Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon Course Report
Note: there are three marathons held on this course as of 2019: Light at the End of the Tunnel, Tunnel Lite, and Tunnel Vision.
Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon: MIND THE SPEED LIMIT AND LOCK YOUR CAGE.
Course Map: http://www.tunnelmarathon.com/course.html
A Note on Downhill Courses
I DNF'd on this course in July 2016. I passed the 7-mile marker around the 53-minute mark and knew I was screwed. Why? My best possible outcome (not the most likely outcome, the best one where all the stars align God smiles down on me and angels sing me to the finish) based on my training at the time was 3:38. No way I was going to accidentally run a 3:10 race that day. That just doesn’t happen.
This, too could be your story if you aren’t careful. Let me remind you why.
This course is a renovated railroad track. Three of the 5 races held here each year are named after the two-mile tunnel you will run through from miles 2-4. You will not have GPS capability in the tunnel. To be honest, GPS may be spotty for a lot of the race due to all those trees. (Mine was never consistent and the weather was perfect.)
I really, really hope you used the hilly races pdf for your training, even if you aren’t gunning for a huge PR. Those can happen at downhill races but are far from guaranteed. These races with fast reputations are full of nervous hopefuls, and since this race is in a small town you’ll probably interact with these people nonstop in the days and hours leading up to the race.
Your veins and brain will be drowned with adrenaline and excitement, your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous response systems will be out of sync, you will be amidst a bunch of people who are going to go out WAY too fast and you won’t have GPS pace guidance (or if you do, ‘current pace’ will likely be less accurate moment-to-moment than you are used to).
Never assume anyone who comes near you knows this course better than you do or has a better strategy. Don’t trust the pacers. Write your speed and effort limits on your arm, but you will probably rely on the speed limits more carefully.
Lock your cage, sit into the downhill, watch your effort levels, REALLY tune into your footfalls and your breathing. Don’t waste a ton of time and energy ‘braking’ (that means ‘stomping into your heels hard to slow down’) just check in with your legs once in awhile, make sure things are under control and slow your turnover when necessary without screaming to a halt. Squeezing your glutes, locking your cage and rolling your shoulders is a terrific way to do it.
Issaquah is likely where you will be staying. Do not count on Ubers. Do not count on food delivery. You are beyond suburban out here. It is a lovely place, just remember that this is smaller than you’d expect for a town hosting a race this popular.
For the Tunnel Race Series, there is no race expo, you will pick up your bib at the start parking lot of Twin Falls Middle School then take buses to the start, which is in the gravel parking lot of a state park so there’s nowhere to sit and no cover. SHOW UP TO THE BUSES EARLY AND BE PREPARED TO SIT.
(Note for Jack and Jill ONLY: If you’re not local, seriously consider renting a car or get aggressive about making friends so you can get to the expo as there is no bib pickup on race day. Bring a non-running friend who can take you to the start at the last minute and drive it to the finish line.)
This course is also incredibly spectator-friendly. Have your driver use this map to follow you: http://www.brianpen.com/marathons/Tunnel/TunnelMarathonCourseAccess.pdf Large parts of the course will be open to bikers, just not from the start.
One note: in previous years, I have heard that the porta potties were either nonexistent or locked for the Tunnel series (not the Jack and Jill series, which is odd since the event company that manages that race is not local). Bring TP and be prepared to potentially poop in the woods.
Wear bug spray. Just trust me.
This is THE most beautiful race I’ve ever seen. Let’s start there. 5 trestle bridges provide incredible, incredible views. If you’re not gunning for a massive PR, do yourself a favor and take selfies on those bridges.
Miles 1-3.2 are flat gravel through a dark tunnel. From the website: “The last 23 miles of the course are all downhill at a fast 80'/mile gradient except for one little 50-yard hill at about mile 8.5 and a few short flat sections. Both the John Wayne Pioneer and Snoqualmie Valley trails are old railway grades surfaced with hard-packed gravel and wide enough for a car to pass. The surface is generally smooth but there are sections with small rocks so you'll want to watch your footing. As trail runs go, it's non-technical. Most runners will be comfortable running in road shoes but perhaps not in FiveFingers. The race director would run it in lightweight trainers if he wasn't otherwise occupied on race day. You might find gaitors helpful.”
BTW, this course is gravel. First large gravel then crushed gravel. Check your shoes. Consider light gaiters (I like Dirty Girl). Though the course is shaded in the beginning, the final 8 miles are less so, and warmer, so sunscreen is a great idea.
Miles 1-6: The Tunnel
The weather at the start will be cold and damp. You will likely want to dress for the weather at the finish, which at 2000 ft lower will be much warmer. Expect to be full hot by mile 13. Dress for the end of the race, have a thrift store robe to stay warm at the start, and I recommend gloves. If your extremities are covered you will feel warmer for longer.
Logistics note: you will want a headlamp or knuckle lights. The light at the end of that tunnel isn’t helpful, and it’s a small race so you won’t be able to rely on the light from the folks around you. The pack thins out quickly, and everyone goes through the tunnel way too darned fast. SLOW. YOUR. ROLL. As you exit the tunnel, volunteers will be waiting with boxes, you may toss your headlamps and gloves and retrieve at the finish line. (I LOVE that they do this! I’ve only seen it at one other race, ever. That race is Rim Rock in Fruita, CO).
Do NOT NOT NOT worry about the time you’re gonna lose in the tunnel. Don’t do it, don’t do it. You will be ‘behind’, and that’s PERFECT. Remember, we always want our initial miles to be our slowest miles. You will get it all back later.
From the website: “The first three miles are flat, cold, foggy and damp inside an unlit tunnel. Once out of the Tunnel the gravel trail starts down the hill and keeps on going down, 2050 feet in the next 23 miles. It's never steep enough to be uncomfortable; you just feel like you're having a good day.”
Let me translate that for you: you will have no GPS and no idea how fast you’re going, and just about everyone will be going too fast and you will be all, “THIS DOESN”T FEEL DOWNHILL WTF”. If you feel like you are working BACK. OFF. You probably are. Once you’re out of the tunnel the gravel changes and the downhill is noticeable but subtle. It will feel flat. Around mile 6 you will feel your first major downslope and will catch yourself either speeding up or braking too much to slow down. When you feel this happening, lock your cage and don’t fight it. Use the gravity to your advantage, it should feel effortless but not screaming fast.
Screaming fast will go from ‘good’ to “GOOD LORD” way too quickly.
Miles 7-26.2: The Downhills
From the website: “The next 13 miles run parallel to and a little above I-90 along the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, passing through a snowshed and over four high trestle bridges before diverging from I-90 and traversing mostly forested slopes for 5 more miles to the Iron Horse State Park trailhead at Rattlesnake Lake. At Rattlesnake Lake the course continues on the Snoqualmie Valley trail past a few houses and through leafy second-growth forest before returning to civilization for the last half mile or so. The race finishes at a gravel parking area along North Bend Way 2.4 miles SE of downtown North Bend.
My translation: it’s all downhill that feels flat, alternating with short, quarter-to-half-mile sections of steeper downhill all the way to the finish. Make good choices, don’t get greedy and you will have one hell of a race.
Spectators will be smattered through the course, miles 13.3, 16.4, 21-22, and then the finish area. If you need to break the course up mentally, just tell yourself to hang on until the next set of spectators. They will give you a boost.
Don’t get excited to run tangents. The back portion of the course is not closed and there may well be bikers and hikers.
Did I mention that it will be hot at the finish? Because it will.