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The Unspoken Rules of Being a Badass: A Runner's Guide

2013 Savage Gulf Marathon Race Report – Charlie Taylor

2013 Savage Gulf Trail Marathon

This race was billed as the toughest trail marathon in the country and was limited to 100 entrants. My friend Scott Jordan had entered early and everybody thought it would fill pretty fast but even a couple weeks before the race, there were still 20 openings. Scott had been talking me and Boomer about running it with him and one morning while running, after about 5 minutes of chatting about Savage Gulf Marathon, both of us decided to throw in and sign up. What were we thinking?

Savage Gulf is part of the South Cumberland natural area and lies just north of Beersheeba Springs, Tn. The 1000 foot deep gorge is shaped like a giant crow’s foot and contains the most spectacular rock formations in Tennessee. The race starts at the ranger’s station, goes through the woods for about 3 miles before dropping down into the gorge through a 10 foot wide, 150 foot deep split in the cliff called the stone door and that is where the fun really begins.
I had just run the Delano Park 12 hour ultra the Saturday before logging 64 miles, however, my legs felt great and I thought I was at least somewhat ready for what was to come. I have been drinking ASEA, a cellular replacement product for a year and sure as promised, my recovery has been phenominal. ASEA puts redox signaling molecules back into the body, the stuff in the body’s cells that help it to heal and to recover. As we age, our bodies, due to wear and tear, what we eat and drink, stress, and other things, make less and less of the “healing molecules”. That is why youngsters heal faster than we who are older. The result of ASEA is faster recovery, more endurance, and an increased level of antioxidents.

Scott, Boomer, and I decided to head out for Savage Gulf about 4:30AM, since it is only about a 2 hour drive from Gallatin. After a quick breakfast at the Waffle House and a quick meeting with Frank Schmidt (Smitty), we were on our way. The drive, once you get off I-24, through Pelham, up Highway 50 to Beersheeba Springs is beautiful. It reminded me a lot of some of the final part of last year’s VolState road race, just one mountain to the east. We arrived at the park with about an hour to prepare for the unknown. I think, deep inside, we all knew what to expect.

Runners were arriving, we stood in line to get our race numbers, and were happy to get some pretty good loot in our Goodie bags, a nice Tech shirt proclaiming the Savage Gulf to indeed be the country’s toughest trail marathon and a really nice $30 Rock Creek running cap. Rock Creek, a Chattanooga outfitter is really the bomb diggity when it comes to taking care of trail runners. They sponsor 10 our more great Chattanooga trail races including Stump Jump, Upchuck 50K, Lookout Mt 50 miler, and more, not to mention throwing out goodies at races like this. Thanks for the cap Guys!! I will wear it proudly (and often). We also got a cool Savage Gulf Window decal.

One thing I really like about running trail races is that the elite runners act just like the rest of us. If you didn’t know who they were, you would not know that they would end up winning the race. We met and talked to Brian Schmidt (Smitty’s son) who would indeed win this race with an outstanding course record time of 4:21 (yep, that’s super fast for this marathon). My friends Michal Scott, Phil Zimmerman from Nashville, Wilson From Rome Georgia, and several more were there. We all chatted a bit, tried to keep warm in the early morning 40 degree weather and got our race gear on, waiting for the final call. The weather forecast called for 72 degrees, warm for March in middle Tennessee and we all figured (except Scott Jordan) that we had better carry a little more water than normal. I had decided the night before to wear my Nathan backpack which holds an 80 oz water bladder, along with a few pockets, handy for my trusty Olympus Stylus Tough Camera, some Kramergesic skin lube, a couple 8 oz pouches of ASEA, making it easy to access any of my stuff. Boomer had a couple hand held water bottles but Scott only carried one. Big mistake!

The call was made, we all shed our outer layers, down to bare bones and hurried over to the starting area. We all immediately noticed the official starter, dressed in Colonial Garb, with a gun that almost looked like a small cannon. As we prepare for the start, we were told that the gun was a 96 calibre black power and was packed heavy. This thing had such a kick that it had to be mounted on a frame, I don’t believe 2 men could have held it when it fired. We were given a few instructions and that big gun went BOOM and we were off.

Like I said before, the first 3 miles were really runnable and run we did. I looked at my Garmin and noticed that I was doing a 7:50 pace and thought to myself, “what am I doing going this fast?” Everybody knows not to go out too fast. That would be slow in a road marathon but this wasn’t any old road marathon. After our initial 3 miles the course turned right and went down through the Stone Doors, a massive 10 foot wide split between the cliff, and about a 500 feet drop, violently into the gorge. Immediately, the terrain was different. As we descended into the gorge, there were big rocks and twists and turns, many switchbacks, fallen trees, and some runnable trail. At the bottom of the gorge, we made a hard turn to the left and crossed a 100 foot cable bridge over a dry creek bed. They tell me that after only a little rain, this creek is a mighty rushing river and when hiking in Savage Gulf, it is always a good idea to pay attention to where you are if it rains. The sign before the bridge warned that there was no running allowed crossing the bridge. If you weren’t paying close attention, any running would shake the bridge so violently that it could throw you off. I ran anyway, heck it was runnable surface!

