Race Report - 2017 Savage Gulf Trail Marathon

3/18/2017 07:39:00 PM

Pre-race photo opp with the Huntsville area crew.
I had run the race for the first and last time in 2014, just after starting to run again after a year off from all physical activity due to injury and health issues. This year it worked out were I could fit this race into my busy training and racing schedule again. I wanted to treat it as a training race (which I did), but I still figured I could get a course PR vs. my initial finish time of 5:58. I guess my memories of that race were a little foggy, because for some reason I was sure I should be able to run this race much faster than I did that year. After all, it's just a marathon. Haha, selective memory I guess.

Either way, I am glad I made the 2 hour trip back to the Savage Gulf Natural Area to run this year's edition of the Savage Gulf Trail Marathon. It is easily the gnarliest and most technical trail race I have ever run. In addition to steep boulder and rock sections and even so-called flats featuring rocks and boulders that require runners to pick every single step individually, it also has over 4000ft of elevation gain over just 26.2 miles. Add to that a good solid rain the night before the race, and you have a recipe for one of the most challenging race courses in the Southeast, which easily explains the slower than usual finishing times for a trail marathon.

Training buddies ready to be savage!
Paul and I headed to Tennessee the night before the race, opting to stay in the small but quaint town of Monteagle near Sewanee University just 40 minutes from the race start. This would allow us to sleep in just a little on race morning. Just before arriving at the Savage Gulf Natural Area I realized that I had managed to leave my hand held water bottle with all of my nutrition and my Epipen at the hotel. It was too late to turn around, so I had to scramble to gather the things I needed. Luckily, my running buddies came through for me, providing me with a soft bottle (thanks David Thurman) and salt tablets (thanks Paul Morris). I also found one lonely gel in my bag, so I would have some basic nutrition to start the race.

All creek crossings were flowing, ensuring that our feet stayed wet during the race.
Although this was a training race (I had run 40 miles in the 4 days leading into the race), I did want to set some target times for the day. My main goal was to break 5 hours. If I could get closer to 4:30, that would mean that I had a fantastic day. However, I scrubbed that 4:30 dream goal 3 miles into the race, when I had already wiped out twice on extremely slick rock heading into the gorge on the initial descent that started at the Stone Door, a set of stone steps nestled between a narrow stone cut and a very popular feature at this park. At this race, I would break one of my ankles or my neck before I'd even get down the first descent. I started to back off a little to make sure I would not fall again. I was only partially successful at that.

One of the many awesome suspension bridges we crossed.
Without going into too much detail (since I'd written up a race report for this event before), the race can be broken down into multiple sections. You can run the first 2.5 miles hard. Miles 2.5 thru 11 include the first technical descent and some seriously technical running in the gorge before climbing out again. Miles 11-17 are very runnable and include a fast descent at the end. Miles 18 thru 22 are rather technical before the final tough climb to mile 23. From there on, runners can let loose for the final fast 5K of the race.
Waterfall view from the most famous natural feature. 
4 aid stations are spread very evenly at miles 6.3, 11.1, 17.1 and 23.3. One hand held bottle was enough for me, but hot day would definitely justify a pack or two hand bottles. While my stomach is pretty solid when it comes to taking food from aid stations regardless of variety offered, I usually stick to gels and bananas at distances up to 50K. Unfortunately, I only had one single gel. Since the aid stations did not offer gels, I opted to just a couple of pieces of banana to supplement the gel I had along with SCaps for sodium.
The most famous natural feature of the race course.
I ended up consuming just one gel and three quarters of a banana during eh entire race and while I did not bonk, I wonder if my race would have been easier or faster had I had the proper nutrition. I'm sure I won't forget my hand bottle in a hotel room again...ever.
Plenty of waterfalls and creeks along the race course.
When I finally approached the final climb of the race, I was getting pretty tired. I also came to the conclusion that sub 5 hours was no longer a possibility. Nonetheless, I wanted to push to get as close as possible. I arrived at the final aid station in 4:35. I figured no chance to break 5, so I may as well chug some cold Coke. After I downed about 8 thimble sized cups, I decided to move on and at least push. About half a mile down the now very runnable trail I spotted another runner. OK, I thought, I may not break 5, but I may be able to jump into the 5th spot overall. I started to run harder and once I passed the other runner, I kept pushing to make sure I wasn't getting passed again before the finish. As I turned onto the final stretch of road leading to the finish, I realized that I was about 1 minute under the 5 hour mark. My run turned into an all out sprint and I crossed the finish line in 4 hours 59 minutes and 28 seconds. Goal accomplished....and I was still able to walk with no excessive aches or pains. I call that a win.
At the finish line of a truly savage race:-)
If you have never run this race, definitely put it on your calendar. For some reason, this race is still a local secret. The local park rangers along with many other area rangers put on a fantastic event at one of the most beautiful trail systems I have ever been to. Fantastic post race BBQ with amazing deserts, beautiful vistas, extremely rugged terrain, everything trail runners love. The only thing missing is beer, but we made sure to bring our own:-) Thanks to the rangers and other volunteers for an amazing event, thanks to Rick Rawls for letting me use his pictures and thanks to David and Paul for providing me with a hand bottle and salt. On to the next adventure...

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1 comments

  1. Sounds like a totally cool race Martin! Who knows? Maybe one day I will come up and do it with my FL buddies?! Keep up the great running!

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