Silver Falls Trail Marathon Recap
Mind Games and Misgivings
There were a mixture of emotions going through my head the night before the Silver Falls Trail Marathon. My training had gone flawlessly: no injuries, I followed my personal plan exactly, and my training run times out at Silver Falls had been promising. But I had felt the same way for the Boston Marathon back in April and totally fell apart on race day. Was my personal and somewhat unorthodox training style simply not effective? Was my BQ marathon – the Portland Marathon where I ran a 2:48 – a total fluke?
It’s hard not to go there in your brain when you’ve only run two marathons, one a total success (at least for a newbie) and one a total meltdown.
Another misgiving going into this marathon was my ongoing battle with leg cramps late in the mileage game. It happened in both the Portland and Boston Marathon after the 18 mile mark. I figured it wasn’t a question of ‘if’ it would happen, but ‘when,’ and whether they’d be manageable, since cramps can be debilitating depending on the level of severity.
In my training runs for this this race I knew that my muscles had a much wider variety of responsibilities, as trail running is quite different from road running, in a few key ways.
Road Running Vs. Trail Running
First, road running is all about consistency. Finding your race pace and settling in for 26.2 miles is the goal of a road marathon, with slight fluctuations based on elevation. Trail running embraces the fluctuation. If there’s a short road section, burn it up fast at your regular marathon pace (for me, around 6:15). If there’s a 16% rock-strewn climb, huff up it at a comfortable but consistent jog (my slower miles were just under 10 minutes).
A 4 minute per mile spread would NEVER happen in a road marathon unless disaster struck, yet for the Silver Falls Trail Marathon, I had a 4+ minute per mile spread: a 5:43 minute mile being my fastest and a 9:52 my slowest.
Another major difference between road marathons and trail marathons is the spectrum of muscle responsibilities. For a road marathon, lateral movement simply doesn’t happen, so all of the normal running muscles get you through a race just fine. For a trail marathon, lateral movement and strong ankle/knee/hip stabilizer muscles are key. Water crossings with slippery rocks, leaps over big puddles in the trail, sinking into mud pits, and navigating rock gardens and root systems requires light feet and agility, skill-sets completely unneeded in a marathon.
During my training runs at Silver Falls, I could pretty much guarantee a rolled ankle at some point during the run, but as long as I stayed light on my feet, it usually only required a 10-step recovery limp before I was running like normal again.
One final observational difference is that in a trail run, downhill does not equal faster mile pace, which can be disheartening in a race. Depending on grade, technicality, and trail condition, downhills can be as slow or even slower than a grueling uphill climb. This can get into your head if you’re a splits-obsessed road-runner and is important to keep in perspective when calculating an estimated finish time on any given trail-oriented course.
Okay, back to the race. The actual marathon started at 8am, so for me that meant getting up at 4:30am to eat some breakfast and coffee right away so my stomach was settled by the 8am race time. Trish and I got the van ready to go with a leave time of around 6:15am for the race. My parents carpooled with us up to the race as well, so it was a snug fit in the van as we all sat around waiting for the sun to come up and the temperature to warm up.
While there was no rain in the forecast, it was a completely clear morning which meant cold temps. Our van said it was 36 degrees in the parking lot, but micro-climates abound at Silver Falls and I knew going into the race that there would be pockets of trail below freezing.
Choosing the right clothing for a 3+ hour race is pretty crucial in my opinion. Too little clothing can mean discomfort for hours potentially, but too much can risk overheating. I tend to get hot quick, so the choice was relatively easy for me. I had brought along some tights in case the predicted temps for the morning were way off, but once there, it was clear that shorts and a long-sleeve tech tee would do just fine. I’ve never bought into the ‘running look’ of most serious marathoners, and it shows when looking at me compared to the majority of racers that lined up at the start, but I know what’s comfortable and what works for me so I’m not changing!
At 7:45am, it was time to get out of the van, make one more bathroom stop, and head to the start line. The 50k runners were already on the course (start time was 7:30am), and while the sun was not yet up, it was definitely light enough to easily see the road and trail, always a good thing. The announcer shared that the course was very well-marked and that there shouldn’t be any issues out on the trail which eased one of my biggest anxieties. In past races, I’ve gotten off course because of poor route markings and lost valuable time, so to not have a big route description at the start and simply hear that I’d easily find my way was a welcome mental respite.
Another interesting aspect of the pre-race dynamics was that there were only five of us that lined up at the actual starting line, with everyone else about 5 feet back. It felt a little odd unabashedly being one of five runners standing solo in front instead of jockeying for a spot on the line, but it was also kind of refreshing.
With 10 seconds ’til 8am, the announcer started the count down, and at 8am on the dot, the race began.
