This was a deceptively difficult trail marathon made much tougher by the summer conditions that morning in Indianapolis, IN.
Underestimating This Trail Marathon
Two months had passed since my last marathon ( 2019 Whitefish Point Marathon in Paradise, MI ) so by the time early August 2019 rolled around I was feeling well recovered physically and ready to tackle the next one. Having run a 50K trail race in February ( Savage Seven Ultra 50K Marathon in Ocala, FL ) and another trail marathon the year before ( The 2018 New South Trail Marathon in Charlotte, North Carolina ), I was excited to get back in the woods for another race.
I live in the mountains of Virginia and frequent Shenandoah National Park and the Appalachian trail with my family. We are used to steep trail ascents and descents hiking up and over the Appalachian mountains. With the Eagle Creek Trail Marathon being held in the Indianapolis area, I was anticipating mostly flat, well-maintained trails for the 26.2 miles. However I would be in for a challenging surprise.
The course would wrap around the perimeter of Eagle Creek Park running from the west side of the Eagle Creek Reservoir over to the east side, looping around a small lake, and then heading back to the starting point. One lap would be a half-marathon distance, so that meant the marathoners would be looking at two laps. As for terrain it would be mostly dirt trail in the woods, with the lap portion around the lake taking place on a gravel road. Only a mile or so of each lap would be on paved surface where runners would cross over the reservoir via a 56th street bridge.
Spending Time in the Indianapolis Area
We made the drive to Indianapolis in one day (roughly 8 hours of road time from Winchester, VA) giving us two days to explore the area around the city. We chose to spend our first day at the Connor Prairie Museum…which is more of an interactive experience. The museum recreates 19th-century life along the White River via balloon rides, animal encounters, Civil War re-enactments, and a “Prairietown” community based on life in 1836. Prairietown was really fascinating as you were able to interact with locals there playing roles from that time period, visit and explore houses from the past, and see tradesmen at work (the blacksmith was awesome).
Being in Indianapolis which everyone knows is associated with the Indianapolis 500 motor race, we felt obligated to stop by the world-famous speedway there. I was shocked at how huge the race track is…2.5 miles long and able to hold 235,000 spectators! Some race cars happened to be doing practice runs at the track when we were there, so hearing how loud those cars are zipping around the oval was worth the visit.
We spent the rest of our time there at Eagle Creek Park checking out the nature exhibits and exploring the reservoir area on a paddle boat. It was beautiful weather and I hoped for it to be that nice the next day when I would return to the same area for the trail marathon. We even saw a bald eagle flying over the water while there (the first one I have ever seen in the wild). I did catch a glimpse of a portion of the trail while I was there (a flat, easy portion) and thought the marathon would be a piece of cake in terms of completion. Wrong!
Race Day Morning
The AirBnB we stayed in while there was a 2 bedroom / 2 bathroom apartment which served us perfectly. With a race start time of 7:30 a.m., that meant a 4:30 a.m. wake up call, so I was able to get up and spend time in the kitchen / living room area without waking up the family. With the race start being a little too far to walk to (3 miles), I had breakfast, got ready, and then caught an Uber over to the Eagle’s Crest area of Eagle Creek Park where the marathon would begin. My Uber driver was a very nice gentleman from Guatemala and he dropped me off only a few hundred yards from the starting line.
It was a really nice morning in the mid-upper 60s and there were already plenty of runners mulling around the starting area with 40 minutes to go to race time. I got in the line to use one of the nearby port-o-pots (while the lines were short), and then began my warm-up running routine. Time ticked by as I waited for the call to the starting line to be announced. As the marathon runners gathered for a 7:30 a.m. start, the race announcer said this race is known for a high attrition rate. That meant that many runners would finish their first lap and choose to end at the half-marathon distance, rather than go back out for a second loop on the trail.
After giving the go-ahead, the race began and we all crossed through a flat grass field onto another grassy area that had very bumpy terrain, which was a “nice” way of signaling we were in for trail running fun for the next several hours.
Race Recap – The First Loop
After the first half mile we left the grassy area and turned onto the actual Eagle Creek Trail. It was marked with florescent streamers and arrow signage to show you the correct way to go. However just a mile into the race, the sun hit me in the eyes and I blindly followed the runner in front of me making a wrong turn at a fork in the trail. Luckily a runner behind us called out to get our attention, and we made a correction to get back on the trail.
The trail was fairly narrow but made of well packed dirt, and with no rain for the past few days, the traction and footing was good. However every few minutes it seemed like there was a tree down across the trail in which you either had to jump over, or for several of the larger ones, stop and actually step over one leg at a time. Through these first few miles of getting into the swing of trail running, a runner behind me started making conversation. His name was Jeff and he was from Indiana roughly 2 hours away. We talked about quite a bit to pass the time…from family, marathons we had run, and how he was going to have to drive home immediately after the race to make an event.
