 5K milestone times. Sadly, I think I left any possibility of that behind me long before I took up running. I’ll have to be content with those age adjusting calculators. They said I might have finished sub-20 if only I ran a couple of decades ago.

St. George Marathon

Finish Line
Finish Line. Photo by Nate Grigg on Flickr (cc)

Using gravity seemed almost like cheating. However, those times counted just like any others certified by USA Track and Field and other organizations. People have long used terrain to boost their PR’s especially for marathons. I heard of a race awhile ago that went almost completely downhill, the St. George Marathon. This point-to-point race (map) ran from the Pine Valley mountains into the city of St. George, Utah. In this marathon, runners began at an elevation of 5,240 feet (1,600 metres) and finished at 2,680 feet (815 metres). Nearly eight thousand runners signed up for this event held each October.

I don’t know how they could do it. My quads felt tight after the steep mile of my little neighborhood 5K. I couldn’t imagine how one would feel after running downhill for a full marathon. They probably couldn’t walk for a week.

Mount Charleston Marathon

Mount Charleston, Nevada (35)
Mount Charleston, Nevada. Photo by billy kerr on flickr (cc)

Just a couple of weeks ago, someone I know told me he intended to run the REVEL Mt Charleston marathon next April in Las Vegas, Nevada. This one descended even more rapidly than St. George on its path from mountaintop to city streets (map). Runners began at 7,633 feet (2,325 metres) and finished at 2,507 feet (765 metres), dropping nearly a mile in elevation. Race organizers described it as "incredibly fast and remarkably beautiful."

Why would people subject themselves to such a sustained and drastic 4% downhill? The organizers left no doubt.

Featuring a smooth downhill slope and spectacular scenery in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, this race will be sure to help you set your PR and finally hit that Boston Qualifying time

They even offered a helpful chart that showed finishers at Mt. Charleston averaged 3:57:26 versus 4:28:54 for those at St. George. This race was all about people wanting to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That was the exact reason why my acquaintance will head to Las Vegas too. His current times fell just shy of BQ and he needed that extra boost.

Apparently This is a Thing

Plenty of other downhill marathons hoped to scratch that same itch. It’s quite an honor to qualify for Boston and BQ times are brutal. A simple understanding of geography and terrain could make all the difference between running Boston next year or watching from the sidelines. Just the first page of search engine results produced a long list of possibilities.

I don’t have a burning desire to run a marathon. However, if I do someday, I doubt I could ever achieve a BQ time even with a sharply downhill course. Maybe I could age into it though. The 80 and Over BQ seemed reasonable if I can hold things together long enough.

Counterintuitive Saints

On March 9, 2014 · 3 Comments

I stumbled upon the history of St. George, the city in Utah. I was surprised to learn that its name had nothing to do with the Saint George I assumed it referenced. By using the title "counterintuitive saints" I meant counterintuitive to me. I realize some of these examples might sound completely natural to others in the 12MC community arriving from different perspectives.

St. George

St. George, Utah, USA

The story of Saint George, the one more familiar to me, was attributed to a Roman soldier during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. This marked a period of particularly intense and brutal persecution of Christians. By tradition, Saint George professed his faith to Diocletian, whereupon the emperor ordered his death. As Catholic Online noted: "Pictures of St. George usually show him killing a dragon to rescue a beautiful lady. The dragon stands for wickedness. The lady stands for God’s holy truth. St. George was a brave martyr who was victorious over the devil."

His veneration spread throughout much of medieval Europe and he came to be acknowledged as the patron saint of England sometime around the Eleventh Century: "The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly in the reign of Richard 1, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy."

St. George Utah Temple by J Brew on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

I’d assumed that St. George — the city in Utah — must have been connected back to England somehow. Perhaps, although the name clearly was not. The saintly namesake of St. George turned out to be George A. Smith (1817-1875), an early leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and a First Counselor to Brigham Young. He had numerous descendants including a grandson George Albert Smith who became an important Mormon figure in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

My apologies in advance to followers of the LDS church, as no offense is intended. I don’t know how sainthood works within the Mormon faith, and whether it included a formalized vetting process or whether the title came to be applied as an honorific or as a more general term of art. The larger point was my surprise at finally understanding that a city of a hundred-thousand residents traced its name independent of England and/or any supposed slaying of dragons.

However that led me to wonder if there might be other places in Utah named "St. Something-or-Other" for early Church leaders. I found a small handful of additional possibilities in the US Geographic Names Information System.

St. John

St. John, Utah, USA

My intuition and upbringing also lead me to assume that just about any place in the United States called St. John would have derived its inspiration from Saint John the Apostle. Certainly there were other Johns who came to be sainted in various faiths although most of them would have had qualifiers appended to their names as differentiators, as in the case of Saint John the Baptist (e.g., the Parish in Louisiana).

St. John was once an independent town in Utah, still recognized as a place name by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names although merged with other locations in the 1930’s to form the amalgamated town of Rush Valley. In a Mormon context, this particular Saint John referred to John Rowberry (1823-1884), presiding and first LDS Bishop of Tooele County. From the Latter-Day Saints Biographical Encyclopedia (1901):

He emigrated from England with one of the first companies of Saints that came to Nauvoo from England… He crossed the plains in 1849 in Ezra T. Benson’s company, and in the fall of the same year moved into Tooele valley, and made his home, together with a few others… He presided over the people in Tooele valley as their Bishop until the county was organized into a Stake of Zion, in 1877.

(Saint) Elmo

(St.?) Elmo, Utah, USA

Elmo, Utah had a couple of name variations, one saintly and one not. Neither explanation had anything to do with anyone Mormon, though.

Catholic Online provided a brief description of Saint Elmo as it applied within its Church:

St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)… He was the bishop of Formiae, Campagna, Italy, and suffered martyrdom during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians… one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers… Legend records that when a blue light appears at mastheads before and after a storm, the seamen took it as a sign of Erasmus’s protection. This was known as “St. Elmo’s fire”.

That source also mentioned Elmo as a patron saint of "stomach cramps and colic" in addition to sailors.

The first origination theory for the Utah placename failed to mention sainthood whatsoever. This was offered by the government of Emery County, where Elmo was founded in 1908. Elmo, in its opinion, was an acronym formed by the names of four early families that settled there.


The second explanation verged on folklore. The US Board on Geographic Names listed Saint Elmo as a variant name for Elmo as recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1941, part of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. Supposedly the name reflected a wildly-popular romance novel written by Augusta Jane Evans in 1866 titled, as one might expect, St. Elmo. The book title came from a primary character, St. Elmo Murray. He was no saint, LDS or otherwise (book) (synopsis).

As noted on Evans’ Wikipedia entry,

Within four months it sold a million copies… So popular was this novel that it inspired the naming of towns, hotels, steamboats, and a cigar brand… It ranks as one of the most popular novels of the 19th century.

This would have been my third theory
Own photo, taken at 2013 White House Easter Egg Roll

Was St. Elmo a realistic variant of Elmo? Who knows. However, I preferred the tantalizing acronym anyway because it had the backing of local government and because I appreciate odd explanations.

There was one final saintly Utah community, Saint Albans (location). I couldn’t find any information beyond its GNIS citation.

The final tally: two Sainted communities in Utah named for LDS leaders; one definitely not; and one unknown.

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