The first 3 Miles
At the start of the race, there were three of us pacing together within the first mile. The race course starts with an easy mile on the road, so I ran at what my normal road marathon pace would be. In fact, the first 3 miles were all road running and well-groomed trail running, with little elevation gain, so I was able to run my first three miles almost right on a 6:15 minute mile.
Just past mile 2, I looked back after a short trail section and saw it was just me and another runner, a tall long-haired red headed guy who looked pretty legit, so I figured it was going to be he and I pacing together the rest of the race.
However, as I passed the 3 mile mark and ran through the parking lot for the last time, I looked over my shoulder again and there was no one in sight. I think that my tall red-headed competitor may have rolled an ankle or something because I now was running completely solo. As I ran through the parking lot where I saw Trish and my parents and other fans cheering me on, I realized that I may be pacing solo for the remainder of the race, and the reality was that I never saw another marathoner the rest of the time.
Miles 4-9: The 50K Passing Train
The next 6 miles were a bit hectic. Mile 4 begins with some comfortably undulating terrain trending up. Around mile 5 I began passing 50K runners, whose course was the same as the marathoner course up to this point. The racers were incredibly courteous as I’d call up to them and pass, often including reciprocal words of encouragement.
It’s at mile 6 that the trail goes from undulating to just up. This first major climb was one that I know well, but it was a bit of a challenge to pass the now large clumps of 50k runners, trying to be courteous but also trying my best to not get stuck for too long.
People were very kind and would usually let me pass right away, but on singletrack it’s not always easy to get out of the way without coming to a full stop on the side of the trail, and some of the racers didn’t want to stop to let a marathoner by. In these rare instances it was up to me to simply blaze a temporary trail to the left for a few questionable steps and then leap back onto the trail in front of the racer.
One such runner who I called two twice to let him know I was coming didn’t want to budge but also seemed a bit panicked to know someone had the audacity to pass him. Maybe he thought I was a fellow 50k racer and didn’t want to let me by, but regardless, in his haste to stay big on the trail he appeared to roll an ankle a bit and go stumbling to the side of the trail, offering me the perfect opportunity to leap on by. I yelled out, ‘I hope you’re ok! Careful!’ as words of encouragement and continued on my way. I’m sure his rolled ankle would not be the only casualty of the day.
Right around mile 7 the trail levels out and then begins to drop at a somewhat runnable grade. While I couldn’t really cruise on a number of the downhill portions of trail, this downhill was the exception. I felt like a Kamikaze freight train as I flew past 50k runners, and it was a true confidence booster knowing how good I felt navigating technical trail. Mile 8 was easily my fastest of the race at 5:43. It was all trail and all fun as I cruised down the well-marked trail jamming out to Griz, Lizzo, Mika, and Muse, to name a few. It was cold; It was beautiful; it was easy running.
Just past mile 8 the marathon and 50k course split off and I once again had the trail to myself. Having run all of the trails of the course throughout my training, I knew that the hard stuff was yet to come, so I tried to really enjoy the next two miles of gradual grades and groomed trails. The only creek crossing of the run was a cold one just before mile 9 and shortly after I saw my family fan club cheering me on as I ran along a road connector with a long straightaway.
It was at this straightaway that I took the opportunity to peak behind me for the last time. Crickets. I had a feeling that if I was able to run my race, I could possibly come away with the win, an intimidating thought, but also an exciting one. I took a mental step back, reminded myself there was a LOT of race left, and got back to work.
The 9 Mile Grit Test: Miles 10-18
For the marathon course, miles 10-18 are the true test of grit. It’s backcountry trail running at its finest, with isolated trail, grueling climbs, and technical descents – without doubt the hardest and most technical segment of the course. What made it perhaps more challenging for me was that it was a portion of trail that I had completely to myself – I didn’t see a soul, racers or otherwise, outside of an aid station around mile 13.5.
It’s a weird feeling, running a race completely solo, with only your watch GPS and the occasional race arrow to show you you’re on the right track. But it was also loads of fun.
What was not fun was that it was in this section that I had the first sharp pangs of calf and foot cramps, which normally set in much later and can potentially mean disaster for me. However, each time a cramp struck, I was able to relax the cramping muscle and get things under control. It seems like the cramps in this race were usually caused by stepping on an unseen root wrong (foot cramp) or while blazing up a steep incline faster than I should (calf cramp). Regardless, after this rather arduous section, I did not experience any cramps the rest of the race.
The final 8 Miles
The final 8 miles of the marathon course meet up with the 7 mile race that started 30 minutes after the marathon. As soon as the trail met back up, I once again began my courteous call-outs to runners ahead so I could pass by without totally disrupting their own flow.
