Race Report: Savage Gulf Marathon

Race Information

  • Distance: 26.2 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4,000 feet
  • Where: Savage Gulf State Natural Area, Tennessee
  • When: March 17th, 2018
  • Race Direction: Tennessee Park Rangers Association
  • Layout: Single loop with most of the course being a large lollipop

Goals

  • YES: Complete the race
  • YES: Complete the race without completely embarrassing myself
  • YES: Finish in the top 10
  • YES: Finish faster than Ultrsignup predicted I would

Additional Notes

The Savage Gulf Marathon is billed as the “toughest trail marathon in the country”. I can’t speak to the validity of that claim being that a) I’ve not run every trail marathon in the country; and b) people often have drastically differing ideas as to what constitutes “toughest” in just about every facet of life, trail marathons being no exception. I will say that the course is downright brutal, bordering on sadistic, and it was a seriously difficult run, certainly the “toughest” run of the marathon distance I’ve ever done by far, and easily “tougher” than any 50k I’ve done to date.

Because Savage Gulf is quite literally a canyon with fairly steep walls, there was a lot of disparity amongst the runner’s GPS data. Parts of the course wind under large overhangs and directly beside cliffs. As such, tracking distances ranged from approximately 25 to 29 miles and elevation gain ranged from under 4k to over 5k. I’m typically fairly confident in my watch being that it is a newer model with a barometric altimeter (Garmin FR935). Even so, I measured 25.9 miles but consensus is that the course is actually long by half a mile or so.

There were three full aid stations, one of which is passed twice, and a water stop, bringing the total number of aid stops to five.

The course record is 4:05:29 set in 2017 by Evan Dare. This was the 7th annual running of the race. All runners are required to have completed a race of at least the marathon distance prior to being allowed to run. The race is capped at 100 participants.

On a personal note, Ultrasignup predicted me taking 3rd place overall with an estimated time of 5 hours, 10 minutes. I thought it was being a bit generous given that the way it calculates rank doesn’t consider the skill of the competition, at least not from what I’ve observed. For instance a runner could be ranked 100% by winning a couple of small races where nobody fast showed up and another much faster runner could be ranked 60% if he was facing off against elite athletes at every race. Given the relative difficulty of the race and the mandatory marathon requirement, I expected the competition to be a bit more fierce than at other races I’ve recently run.

Background

I had seen this one pop up on Ultrasignup a couple of times and I was immediately intrigued. I wasn’t sure at the time if I should actually pull the trigger on another race halfway in between Fontandango and the Pitchell attempt I have on the calendar for the end of the month, but I didn’t suppose there was any harm in looking.

Eventually I had it narrowed down to two possibilities should I decide to pull the trigger: The Pistol in Alcoa TN (there are numerous distance options and I was looking at one of the shorter ones) or Savage Gulf. While away for Fontandango I met a gentleman named Dave who had some friends who were running Savage Gulf and he made a few comments that upped its general appeal. That night I went to my room, busted out the laptop, and registered. Had I known what I was getting myself into I may not have been so quick on the draw.

Training

I did precisely zero training that was intentionally specific to Savage Gulf. I managed a training week just shy of 50 miles the week following Fontandango and I had completely forgotten that a coworker and I had registered for a local 8k race that weekend. I ran hard at the 8k and took 3rd overall then hurried home to let the dog out before rolling up to meet a gentleman I met on Strava named Zach to do a long run on the NC Mountains to Sea trail.

In hindsight, this long run ended up playing to my benefit as it a) involved a fair amount of climbing on reasonably technical terrain, and b) involved descending over the exact same terrain. That run upped my confidence regarding my ability to move quickly over technical stuff and I have no doubt that helped me at Savage Gulf. Following that run I took it easy by sticking to my normal Monday night group run and a treadmill half on Wednesday before taking Thursday and Friday off to rest up for the race.

Pre-Race

If you read my Fontandango race report, you’ll know that I had some car trouble. I’m happy to report that the car is sporting a new water pump, new tires, a fresh oil change, and even new windshield wipers so I was more than ready to tackle the ~4 hour road trip to McMinnville, TN where I was staying the nights before and after the race. There ended up being some traffic in and around Asheville which pushed it to more like a 4.5 hour trip, but it was pretty smooth sailing and I got to the hotel with plenty of time to prep for the morning.

Following what I did at Fontandango, I took the time to have basically everything laid out and ready to go. In the morning all I needed to do was brew a cup of coffee, get dressed, and hit the restroom before driving the half hour from McMinnville to Savage Gulf.

