The Savage Gulf Trail Marathon is touted as one of the toughest trail marathons in the Southeast. The race website describes the trail as “26.2 miles of the most brutal, unforgiving, rocky, steep terrain you could imagine.” No one has broken the 4 hour mark. Race entry requires you to submit previous marathons and times – this can’t be your first marathon.
I signed up in December of 2015 because I felt like a I needed a challenge. Apparently, once you experience the pain, suffering, and reward of conquering Rim to Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon, you thirst to recreate that experience (ok, maybe not immediately after, but eventually). You thirst for that feeling of accomplishment and confidence you gain after you’ve pushed your body to its limits. It’s addicting. The Savage Gulf Marathon seemed to be an enticing challenge, worthy of recreating that suffering.
At 6:15 am on March 19, 2016, we head out from the Super 8 Motel in Monteagle to the starting line of the Savage Gulf Marathon. It was an overcast, cool, crisp morning. Perfect running weather.
The course is in Savage Gulf, which is a 14,357 acre State Natural Area in Tennessee, and home to the Great Stone Door. It’s known for beautiful vistas, difficult terrain, and copperheads. Savage Gulf Trail Marathon Review – Rootsrated
After a short pep talk from a park ranger informing us to go slow over the rocky areas and bridges, a small explosion from a musket signals the start of the race.
The first part of the trail was fairly flat and I quickly settled in behind a few folks who were running my pace. We were cruising along and suddenly a root came out of nowhere–I hit the deck. I rolled my right ankle and cut up my left knee. I was 1.8 miles into the 26.2 mile race. Crap.
My race pacers, Eunice, Josh and Phil, graciously stopped and offered to help. I didn’t think I could go on, but I had to get out of the woods. Another runner said the Great Stone Door was just 0.5 miles up ahead and it was easier to exit the race at the point. I stood up to see if I could walk, and I could with little to no pain. So we started walking. Someone asked if I could run. I thought I could, so I did. There was little to no pain.
It was a Savage Gulf Miracle! And then, it wasn’t.
At the Great Stone Door, I decided to keep running. My ankle was slightly swollen and it felt a little “off,” but there was very little pain. I thought I could make it.
Well, they weren’t joking when they said this course was brutal, rocky, and unforgiving. About 60% of the course (at least) was over a loose, boulder field. It’s incredibly technical. I found it difficult to even hike at times.
As you can imagine, this did not bode well for my sprained ankle and I wasn’t sure I’d make the 5 hour cutoff to Mile 17. So, I figured I would take my time and enjoy the scenery a bit.
I made it to the Mile 10 aid station and my ankle was not happy with me. The volunteer taped my ankle, but it hurt more than it helped. So I removed the tape. The next 5 miles were over relatively smooth terrain–it was an actual trail as opposed to rocks and boulders. I was able to run again and my ankle suddenly felt great. Well, not great, but pretty good.
Maybe I could still make the 5 hour cutoff. Maybe I could finish the whole marathon. As I reached Mile 15, Park Ranger Jessie said I had 20 minutes to make the last 2 miles to the cutoff. I thought I could do it!
Then the trail turned back to the rocky terrain I never grew to love. I certainly tried to make the cutoff, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my ankle any more. I was pretty cautious on the steep, rocky, downhill.
Even though my Garmin said I completed 17 miles in just under 5 hours, I did not make the official cutoff. The next 9 miles would be over more brutal, rocky, uphill terrain and my ankle was getting sore. As soon as I stopped, the pain intensified.
I relaxed and chatted with the friendly volunteers while we waited on the Park Ranger to help me off the course. My Garmin said 17.25 miles in 5:07 hours.
The Savage Gulf Miracle turned out not to be a miracle after all.
- If you have the choice, don’t run/walk an additional 15 miles after you sprain your ankle.
- My stubbornness bordered on stupidity in this scenario. Be smart. It’s okay to bail if the situation requires it.
- Keep your ego in check and have some perspective. If I would have bailed a lot sooner, my recovery period would likely be a lot shorter.
- Bring ibuprofen. There was no ibuprofen to be had the entire day.
- BASE Electrolyte salts are a great alternative to salt tablets. Check them out: BASE Electrolyte Salts
- Enjoy the ride. Life isn’t always about reaching the summit or the finish line. It’s about the experiences and friends we make along the way.