But miles 18-22 were a bit rough, to be honest. The course once again returns to undulating terrain, and while it includes some pretty slippery rock sections near the bigger waterfalls, it’s not particularly technical.
The challenge was that I had already run 18 miles, and the last 8 of any marathon are unrelentingly brutal mentally, so in some ways it was nice to have the distraction of other racers on the course and try to recover a bit for the last 4 miles of the race, while also trying not to slip and crack my head open on a couple built-in stair-steps on the trail.
With 4 miles to go, tired legs and congested trails with both racers and tourists could not deter my determination to finish strong. There’s two short climbs left with 4 miles to go: the climb from the main falls up to the main parking lot, and a random final hill with .6 miles to go that has a little sign that reads, ‘Nutcracker Hill,’ clearly the race organizers idea of a cruel joke.
The climb from the main falls to the parking lot feels relatively surreal. I was exhausted as I ran up this steep climb at a snail’s pace, but while doing so there are loads of tourists walking up, down, and around the falls blissfully unaware of the painful journey unfolding before them among numerous runners at that very moment. Running past smiling kids, international tourists, and retirees with what at that point felt like lead-filled legs was strange to say the least, but I carried on and smiled as much as I could at passersby after 22 miles of running.
That final hill was the only part of the race that I had never done. I actually thought I was just going to run around the parking lot for the last half mile and was unprepared for this final punchy climb but, as with the last 25+ miles, bore down and struggled through it. Once over the top and safely down the treacherous descent though, I knew it was all over, and that I had the win solidly in place. I ran the final quarter mile in high spirits and could hear the announcer’s voice in the distance slowly gaining volume as I rounded the corner.
I have only one a few races in my short career as an endurance athlete. The Black Diamond Endurance Duathlon, the Bridge of the gods Half Marathon, and a few local 5k and 10k fun runs. This, though, was definitely my most satisfying win ever. The announcer called my name with gusto as the 1st place marathon finisher as I crossed the line, and a wave of relief, exhaustion, and gratitude flooded in.
I hadn’t been watching my total time at all, choosing instead to keep my watch setting on the map so that I could be sure not to miss a turn. As I came into the finish, though, the announcer said to the crowd that I was a little over a minute away from the Course Record. DAMN. The only thing that would have made the run a little sweeter would have been to run that last 5k a minute faster and become the new Course Record holder.
Regardless, it was a truly special victory. While my entire summer had been devoted to bike races, September and October were all about intentional trail-oriented training, and almost every weekend found me out at Silver Falls on my long run days, growing accustomed to the terrain.
One Endurance Athlete’s Manifesto
As an endurance athlete, I know that it doesn’t matter how well the training goes, race day is indifferent, apathetic, and unforgiving. Anything can happen day of, from something big like an injury or an illness the week prior, to something small like a GI issue day of, cramps, or a small injury that prevents you from doing your best.
Part of the joy of endurance sports is the journey. The hard work it takes to get out consistently and push your limits. The hard days where you finish a day of work and the last thing you want to do is go out for an intense run. But you do it anyway. The endless hill repeats, intervals, race-pace runs, cross-training, and nutrition choices that take dedication and mental toughness.
A lot of athletes rely on inspirational stories or people to motivate them to get out there and try something. That’s a great place to start but it’s not sustainable. For me, inspirational athletes help keep the fire burning, but I don’t rely on them as an endurance athlete, as that inspiration is unpredictable and often fleeting.
As a high school counselor, I can’t help but compare my high school students who mistake the short-term bonfire of infatuation for the long-term smolder of love. To be successful in these sports, fitness, nutrition, and training have to be part of a long-term mindset – a lifestyle. Inspiration can occasionally fuel the fire, but the fire should always be burning.
With that mindset firmly established, it makes it easier to accept when a race doesn’t go well. A poor race result was only meant to be the end of a chapter, not the end of a book. There’s always another chapter to enjoy as soon as you turn the page. However, when a race does go well, it makes for a real page-turner of a chapter for the endurance athlete.
And that’s why this race was so sweet for me. Was it perfect? By no means. I had some cramps that held me back at a few points; I got stuck behind a bull-headed 50k runner for a bit and lost out on 10s of seconds probably; and I didn’t have a perfect taper week (I neglected to mention that I decided to go on a backpacking trip the weekend before this race and had hip and quad soreness the entire week leading up to the marathon #badlifechoices).
However, things went about as smoothly as one could hope for and I came away with my first win at this length of race. It was a truly special feeling, was the perfect ending to my two month long chapter of training, and was all the fuel I needed and more to keep the fire burning.
For the next two months I’m going to focus on maintaining fitness and enjoying the outdoors, with no particular goals through December. However, 2020 includes some big plans.