Double Trail Race Weekend: Savage Gulf Marathon & Fall Creek Falls 50k
Trail Running Gear: Patagonia Air Flow Shirt, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, North Face Arm Warmers, Smartwool PhD Run Graduated Compression Socks, Salomon Sense Pro Shoes, Suunto Ambit 2 (HR) Watch, Camelbak Handheld Bottle, Salomon Soft Flask, Hammer Gel Flask(s)
Pre-Race Saturday: I heard about Savage Gulf Marathon in late 2013 and was immediately interested since it fit the bill I’m generally looking for in a race; i.e. super technical and relatively close to Chattanooga. I usually don’t like to drive too far for a trail race when there are such great runs around town. Soon after this I found out that there was a 50k run at Fall Creek Falls on the day after #SGM. So, I figured I might as well make it a double trail race weekend and guarantee myself some good R/C Thunder Rock 100 training… Plus there’s a little extra motivation to get out for two long trail runs in the same weekend if I’m paying for the races.
My family/race crew and I decided to stay both Friday and Saturday nights at Fall Creek Falls Camp Grounds and make it a fun-filled camping and running weekend. The great thing about these two parks is that they are only about an hour drive from one to the other.
Saturday was shaping up to be an awesome day with morning temperatures in the mid-40s, sunny and highs predicted to be in the mid-60s. I discussed hydration plans with a fellow Rock/Creek teammate a few days prior and decided that my best bet was to carry one hand-held bottle and a small Salomon soft flask to give me ~28oz of water. In previous years people had run out of water between the last couple of aid stations due to the difficulty of the trail and the early afternoon heat.
To help combat this they added a water-only aid station around mile 20, so I figured my ~28oz of water would suffice. I gathered my items together and prepped a drop bag to be sent down to the Sawmill aid station, which was Aid #1 (6.3mi) and #3 (17.1). About 10 minutes to 8AM we all gathered around the starting line to listen to drill sergeant orders being barked out about the race and do’s and don’ts for the run. It was pretty comical and made for a few laughs before the race.
The race began with a loud bang and billowing smoke from the Davy Crocket lookalike and his muzzleloader riffle, which made for an awesome starting experience. I joked around on the starting line with a few people about having a goal for this race of just trying to stay on course, since I was three-for-three with my last three races and getting lost. Well, to my dismay as soon as I left the starting line I found myself hanging a right hand turn through the parking lot when I should have been hanging to the left with the majority of the other runners… here we go again
Lucky for me that ended up being the only ‘misdirection’ all day. The Tennessee Park Rangers Association and the Boy Scout troops who marked the course did a fantastic job. I only had one other questionable turn throughout the rest of the race and I quickly sorted it out. As we exited the parking lot we ran onto a dirt access road out to a beautiful single track that ran along the edge of the Big Creek Rim trail where we were provided beautiful views looking out over gulch. This trail was very run-able and reminded me a lot of the Cumberland trail running along the edge of Signal Mountain.
About 3-miles into the run we came to the hard right hand turn to the Stone Door. Up to this point I was intermittently talking with the couple of people around me and was enjoying a nice comfortable pace, maybe a little faster than I needed considering I still had 20+ miles today and another 31-miles tomorrow. As we started down the beautiful stone steps of the Stone Door I immediately felt a sense of euphoria because I knew it was about to get very technical and I just had an itch to let go and run quickly as possible through the rocky boulder fields that lay below.
I quickly found myself out front and didn’t really pay attention to anything behind me as I was enjoying the feel of bounding from boulder to boulder. This section was a blast and exactly what I love about trail running. The running along the base of the cliff included many boulder-strewn sections intermixed with short quick climbs and descents and easier, less boulder filled sections of trail. We had some pretty sweet creek crossings both on suspension bridges as well as through the creek beds. Lucky for us the water was down so we were able to cross the non-bridge sections without any issues and enjoy the riverbed running.