I arrived almost exactly at 7:00 AM and had no trouble finding the place or finding parking. Evidently parking is an issue and is the primary reason for the 100 participant limit for the event. Everyone was nice and generally talkative (at least compared to most other races I’ve been to) so I got to chatting about the race in the lines for packet pickup and the restroom. Overall it was gearing up to be a very pleasant experience.

At about 7:40, one of the rangers announced that people should make their way to the starting line in about 10 minutes. Of course a few minutes later there were more announcements covering the normal details such as course markings, aid station frequency, etc. Finally a gentleman dressed in 1800s clothes fired an antique rifle signaling the start of the race.

Start to Aid 1

I took off with the leaders and within half a mile had established myself in 3rd with 1st and 2nd pulling away fairly aggressively. During the first couple of miles I didn’t bother trying to see how much of a gap I had in front of 4th as that was the least of my worries. Immediately after the race started, I wasn’t feeling as good as I normally do. I’m not entirely certain if it was cumulative fatigue from Fontandango, the fast 8k, and all the training in and around everything leading up to this, or if it was maybe something I ate. Either way, I was not firing on all cylinders so I decided to do my best to grin and bear it for the first few miles to just see how well I’d hold up.

The first couple of miles were on easy, rolling hills with a few roots sticking out here and there. It was very easy running and I clocked my fastest miles of the day here, even with me feeling a bit fatigued. That very quickly changed as I came to what is known as the Stone Door, a rock formation with some man-made steps leading from the edge of the canyon straight down into some switchbacks for a very technical, rocky descent.

Because it was slower, the fatigue mattered less. I was perfectly coherent so I was able to move fairly quickly over the terrain. A gentleman then in 4th place was, however, managing it better than I was and by the time we got out of the switchbacks he had overtaken me. I put down a gel and drank some Tailwind and started to push the pace a little bit. The terrain was much rockier than what I was used to, but I could still move pretty quickly. As a result, the gentleman who had passed me wasn’t able to put a considerable amount of distance between us. At mile 5 I put down another gel and consumed more Tailwind. By the time I got to the mile 6 aid station I was starting to feel much better.

Aid 1 to Aid 2

The gentleman who has passed me was named Matt and he was from California. Turns out he was a super nice guy and a pleasure to talk with. While we traded back and forth a little bit going into the climb out of the canyon, another runner came up behind us and we ended up running together for a bit. The other runner’s name was Jeremiah and he was also pretty cool. Collectively we weren’t going terribly fast as basically the entire trail was nothing but a boulder field (and that’s only a slight exaggeration).

My ascent wasn’t as fast as I would have liked as the rocks very effectively neutralized the climbing advantage I would normally get from my use of trekking poles. There were actually very few runners using poles in this race and I think I was the only one anywhere near the front.

Anyway, at one point Jeremiah slipped and took a pretty nasty spill on the rocks. Matt and I stopped and helped him up, walked with him for a minute to make sure he was good, and then proceeded on. From there he generally seemed to have trouble finding traction on the wetter surfaces. Given that neither Matt or I had the same issue, we quickly concluded it was his shoes. Given the continued traction problems I went ahead and passed and struck out on my own. Matt quickly followed suit and we stayed in close proximity through the easy rolling section to Aid 2.

Aid 2 to Aid 3

Matt and I left Aid 2 a few seconds after Jeremiah arrived and ran together for about another mile through the easy part along the rim of the canyon. After that mile I started to pull ahead and gradually increased the gap between us. By the time I got to the descent back into the canyon, Matt was far enough back that I couldn’t see or hear him.

As I started into the canyon again, the descent is long, rocky, and what appears to be a dried up creek bed (or at least a trail that serves as one when it rains). Almost immediately a giant smile came over my face. I was made for this. I started descending very quickly and it was pure magic. I LOVE this sort of running, even though I knew it would eventually come back to haunt me as a result of me trashing my legs on this sort of terrain.

Sure enough as I wandered into Aid 3 I felt the tell-tale signs of blisters, even though I had never gotten blisters only 17 miles in, never gotten them with Injinji socks, and only once ever previously had gotten them in the Altra Superiors I was wearing. Fortunately it was only one foot and it wasn’t bad enough that I couldn’t ignore it. The bigger issue was that my calves and quads were almost done. I chalked it up to a combination of three things:

  1. At this point I knew it was cumulative fatigue that I was feeling when I started the race so everything was going to wear out more quickly.
  2. The relative ineffectiveness of my poles during the climb out of the canyon caused me to put more stress on my calves than I’m used to.
  3. Me stupidly bombing the descent back into the canyon did a pretty good job of trashing my quads.

