September 29th was the USATF certified Cascade Express Marathon on the famed Iron Horse Trail and train tunnel in the Snoqualmie region just outside of Seattle as part of the Cascade Super Series. There are a handful of races that also use this trail throughout the year such at Tunnel Light, Light at the end of the tunnel, super tunnel and Jack and Jill to name a few. The race is a wide packed gravel trail that used to be a train route. It starts with a mostly flat 5 mile out and back along Keechelus Lake before heading into the 2.5 mile pitch black train tunnel that runs through the mountain. Upon exiting the tunnel, it’s a nice 2% grade downhill to the finish at Cedar Falls Trail head near Rattlesnake Lake for a total of 1500′ of loss and ~23′ of gain.
A few course notes:
- It’s a super beautiful course with long stretches of isolation and some beautiful sweeping PNW views.
- It’s “smooth packed gravel” but depending on your shoes, you could be feeling every rock.
- the 2.5 mile pitch black train tunnel is something to experience, and after a mile I was ready to get out lol.
- After the tunnel it is a gradual downhill to the finish, though I most of the time didn’t feel like I was going downhill, it did feel like a nice tailwind for most of it aside from the blustery half way point.
My essential gear:
- Spring Energy Cannaberry Gels every 30 mins, starting 15 mins before race
- Water from every aid station until mile 13
- Gu Roctane drink from aid stations after half way point
Goal time: 3:00:00
Official Time: 2:57:23 |5th OA, 4th AG | Strava Link
For this marathon I had switched from Hal Higdon advanced that I used for Vancouver BMO Marathon back in May, to a Hansons Advanced plan. This made me a little nervous as my longest runs never went over 18 miles, but I did put in around 766 miles in 15 weeks time, and peaked a few times at 70 MPW, so it was time to trust the plan! One of the other bigger changes I made from BMO was that I stuck to a strict carb loading schedule the days leading up to the race, and eating schedule the morning of broken down by the hour, starting 4 hours before race time. Also, I made sure to stick to the nutrition plan during the race, no matter how crappy my stomach was feeling, using Spring Energy and adding the course’s Gu Roctane drink after the half way point.
I did a quick 1.5 mile out and back to warm up and got super excited. I was pumped and the legs felt surprisingly primed for the day. I wore my hoodie while warming up, but the forecast showed it warming up quick, so I knew the cold wouldn’t last.
The beginning of the race starts you out heading south along Keechelus Lake for a 5 mile out and back. I opted to wear my sunglasses to start as I saw the sun starting to peek even though I knew after the turn around the sun would be at my back until the finish. I was glad I did because it was bright!
I started out waaay too fast and was leading, but started regulating pace about half a mile in. Slowly two guys started passing me, one including the guy who won. Because of his pace I figured he was either crazy, or former pro status, which he was (Rich Hanna!) I was super pumped heading back through the start line and got to pass Melody and Aspen for a high five. I started chatting with a guy, Andrew, who has on my heels for most of the out and back. we chatted about his previous experience in the tunnel as we approached and about our goals for sub-3 times. He was super motivating and got me even more pumped!
Heading into the tunnel, you’re handed a tiny flashlight, which honestly doesn’t do much given how deep and dark the tunnel is. I let Andrew take the lead and kept my light and focus on his reflective heels. The tunnel is much taller than I expected, and much more disorienting than I thought it would be. The race has cones with motion sensored lights strapped to them, however they only turned on when you passed them, and they were shining back behind, so they didn’t help much to see ahead of us. The ground was hard chiseled rock with the occasional ice cold puddle. Other than that, I just wanted to get the heck out of there as fast as possible. Because of the lack of GPS under the mountain in the tunnel, I lapped my Garmin at the mile markers inside, and a few times after until it got back on track. It seemed to do the trick.
After the half way point, I started trying to pick up the pace as much as I could, through heading into the Garcia aid station, the wind really started to pick up. I was a little worried that it wasn’t going to die down, but fortunately it eventually did. I got passed by the eventual 4th place winner at the half way point, he obviously had been holding back and seemed to come out of nowhere. For these miles I just focused on maintaining pace, and keeping close to my new friend Andrew, until I passed him around 18 for 5th place. Some stretches were super isolated and forested, isolated with sweeping views of mountains and I-90, and others were next to popular climbing walls with lots of people out climbing.
At this point I was feeling surprisingly great, but I also was nervous about hitting the wall and dropping pace. SO i turned on my Garmin’s metronome to my race SPM and just focused all my energy onto not dropping it. In some of the more painful moments I took a play out of Kipchoge’s book. I focused on smiling, and thinking of the kids and how funny they can be, and how thankful I was to to be able to train and run. It definitely helped me shift my focus. However, at mile 24, my pace suddenly dropped into the 7s and I started to panic. I could feel the wall coming, AGH! I told myself to not drop below 7:15 pace and was just doing my best to hold on.
Coming into the last half mile, I saw local RD/photog Jerry Gamez with camera in hand who knew I was trying for sub-3, and I honestly was cruising at that point, as I knew I had it in the bag. But he started screaming at me, telling me I wasn’t going to make it haha. My brain was pretty fried at that point, and he lit a fire under my ass for sure. I blazed down the final turns at a 6:11 pace through the finish chute to finish at 2:57:22. WOOO!
So thankful for my wife Melody and my kids for their unconditional support and love, my folks for watching our kids, the amazing volunteers, and Sabrina Seher (Super series RD) for putting on an amazing race!