Arriving at Aid #1 (6.3mi) I found that I was in the lead, couldn’t see anyone behind me and was feeling great… this wasn’t really the plan today but I figured I would just keep running whatever felt good and be okay with whoever ended up catching me later on. Grabbed some fresh water and a few bananas from Aid #1 and continued on with some more trail and intermixed riverbed running.
A few creek crossings past Aid #1 we began an ascent towards Suter Falls. This section of the trail was extremely beautiful. There was an awesome waterfall, beautiful vegetation and an amazing rock shelf that protruded above the trail as we cut along underneath it. The trail from here continued toward Collins East.
Aid #2 and had a pretty awesome boulder field to work through as the trail climbed out. As I rolled into Aid #2 (11.1mi) I realized that my family/crew weren’t there like they had planned. I knew that I had enough things stuffed in my pockets to get by without the items they had for me, but I was worried that they may have had issues hiking in to the aid. So I said a quick prayer for them, grabbed some more bananas and some water and took off with no one in sight.
Leaving Aid #2 is a very run-able section of the trail as you follow the Collins Rim Trail that snakes around the bluff on the opposite side of the gorge from the start. This section of the course gave about a 4-mile break from the super technical rocky sections that made up the first half of the race.
Around mile 15 the easy running Collins Rim Trail took a sharp left back down the gulch via the Stage Coach Road. This historic trail is just what it sounds like; a wide roadbed heading down into the gorge littered with golf ball-to-grapefruit sized loose rocks. This section was pretty tricky as one wrong step could put you on the ground pretty fast. Bombing downhill has never been my strong suit and this was no exception.
I was relieved as I came to the bottom of the roadbed and jumped back onto some more single-track trail running and new that I was only a short distance from Aid #3 (17.1mi). Coming back into Aid #3, same as Aid #1, I knew still had not seen anyone since coming out of the bottom of the Stone Door Steps and I just knew that someone would be coming along at any time. Since I was okay with being caught, and mentally expected someone to be along at any time, I decided to take my time at Aid #3 and grabbed some fresh stuff out of my drop bag, refilled my water bottle, my Salomon soft flask, and grabbed some bananas to stuff my pockets full.
After a few minutes I thanked the #SGM volunteers and was off again along the only repeat section of trail for the entire day. This Connector trail was roughly 3 miles of rollers back along the riverbed with technical sections intermixed into the single track sections. By this time in the day I had passed around 5-6 groups of hikers and most of them were large groups of as a dozen or more people. The entire Savage Gulf area was extremely beautiful and it was easy to see why there were so many people out enjoying the day.
As I came up the next intersection of Big Creek Gulf trail and the Connector trail around 20 miles and found the newly added water only aid station. I wasn’t that low on stuff but figured I had a good climb coming so I went on and topped of my bottles once again. This section was still rocky and technical following the creek. Somewhere around mile 22 we came out to another roadbed littered with golf ball-to-grapefruit sized rocks and began the steepest climb of the day. This was a “hands-on-your-knees-head-hanging-full-on-heartpounding-eyeball-sweating-ears-ringing” kind of climb… or I was just extremely tired by this time and really got my butt handed to me on this climb.
Either, way I KNEW for CERTAIN that someone was going to catch me on this climb or I was just going to die due to my heart pounding out of my chest. By the grace of God I made it to the top of this climb and still couldn’t see anyone behind me. It was probably a good thing because when I got to Aid #5 (23.3mi) I knew that roughly 3-miles of running and I would be done, and maybe I could hold on to the lead position and finish on top of the podium… a first for me as a trail runner.
These last 3-miles were easy enough, no more technical rocky sections, no big climbs, if anything it was pretty much flat or downhill. As I came around the last trail corner I saw my Dad standing at the road cheering me on and I knew at once they were okay and hadn’t been injured or anything trying to hike into Aid #2. I didn’t know what my time was up to this point because I couldn’t remember the last time I had looked at it. I just knew that I was still in the lead and was going to finish there because I hadn’t seen another runner in since about 3.5-miles.
