Return to Savage Gulf



Six hours and twenty miles into the March 2017 Savage Gulf Marathon, it occurred to me that I might be lost.

Hot, dehydrated, cramping in both legs, on the edge of disorientation, I stopped on the sun-drenched, dry, rocky trail. Looking around, I saw no one, heard nothing but running water and rustling leaves. Had I missed a turn?

Working to control my breath and my emotions, I tried to calmly consider my options. In that moment, I realized that even if I wasn’t lost, I was still six miles and an unknown amount of time from the finish of this infamous race.

The Savage Gulf Marathon calls itself “26.2 miles of the most brutal, unforgiving, rocky, steep terrain you could imagine” (emphasis theirs). Its site, Savage Gulf State Park, is on Tennessee’s rugged Cumberland Plateau, where eons of erosion have created vast gorges, plunging waterfalls, and steep rocky cliffs.

These conditions make Savage Gulf a totally different experience than your basic road marathon. The winner of the 2017 Nashville Marathon finished in two hours and forty minutes. The fastest finish in the Savage Gulf race in its six years: 4:05.

As it turned out, I wasn't lost, and I managed to finish in spite of massive leg cramps, in seven and a half hours. So of course, I've decided that the intelligent thing to do is to go back for another try. On March 16, I plan to tackle it again.

Two years ago, after I finished, I sat eating cold pasta and drinking water, the special catered BBQ long gone, the winners having already been announced, the crowd rapidly thinning. I struggled with my feelings. I felt disappointment about cramping; at the same time, I felt true satisfaction at having merely finished. (Ten others, I would later learn, did not.)

This time, my main emotion is gratitude for the opportunity to test myself once more against the Savage Gulf course, to see what I could do, to explore my limits out there where it’s steep and rocky and hard. If you see me around in the next two weeks, feel free to wish me good luck.