BBSC Endurance Running is hosting their annual Las Vegas Turkey Trot at the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail near Hoover Dam on Thanksgiving Day. They’re hosting multiple distances from 5K to a half marathon for the trot.
I’m running the 12K this Thanksgiving Day along with my soon to be brother in law (an avid 1:35-ish half marathoner who will probably run a much faster time than I will). I’m still ramping back up to marathon training fitness ahead of starting training for the 2020 Vancouver Marathon, and this race for me is more of a look-see tune up race… plus a neat opportunity to run a trail race at a distance (12K, 7.46 miles) you don’t generally see.
I’ve recently traveled to Boulder City and run the Railroad Tunnel course to get acquainted. I’ll probably run it a few more times before race day.
There’s 12 unique strategic elements I’ve discovered to running this 12K, and don’t mind giving away to other runners of this year’s Turkey Trot. Whether or not you’re in the running for any race prizes, keeping these 12 elements in mind will at least help you enjoy this race to this fullest.
Plus, even if you’re not running the 12K, these may still help you some: The 12K course is part of the Half Marathon course. And I have some bonus advice for you as well!
1. There is no effective single race pace for this 12K.
Normally you train for a race with single race pace in mind, and that’s generally fine. However, the Las Vegas Turkey Trot and the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail present some unique challenges.
Not only is this a trail race, whose dirt terrain requires some pace adjustment, but the elevation’s stronger drop towards Hoover Dam and its subsequent rise coming back out of the Dam add enough of a challenge that trying to hold a single pace throughout is a recipe for trouble.
You can’t assume you can take it easy during the descent to the Dam, for course reasons I’ll get into in a bit. This portion actually will be a bit challenging.
And, of course, the climb back out from Hoover Dam will be rather challenging in itself. If you try to run something close to a typical 12K pace (which is a tick past most runners’ lactate thresholds), you will probably gas out before you finish that climb and return to the Tunnels.
Instead, your pacing and effort for this race should be strategically divided into segments where you aim for different paces and efforts. In some sections, maintaining a steady effort and pace will be more important than blasting through at the fastest time.
2. For a trail race, most of the surface terrain is fairly easy to run on.
The Trail’s dirt layer is not particularly thick or grainy. I’ve found it easy to run on for a trail surface, especially in the typically dry-dusty Las Vegas Valley. You can maintain a mostly normal running pace, though it’s just grainy enough that you shouldn’t expect to run it fast like a road race.
You still need to dial back a bit as you would in any trail race, and you definitely should wear good trail running shoes with suitable tread. But you can still go at a solid pace for a trail race… at least for some part of the race. Definitely at the start, through the tunnels, and definitely towards the finish.
3. Run closer to a moderate paced effort than a race pace effort in the 1st half.
You’ll see later why I pointedly recommend this. But in general it’s a good idea anyway to not go hard out of the gate in any race longer than 5K-10K.
In poker they have a saying, “You can’t win a poker tournament in the first hour, but you can definitely lose it there.” Well, even if you’re not running for the podium in this race, you may still be running for a personal record or some other satisfactory outcome.
And while you can’t clinch that PR or outcome in mile 1, you can definitely lose it in mile 1 by going too hard and gassing yourself out with 6+ miles to go.
For reasons I’ll get into, it’s especially important to take it easier than usual out of the chute and going into the first tunnels. No need to passively jog the early portion: A moderate, steady effort like you’d give in a brisk workout run is fine.
The good news on this front is your hand may be forced. Even though the start times for different distances is staggered, the half marathon starts five minutes before the 12K. You will encounter slower half marathon runners within the first 2-3 miles, which will require you to run and pass carefully. Especially because….
4. Two of the tunnels have shipping-container portal bottlenecks.
Structural issues closed Tunnel 3 for a while until this past March, when the Tunnel re-opened with extra wooden support… over a 30’ish long shipping-container tunnel at the east end that makes for a tight fit. There’s also a container portal in the next tunnel to the west that’s been there a while longer.