As I came to the finish line I was able to run across with my 17-month old daughter and tried to get my 3-year old but she decided that would be too much attention for her that afternoon Just after I finished they informed me that I had missed the course record by something 1:40 min… Dang! Oh well, I was happy to have run a good race and still feel good because I knew I had another run the following day. This was by far the hardest trail marathon I’ve ever run and believe that it’s probably the hardest trail marathon in the Southeast and maybe even the country?
I was EXTREMELY thankful that God kept me safe through such a technical course, my family for the support, Rock/Creek for the awesome gear and support, Salomon Sense Pro shoes… these shoes did awesome and I would highly recommend them to anyone looking for some new shoes. Huge thanks to Wild Trails for helping get this event re-opened and the Savage Gulf State Park/Tennessee Park Ranger Association for putting on such an amazing run with awesome personnel to help support the runners. For anyone who wants an amazing race experience and a good challenging course this race should be at the top of your list.
1st Place Overall; 4:22:47
Pre-Race Sunday: Saturday afternoon was spent around the start/finish line area of Savage Gulf Marathon and hanging out with a lot of really cool trail runners and talking with the SG rangers and personnel. That evening was spent back at Fall Creek Falls camping area with my family hanging out, stretching occasionally and keeping fairly active so I wouldn’t get too tight for Sunday’s run.
I woke up Sunday morning to the sound of rain and considered just rolling back over and going to sleep… I figured, it’s just money and I didn’t need any more race shirts so sleeping in a nice warm bed would be hands down better than going and running 50k in the rain. Well, that thought only lasted a few seconds because I quickly remembered that I needed another good day of running in to help build my endurance for R/C Thunder Rock 100.
After I choked down a peanut butter, honey and granola bagel I got my gear on for a nice long run in the rain. Conditions were extremely different from the previous day. Saturday delivered ~60°F and sunny while Sunday was ~45°F and rainy… blah! When I got to the starting area I saw a slew of people standing in line to check in. There was no day before check in options so everyone was forced to stand around in the cold rain Sunday morning waiting to get checked in.
Always trying to find the silver lining of situations, I did learn that a huge umbrella that your Step-Mom loans you will automatically get a lot of people to huddle around you to steal shelter from the rain. One up side to this is that it is a great way to stay warm considering all of the body heat from 6 people huddled under one umbrella
Due to rain and check in delays the race was postponed approximately 30 minutes to allow everyone to get their numbers and timing chips. There are two distances options offered, a half marathon and a 50k option, with both courses sharing a lollipop shaped course. The stick on the lollipop is a 3/4-mile uphill road section to the trail, then an 11.5-mile loop through the woods back to the same road intersection. After one loop the half marathon runner’s head back down the stick to the finish, while the 50k runners go for another run around the 11.5-mile loop. When 50k runners get to the road for the second time they do a 180° turn, run 3 miles back the direction they just came from and then do another 180° turn to come right back to the road for a third time. Once back to the road 50k runners head back down the stick to the finish line.
Around 8:30AM everyone was checked in so we shuffled over to the starting line. My legs felt pretty good considering the effort from the day before. I decided that I wouldn’t worry about who were half marathon runners and who were 50k runners and would just run whatever felt comfortable. As we started off the line I quickly settled into a comfortable pace and ran the first 3/4-mile up to the first turn onto a forest road for another 1.5-miles to the actual trail… or what I thought was a trail.
I guess it was a trail in the sense that it was cut through the woods and had white trail blazes to follow but other than that it was a little different than what I was expecting. I grew up camping and hiking at FCF and knew about all of the beautiful trails that hiked in and around the falls and down in the gorge. It’s nobody’s fault but my own for not understanding the course better before the race but I suppose I just expected it to run some of the beautiful FCF overlooks trails.