Immediately after crossing the bridge, the terrain went back up, climbing up the grades and jumping over more rocks. There were several places where the boulders were covered with moss and footing was somewhat treacherous. At mile 7, there was another swinging bridge and the first aid station was on the other side of it. I still had plenty of water in my backpack so I passed on a refill. After a very quick food refuel, I was back on my way. The course ran alongside the dry creek before angling off to the left and back into the woods. About a mile after the aid station, the Chattanooga cave and rescue team had set up a rope system across the creek. The creek bed was dry but the rocks were slick as glass. I heard later about several runners taking big falls on those rocks. Immediately after crossing, the trail headed up the south side of the mountain. The sun was coming up pretty strong in the sky and as it bore through the tree tops, I wished that I had brought my sunglasses. The temps were rising and I guess that it was somewhere in the 70 degree range already. I looked up and could see some of the runners who had passed me earlier climbing the hill in front of me. My, my, they were a long way up the side of the mountain!

Running the switchbacks became a game. How many would there be before I topped out? Almost every time the trail would go back to the left, I had a bit of somewhat level trail and I made the best I could of it. As I neared the top, I came upon some awesome limestone cliffs on my right. Right beside the cliffs was very runnable but as I passed them, the terrain again became violent. Weaving in and out of rocks, jumping from one to another, watching every place the feet landed was the order of the day. Just a bit past the 9 mile mark, I came into a clearing and the view almost took my breath. I was about to cross another swinging bridge that crossed a raging stream and directly on the other side of the bridge was a massive overhanging cliff that I was to run underneath. As I came under the giant ledge, the dirt was well marked with the footprints of the 30 or more runners who were in front of me. The overhang was at least 50 feet over my head and extended another 50 feet to my left. The cliff was shaped like a giant crescent and I immediately imagined a thousand years ago how the Indians probably camped and lived underneath this shelter.

When running races, there is not much time to dwell on things except running so as I ran inside the semi-circle, I looked off to my left and the raging creek was just a foot slip away. The trail took another little jaunt through some trees and There I saw my friend Smitty and his grandson. Smitty had gone on ahead to cheer on his son Brian and graciously had carried a couple things for me to pick up at that point. He told us we were a little over a mile to the next aid station. The trail went back into the woods, more switchbacks and eventually wound up at the aid station. I found myself getting a bit hungry and made it a point to eat a couple boiled potatoes, some gummy bears, a few potato chips and refill my depleting water pouch. I usually do not waste much time at aid stations and found myself getting back in front of several runners who had passed me earlier. I never did see any of them again. I was informed that the next aid station was 6 miles away and that 3 miles of that would be easy trail through the trees. Best news I had heard all day!! I was tired of climbing on rocks and looked forward to being able to stretch it out a bit. They were right, there were almost 4 miles of ups and downs but most of it was easy on the feet, most of it running the ridge on what appeared to be the east side of the canyon. There were several places where you could see for miles and miles and the temptation to stop and stare was enormous but runners gotta keep running and on I went.

At about mile 15, I passed a Ranger taking pictures and he informed me that I was about 2 miles from the aid station. Just after that, the trail became a wagon road, filled with big softball sized rocks, and heading straight down the hill. This ¼ mile drop then made a hard right and again, followed directly under the cliffs that I had been running on before. All the way, there were some massive cliffs off to my right, many with pretty waterfalls coming toward me. The wagon trail that I was running on, I found out later was a stagecoach road, carved out of the hillside in the mid 1800’s by slave labor. Wow, what an experience! I cannot imagine pulling a stagecoach across these hills!

On my way down this hill, I came upon what appeared to be my friend, Doug Boomer. He was walking and didn’t look like he was doing well. As I came upon him, he turned around and said he knew that it was me behind him. We talked for a second, his foot was killing him and I said I was going on, and that was it. The rock infested road then made a left and back into the trees. I was about a mile from the next aid station and as I got closer and closer to the creek, the greenery increased and the path got easier. All of a sudden, I came upon the aid station, stopped for a couple minutes, refilled the water bladder, ate some more potatoes, drank some gatoraid, and was on my way again.