At most, two slim runners can fit side by side in one of these containers. More than likely, runners will need to form a single file line to run through these. If you’ve already encountered slower half marathon traffic, that traffic definitely will slow you down once you hit these portals.
The temptation as you reach the affected tunnels will be to surge hard past slower runners before you reach the container portals. Unless your effort to this point has been absurdly easy and you’re well rested/fueled, I strongly suggest easing up and allowing yourself to slow behind them as you pass through the portals before picking back up outside. The extra effort could be a problem in the later miles for reasons I will get into.
5. The elevation stays mostly level until right before the BLM office.
The Bureau of Land Management’s fenced off facilities juts right into the Trail’s path following the tunnels, about a couple miles into the race. Even if you don’t see the chain link fencing ahead, you’ll know you’re getting there as the terrain begins to slope more downward, descending towards the Hoover Dam.
To this point, the terrain will have been fairly even in elevation, with only subtle elevation changes. Maintaining a steady effort (aside from the tunnel bottlenecks) will have been fairly easy.
The temptation will be to roll with the downhill slope and speed up. Again, I’m going to advise you show some restraint and keep your effort controlled and steady. Sure, speed up a bit if it’s easy. But don’t fall into the temptation to “sprint” or “race” a bit more as you hit these. You not only need to climb these back up later, but there’s other factors at play that suggest you conserve your energy early.
6. East of the BLM, general traction gets more difficult.
As you turn past the BLM, you briefly end up on a paved driveway. Once you return to dirt, the terrain is substantially rockier and the traction isn’t what you felt earlier. Add to this that your route now slopes more downhill, plus the trail begins to twist and turn more than before, and you can easily end up in trouble if you’re running too fast.
One of the reasons I advocated a steady effort early is that the safest course of action at this point is to run a steady effort. Finding it now is a lot harder for a runner than just starting the race with a steady effort and adjusting it to to the effort you need to stay level on this terrain.
It gets a little better once you reach the sharp right turn at the loop junction, but not by much. Just keep steady, keep grinding, and be careful until you reach the lookout turnaround.
And if you thought that section was tough, it’s going to be even tougher going back.
7. The difficult terrain is tougher after the turnaround because of the uphill climb.
If you struggled with your footing on the descent into the turnaround, it’s going to be a huge pain in the butt dealing with it while *climbing* back out.
The steady effort going down was just to avoid slipping and getting hurt. Now your steady grind will be about maintaining what pace you can while grinding back up from where you came.
8. Only increase your effort enough to maintain a steady pace on the post-turnaround climb out of Hoover Dam.
It’s just going to feel tough all the way back to the BLM site, so just keep your effort steady and grind. The good news is this isn’t much more than about a mile. You can breathe a sigh of relief once you see the pavement near the BLM site, because from there footing gets a lot easier and stays that way for the balance of the race.
9. Once trail footing improves past the BLM office, you can pick up the pace.
You should only begin to “race” the course once you’ve cleared the BLM site and the trail levels out. Hopefully this point of the course feels a lot easier than the grind of climbing back out.
I wouldn’t worry so much about pace readings on your watch, or pushing yourself to feel X effort. Instead, start by moving your feet more quickly per minute than before. Take shorter steps to start if you must. But starting with a faster “steady” pace allows you to see how much more gas you can give in the final 2.5 miles.
Also, this makes handling the following easier on you:
10. Remember the tunnel bottlenecks. There’s more slow runners coming back.
You not only are going to run into more of those slower half marathoners, but will also run into foolhardy 12K runners who went hard at the start and are now running out of gas about 2 miles too early. It’s far more likely you will end up behind a few of these as you return to the container portals.
This time around, I will leave it to your discretion and how you feel as to whether or not you strategically surge past these runners pre-portal. I’d say keep steady and let your relative paces be your guide whether to surge past them or to ease up and take the portal slow behind them.