Aid 3 to Finish

As I was about to turn the corner to put Aid 3 out of sight, I saw Matt cruising in. We had both taken about a minute and a half at Aid 2 and I had taken slightly longer than that at Aid 3 so I figured I had a solid 2 minutes on him. In a road marathon, holding 3rd place with a 2 minute gap over 4th at mile 17 means you’re in fabulously good shape. But in a gnarly, brutal race like Savage Gulf, you can squander a 2 minute lead without even realizing it.

Moving forward was more of the same rocky, technical terrain that defines this race along with a fair amount of up and down. Progress wasn’t quick, but I was moving better than expected and I was being smart about calorie and fluid intake. I was fatigued and beaten up at this point, but at least I could count on everyone else being similarly beaten up.

As I passed the water stop at mile 20, the ranger/volunteer who was there said “this is mile 17” and without hesitating I immediately said back “no it’s not”. I’m not sure if he was trying to play mind games with the runners or if he had been misinformed, but I knew matter-of-factly that it was mile 20 and told him as much before thanking him and getting back on my way.

The next part of the course was the real kicker. Because you’re still at the bottom of the canyon you know there’s going to be a big, steep climb out. If you’ve never run the race before there are several hills while approaching the climb that feel like you’re about to climb out, and then the trail descends again. I don’t remember exactly how many of these there were, but there were at least 4. Fortunately the big climb is fairly obvious when you do eventually reach it just passed mile 22.

I was able to make good use of my poles on this climb out. It’s still pretty technical, but considerably less so than the opposite climb and I could actually dig my poles in without breaking them or getting them stuck. While I absolutely didn’t fly up the hill, I was able to progress considerably faster than I had anticipated. Even so, I was pretty much out of gas by the time I reached Aid 4 where I just refilled a single soft flask.

The last couple of miles were very similar to the first ones, except now I was completely drained and was slowing to a walk ever quarter-mile or so. Every step in the canyon had been pure brutality, but the last two miles, up on the plateau and probably the easiest of the entire course, were by far the worst of the entire day.

Eventually I made my way through it and back to the road for the last couple hundred yards. There were a surprising number of people cheering when I came through so I’m sure my finish photo will in no way reflect how I was feeling at the time. I crossed the line in 4 hours, 58 minutes, and 18 seconds taking 3rd place overall.

Post-Race

The race winner, named Nathan, was close to the finish and asked me what I needed and if he could get me anything. I thanked him and politely declined. I just wanted to go sit down and drink something with a lot of sugar in it for the next few minutes. After making my way to the post-race food, one of the volunteers poured me some lemonade and got me some pretzels. It was exactly what I needed.

I sat there for a bit and in that time Matt finished about 5 minutes behind me with 5th place coming in less than a minute behind him. Matt sat down and we chatted for a bit before I was pulled away for some pictures and awards with the other two podium finishers.

Unlike most races I’ve been to, it seemed a very high percentage of the finishers were hanging around. I went to my car and spent probably 15 minutes or so cleaning up before wandering back toward the finish line. I hung around and cheered for other runners for a bit and eventually found my way into a conversation with the 2nd place finisher, Alex, and the 5th place (1st female) finisher, Alondra. Both of them were super cool and I had a legitimately great time talking to them. Alex had damaged, possibly broken, his wrist during the run and Alondra had a hard fall where she had taken a blow to the head. In fact literally every runner I spoke with had fallen at least once.

I did find out that a few runners didn’t make the Aid 3 cutoff and there were a couple of DNFs beyond that. Also the East Coast Trail & Ultra Podcast guys had run the race and were recording an episode on the premises, it’s available to listen to now via their website.

It was maybe 2.5 or 3 hours after finishing when I finally left to drive back to McMinnville. I had a pretty low-key evening as I wanted to hit the road early. On the way home I took the opportunity to stop by Frozen Head State Park for a recovery day hike.

What’s Next

Yesterday I felt like complete hell but today I’m feeling pretty solid. I’m going to take tomorrow off as well before getting back to normal training on Thursday with a long run hopefully on Saturday.

I had originally planned to attempt Pitchell on the 31st, however the Black Mountains are supposed to get quite a bit of snow between now and then. While I’m not terribly worried about snow on Mt. Mitchell, the trail crosses the wafer-thin Blackstock Knob where several feet of snow would be incredibly dangerous to someone outfitted for trail running. Not to mention there would likely be snow on earlier sections of the trail which would slow progress significantly.

I may end up postponing the whole thing until fall so I can better concentrate on other stuff I have coming up. In April I’m pacing a friend on the Hellbender 100, then in May I have a 30k race a week out from my first 100 miler of the year. It should be a blast.

 

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