I was 9 miles from the finish and felt like I had already run 100 miles. The next 4 miles was backtracking where we had run coming into mile 7 aid station and since a lot of it was downhill, I knew that going back was UPHILL! It was, a lot of it technical and some of it smooth trail. Miles seem to go by so much slower when you are tired and they really went slow here. I remember hitting mile 20 and realizing that I still had 6 miles to go. I knew that the last 3 miles was probably the easiest part of the race but I was still 3 miles away from the final hill that I had been warned about. I came back to the first cable bridge, crossed it and started the dreaded climb back toward the Stone Door with all the switchbacks and rocks. As the trail passed by the turn where we originally came down in the beginning and proceeded on toward the final hill, the course would climb 300-400 feet, then drop back down almost to the creek. Every time I would get close to the creek, I was tempted to just take a dive but knew that I probably would not finish the race. I passed at least 3 scouting groups out on day hikes and they would look at me like I was crazy or something. At that point, I would have agreed with them. The cliffs on the right were massive and I knew that somewhere up there, there was indeed a finish line. I went on. Whenever it would seem that just maybe I was getting closer to the big climb, the trail would turn left and go down to the creek again. Then.. I started up another hill and just at the bottom, there was a ranger with a water cooler. He asked me if I needed anything and told me that I was a mile from the final aid station. That meant that I was getting ready to bust that big hill that everybody had told me about!

The final climb was brutal, however, not nearly what I had expected. It was rocky and steep, probably a 30 degree grade for ½ mile or so, but the hardest thing about it was that I had dreaded it so much. I really had expected like a 60 degree grade, something that resembled a Barkley Marathons hill. Don’t let me kid you though, it was hard. I passed a family walking up the hill and they were barely moving. I was barely moving, but I still passed them. About halfway up, I decided that I would lay down on a big flat rock that was on the left for a minute or so and that did help my attitude a lot. I got up after a couple minutes and went on. Eventually, I came to a right turn which consisted of a massive amount of exposed tree roots that were just begging to grab onto one of my toes as I passed by. Another few feet and, wow, it became flat!
From there, it was a short distance to the final aid station. I stopped for a second and then proceeded the final 3 miles. At this time, I had about 33 minutes to break 7 hours and for a moment I thought, “wow, this will be a piece of cake”. It was 2.9 miles to the finish and I found myself not really caring whether I busted 7 hours or not. Like the weinie I am in the late states of a difficult race, I decided that I really did not care. I was so worn out that I would run ¼ mile, then walk for a minute or so, then run, then walk. Every time that I would look at my watch and realize that I still could break 7 hours, my insanity would take over. To make a long story short, I turned the corner upon entering the highway, with a 200 yard uphill climb to the finish at 7 hours 20 seconds. I crossed the line in 7:01:21. Just knowing that I could have done it is good enough for me.

Upon finishing, I received a nice Outdoor Research cap and congratulations from all who were around. I sure was glad this thing was over! As I passed the finish line, I also passed a folding table loaded down with BBQ, beans, coleslaw and decided that I probably needed to go sit down for a minute before attempting to carry a plate. Scott Jordan was sitting at a picnic table and informed me that he had run a fine 5:58 and finished 25th overall and first in the over 50 division. Great Job, Scott!! Turns out that he had severely twisted an ankle on one of the rocks, had to have it taped, but had finished strong in spite of the injury. Scott had also not carried enough water and had paid dearly for that. He became really dehydrated and drank 5 bottles of water at the 17 mile aid station. Boomer had made it in via a 4 wheeler ride. Our friend Brian Schmidt had indeed won the race in a new course record time of 4:21 (the old record was 4:55). Actually the top 4 broke the old record. The first female also broke the female course record. I sat for a bit before getting myself a nice loaded up plate of Tennessee cooking.

After eating and resting a bit, my body started feeling somewhat better and we all loaded up in the truck and left. It was a good ride home, all 3 of us were hurting in our own way, probably Scott hurting the most.

I had no idea of where I had finished, thinking that I probably was around 60th. Sunday, when the race results were posted, I surprisingly found that I had finished 48th and 5th Grandmaster. There were several runners who did not finish, no shame at all in that. This is the toughest course I have ever run.

What did I learn? That if you keep on going and don’t quit, you can really do about anything you want to (might not be the smartest thing you ever did though). These Cumberland mountain trails are rugged but extremely beautiful.

What did I do wrong? I weigh about 20 lbs too much, have absolutely got to lose the weight if I want to do well in my racing career. I started a little too fast and was not aggressive enough on the uphills. I could have pushed harder

What did I do right? I carried the camera, glad I did. It is always cool to get good pics of a tough race, helps you remember it much better, not that I will forget this one soon. I carried the Nathan water pack. I did drink about 200 oz of water and could have drank more. I carried my body glide, no chaffing and no irritation of the barbed wire fence butchering of my left leg.
Will I run this again? At first I said no but after waking up Sunday morning and thinking about it a bit, I really do like this kind of race. If I plan on ever attempting Barkley, which makes this race look like playing in the sandbox, I will need many more of these for pain tolerance. Barkley is in 2 weeks so a race like this 2 weeks before will either have you ready or you are not ready, nuff said.

In summary, 7:01:21 finish time 48th place overall – 5th Grandmaster

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