Just bear in mind that either way you probably will encounter a slow runner or 2-3 in one of the portals. You might have to slow for an unscheduled breather. If it comes, just take it and be cool. The struggling runners might be doing you an inadvertent favor, allowing your bloodstream to recharge for a moment ahead of the final section.
11. Once clear of the last tunnel, surge into a 10K level effort.
Hopefully, you remember how many tunnels you ran through, and know when you’ve exited the last one. If in doubt… if you pass an aid station after the BLM site, you are clear. And you have a little over two miles to go.
Now, with the relatively level elevation and relatively easy dirt terrain, you can surge into a race pace and finish strong. The best sustainable effort for a stretch like this, in light of what you’ve run to this point and what you have left, is about 10K pace or effort.
If you have it in you to go 10K-hard from now to the finish, you’re definitely going to negative split. After all the obstacles, grinding and climbing, you are finally free to get after it and race, without unduly damaging your performance. Go for it.
Pass slower runners with care. You’re going to see a lot of them, especially in the final mile because the slowest of the 5K runners (well, walkers, more like) may still be finishing. But you should have plenty of space now to safely get around them.
12. If you live in the Las Vegas Valley, I strongly recommend visiting the Trail and running some of it before the race.
If this race is one of the first times you’ve visited the Six Tunnels, it’s a very good idea on a day off to go down there and run a few miles on at least part of the race route.
My description can only do the course so much justice, plus a lot of what I told you is a direct production of having driven down to Boulder City and run on the Trail myself. Experiencing it for yourself can effectively give you some helpful advice that I never could.
A lot of avid Vegas trail runners have probably run the Railroad Trail many times over. I’d still recommend coming down and practicing a couple times. Along with seeing the layout of the recently added container portals, getting a feel for current, subtle differences in the terrain can only help you on race day.
My advice: If you don’t already have a National Park pass to access the Lake Mead Recreation Area (which I believe is required for parking at the Lake Mead Visitor Center trailhead) and don’t plan to get one… drive to the nearby Hoover Dam Lodge and park in the dirt overflow lot east of the venue, nearest to the Hoover Dam. It’s free to park there, the Lodge is okay with trail users parking there (in fact, BBSC recommends Trot racers park there), and the trailhead there leads down to the Railroad Trail.
Be warned that, while it’s only about half a mile down to the main trail, the terrain is more difficult than what I described, plus the descent is somewhat steeper. Be careful going down, and realize it’ll be rather tough climbing back up at the end of your run.
13 BONUS. Go visit The Coffee Cup in Boulder City before or after your training run.
I don’t know if one of the most famous cafes in this region will be open on Thanksgiving Day (if you really want to try them on Thanksgiving, I’d call ahead and confirm they’ll be open on Thanksgiving).
But if you take my recommendation and go for a morning workout to scout the Railroad Trail, and you have few to no dietary restrictions… this world famous breakfast spot on the Nevada Highway in the heart of Boulder City is still to this day an excellent place to get coffee and breakfast.
If you like country fried steak, theirs is pretty good. They’re really into biscuits and omelettes. Street parking is free, plentiful, and limited to 3 hours (which should be plenty of time).
Also, make sure to strictly follow the slower speed limits when you drive into Boulder City. Their cops will ticket anyone who’s going just a tick too fast.
13.1 BONUS. If you’re running the Half Marathon and want to practice the route, you can park at the Pacifica Trail Head a few miles west.
The Half Marathon route continues west of the Lake Mead Visitor Center (the site of the 12K finish line) along the trail before turning around.
You can practice this portion of the route by parking at the Pacifica Trail Head off US 93 and Pacifica in Boulder City. You’d have to run about half a mile from there to get to the Half Marathon turnaround point and reach the actual route of the course, but there’s no real climb to get back from there like at Hoover Dam Lodge.
This added portion of the Trail is not as scenic or shaded, and you’d have a lot more running to do before reaching the tunnels. But it’s a good opportunity to practice your race course if desired.