Why a Downhill Marathon Might be on Your Bucket Run-List
I impulsively click the ‘Register’ button all too often. Usually when social media FOMO hits or when I’m having a few too many beers with running friends and the conversation turns into opening our phones to Ultra Signup. To be honest I haphazardly find myself signing up and racing numerous half-marathons, 10k’s, mountains runs, even ultra-distance trail runs throughout the year, really anything I can sign up for and cram into my running calendar. However, marathons I’m weary of, even after a few groggy beverages.
Finding myself on 26.2-mile start line has always been the result of winning a lottery and subsequently getting into a ‘big prestigious race’ or a cold-calculated training cycle goal where I try my best like everyone else to stay uninjured. I am a sucker for punishment though so when I had the opportunity this year to add a second marathon to my race calendar and run the Tunnel Vision Marathon, I thought differently about it than I usually would a monontenous road race as this event looked to combine my personal love of long distance, trails and speed into one race.
I had seen the “I BQ’d and I PR’d” signs on my social media feed from previous Tunnel Marathon runners excited about their results as well as have had friends crush PB’s (that’s “Personal Best’s” not sandwiches) and gloat about their Strava results. Not to mention its downhill right? So, it’s got to be fast if my quads are ready and rested! I knew even though my marathon specific training at the time was dismal at best, I might as well give it a go…
Sometime between registering for the Tunnel Marathon event and race day my good friend and often weekend trail companion told me he’s running the Fatdog 120-Miler. For those of you who haven’t heard of this race, just google it and you’ll understand what insanity my friend was getting himself into. There’s a mention about the elevation of Everest on the first page of the website if you want the crash course to why it’s a beast of a race. The conversation slowly grew to him asking “can you pace me” and as the obligatory response came out of my mouth… I obviously just signed myself up, though unknowingly, to run for over 40 miles and 10,000+ vertical feet of mountainous terrain… one week before my next marathon.
I paced my friend through the night the week before I was supposed to be tapering for the unchartered territory of my downhill trail race. It took us 14 hours to complete that section of the course and my ‘taper run’ was complete. For the record, I knew going into my friend’s race that running an ultra-marathon just 7 days preceding my upcoming marathon goal race was probably not what any coach would recommend, but I didn’t have one, so I answered to nobody but myself! Besides, who could let a trail friend down in a time of need? Not a fellow runner that’s for sure.
The morning of the Tunnel Vision Marathon I was still sore, tired and not my usual start line fresh that I’ve felt before. Not to mention my marathon training was non-existent, but I had a good base of other fitness, so my confidence was still intact and chin held high. I like to believe everyone has a goal going into every race, whether it’s just finishing before cut-off to a specific time goal like qualifying for Boston or getting a PB. Mine was actually a bit of both of the latter. And despite my overzealous taper week I went for the gusto on race day.
Out of the start gate, some 2000 vertical feet above the finish line and 26 miles away, you find the “tunnel” part of the Tunnel Marathons course. Headlamp on, this section is almost mostly flat on packed gravel trail as you head straight for the first few miles. You’re running in the dark with just a couple feet of visibility and a sensory overload of other runners head torches bobbing up and down with yours, it’s a one of the kind feeling that really got my blood pumping as we plowed through the wet cavernous tunnel.
Without spoiling the whole course, if you haven’t ever ran the next 20 or so miles of only mildly downhill terrain, you twist and turn over bridges, over single & double track paths, through 5 or so well supported aid stations. But I noticed one thing, you barely notice the downhill! How could this be I thought? Well on road the pavement and concrete give you a bounce or ‘return’ of energy and kick you forward, not so much on a trail race, duh! So, any critics thinking this was exponentially easier than a fast & flat road race have got it wrong. The usual marathon struggle was still the same.
I paced myself through the first half only 1 and a half minutes behind my 2:59:59 goal of Boston qualifying, not bad considering my lack of freshness I thought to myself. The next half proved to be much harder for me, the course swept me downhill gently but my muscles didn’t want to go… by the time I crossed the finish line even with a hard kick at the end passing 2 runners in the final minutes I had lost some time and missed the BQ. Not all was lost though, my time of 3:06:49 (good enough for #66th OA and the third page of the results I should add) was still a 3-minute PB for me over my last marathon (I actually had trained & tapered for) back in May of 2019 this year. Hooray! I scraped out a positive result over a perfect course and not having felt the deep lows of some past marathon roads races. Success and happiness hit my face as I crossed the finish line unphased by my own lateness.
My experience was so positive at this event and on this course I reccoemnd a downhill marathon at least once once, even if it’s not your goal race, better still if it is. You may just find yourself transitioning to trails, training your quads or pushing a new VO2 Max while setting goals for yourself that might have been previously out of reach. This was my first crack at Boston by the way, and all-in-all I didn’t miss it by much the way I see it. I’ll be back next year to these trails, next time with a little more rest in the legs and hopefully completing the goal I only half finished this year.
Michael Prince - RunGuides Media Content Manager, ultra runner & frequent traveller