The trail took us continually up and down hills, some of which had wooden crafted steps to get up them, and some of them did not. Since I was running this marathon for fun, I promised myself to fast walk up the hills to conserve energy. Every couple of miles another aid station would pop up, to which I passed through since I was carrying my own hydration and fuel. Jeff and I continued to be running around the same pace as one another. He would pass me and take the lead…then I would pass him when he stopped at an aid station…and this continued for pretty much the entire first lap of the trail. The only reprieve from going up and down the hills were in the one mile stretch of paved road around mile 5, and the two mile section of flat, gravel road that circled the creek reservoir.
As Jeff and I returned towards the beginning of the race we started passing a lot of the half-marathoners who had started later on. Some parts of the trail were quite narrow where you had to navigate carefully to either pass a runner or let one by. We arrived at the start / finish line of the race where we completed loop 1 and turned around to start loop 2. Jeff stopped to grab a fresh shirt out of his drop bag. While he was doing that I tried to grab a cup of water off the aid table and spilled it all over his bag. Boy did I feel like an idiot…and I apologized several times.
Race Recap – The Second Loop
I had finished the first loop around the 2:20:34 mark which was way better than I had anticipated. This gave me hope that I would be able to crush my first and only trail marathon time of 5:32:28. I had been talking to Jeff about a small marathon / 50K series I had run in Florida where many notable marathoners had participated…when all of a sudden coming from the opposite direction on the trail was one of those very same runners (Jun Alama)! We recognized each other as we approached and gave one another a high five in passing. It is definitely a small world sometimes.
Around this time I was beginning notice the heat and humidity were starting to increase. As we came to the flat paved road portion again on the second loop, we were running in direct sunlight and heat was definitely on. Jeff made his way on ahead, and that would be the last I would see of him on this second loop. I found my energy level dropping slightly so started to really slow down the pace, even walking a good bit after every 10 minutes or so.
Even though I had filled my hydration vest bladder up 3/4 full before the race, I was starting to worry if I would have enough liquid to finish. Now I began to highly anticipate those aid stations that I had ignored the first loop. Each time I came to one I grabbed a cup of gatorade and water…drinking the gatorade and dousing the water on top of my head. I was also beginning feel slightly nauseated by my energy gels (which has never happened before)…so I also grabbed some trail mix at each aid station as well to keep my energy level from going to empty.
Coming into mile 18 which brought me to the two mile stretch of gravel road, the heat was really hitting me hard now. This portion of the trail was in direct sunlight, and I had slowed to a walk / slow run shuffle for this portion. I could have picked the pace up a bit, but I was concerned with overheating. I wanted to finish this race and didn’t want to risk fainting and DNF’ing…which I refuse to ever do! Plus I didn’t want to have to plan another trip back out to Indiana for a second try at a marathon in this state.
So for the last 6 miles my pace slowed a little each time…running very easy when I could, and briskly walking when I felt like I might overheat or be pushing it too hard. By mile 24 I had gone all the way down to a 16 minute / mile hiking pace and my hydration bladder was now empty. With two miles to go it was quite humid, but I knew I was going to finish. So I trudged along on the trail at a walking pace close to an 18 minute / mile pace. Coming out of the woods off the trail onto the stretch of rough grassy road, I was on the home stretch. Christie and the girls were going to be waiting for me right around the corner…so I turned my walk into a very slow run to finish the race. Corinne and Caitlin were ringing the cowbell and Christie was taking video as I passed by them to finish the race with a time of 5:38:46.
Post Race Reflections and Lessons Learned
I definitely underestimated this trail marathon. While the course itself was no harder than the trail marathon I had run in 2018, I was not anticipating the heat and humidity to affect me as much as it did. As it turns out I was not the only one to have a tough time with the trail, as I finished 35th out of 66 runners. Come to find out 136 people signed up for the marathon…88 actually started it (meaning most switched over to the half-marathon distance prior to the start)…and only 66 actually finished. Despite my slow time, it made me proud that I completed the race under tough conditions and played it smart to ensure a finish to add another state to my list.
Jeff had actually finished with a great time of 5:12:33…and even waited for me to finish to congratulate me (despite him needing to get on the road). I really appreciated that gesture from one runner to another. Hopefully our paths will cross again at a future marathon!
Official Race Results
Overall: 35 out of 66
Male 30-39: 6 out of 14
Photos from Race Day
This race is part of Aaron’s 50 Marathons in 50 States Challenge:
Click on a state to see a recap of that marathon.