Well, so far the trail was at least easily run-able without too many problem areas. I was probably somewhere in the front 10-15 people so the trail wasn’t too muddy and trampled yet considering the rain coming down. As the race progressed the terrain changed slightly from mile-to-mile, with some easy running flat sections to short rolling hills and even a few minor rocky sections. I prefer more technical rocky courses over the easy trail forest running but I soon realized that it was actually a very nice trail and a welcome break from the technical course the day before.
Around 9.25-miles into the race the trail dumps out onto a short 1/4-mile road section and Aid #2. I was fortunate to have my family/crew there today and was able to get a fresh bottle of Perpetuem, baby food flask and a flask full of chicken noodle soup. The warm chicken noodle soup was wonderful considering I was soaking wet and really contemplating turning in to simply run the half marathon once I got back the main road section.
Just past Aid #2 we jumped off of the road and back into the trail. This next 3-miles of the trail was a mix of easy climbs, gentle down hills and very run-able single and double track. As I approached the main road section that would eventually be my turn back to the finish line the rain started to let up and my body finally started to warm back up so thoughts of cutting my 50k into a half marathon went away and I figured if I had already put in roughly 12-miles what was another 19+ miles.
As I crossed the road and Aid #3 (12.25mi) I walked for a few minutes with my family/crew again and got some more baby food and another fresh bottle of Perpetuem. I found out that I was in the lead for the 50k race. Apparently everyone in front of me was in the half marathon and had turned on the road at Aid #3 racing for the finish line. Well, this was not what I was expecting and not necessarily what I wanted. When out front you can’t help but get a little bit of that anxious feeling that someone is right on your heels or about to catch you at any moment and if you’re not careful you’ll run yourself into the ground trying to push too hard to maintain the lead.
I told myself that it didn’t matter who or how many people caught me since I was only trying to get another solid run in following Saturday’s effort. I grabbed the last of my fuel and took back off for a second loop around the 11.5-mile loop. Once off of the forest road and back into the woods the previous run-able trail was not so run-able now. Apparently the 200+ people that had followed me through the first loop did a number on the trail and it was now a muddy soupy mess. Every descent that was manageable the first loop was now a treacherous slip and slide down the trail trying to keep your feet right side up.
As I approached Aid #4 (20.75mi) I heard the sound of muddy footsteps coming up from behind me and looked over my shoulder to see a couple of guys catching up. I admit I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t maintain the lead any longer but was also relieved to have someone to chase now for a little extra motivation. I was greeted at Aid #4 by my Wife and two little girls and got a second wind from their smiling faces and cheers. I was able to hang with the now second place guy for about the next 2-miles before slowing just a little as the pace was getting a little too dicey for me on the descents and I didn’t want to risk eating it hard and getting hurt.
Aid #5 (23.75mi) was coming into sight and I was not looking forward to turning right back around to run back out this same section of trail again in the opposite direction. I grabbed another fresh bottle of Perpetuem and another chicken noodle soup flask and got a good boost of energy to push back through the out-n-back section. The nice thing about the out-n-back section was that you passed other runners and it provided a bit of motivation to keep pushing hard and finish strong. I was actually surprised how fast the 6-miles total of the out-n-back section went. Rolling back into the final aid station at 29.75-miles I knew that with only 3/4-mile of road back to the finish line I should be able to maintain 3rd position overall.
Crossing the finish line I made my way straight over the pavilion to join my family and grab some post race food. I don’t recall ever having been so hungry immediately after a race. I sat around the finish line and ate until I was about to explode, cheered some other finishers on as they finished then made my way to the nearest showers to warm my bones. Overall the Fall Creek Falls run was a success. It wasn’t my favorite run that I’ve ever completed but for anyone looking for a nice double trail race weekend, this run coupled with the Savage Gulf Marathon makes for a good weekend.
Again I was very thankful that God kept me safe through the muddy and wet conditions, my family for the motivation, Rock/Creek for the running gear and support, and the Fall Creek Falls personnel that made this run possible.
3rd Place Overall; 4:36:18
Until the next race,
Nathan D. Holland
2014 Rock/Creek Race Team