Timberline Marathon: Try This Muddy 26.2-Mile Trail Race

Looking for a trail race to go the distance?

If you're in the mood for a little mud, rain and fun, try the Timberline Marathon at Timothy Lake in Oregon.

Runner Evan Jensen got his first view of Timothy Lake about 34 years ago on a summer camping trip. 

  • It was supposed to be warm and sunny.
  • The plans included three carefree days of fishing, swimming, canoeing and camping.
  • But that's not exactly what happened.
  • It rained for 3 whole days and nights with thunder and lightning and torrential downpours

And you know what happened?

Ever since then the words "Timothy Lake" have been a trigger for feeling cold, wet, muddy and miserable.

Sounds like fun, right?

More than three decades later, Evan showed up to run the Timberline Marathon at Timothy Lake., and it lived up to its reputation.

Here's what happened...

Two weeks before the Timberline Marathon at Timothy Lake in Oregon, runner Evan Jensen found the course covered in snow and 30 downed trees.

Two weeks out...

If you're thinking about running a trail race, marathon or ultra, it's a good idea to run on trails.

Treadmill, concrete and paved trail miles might be convenient, but running on trails is a different experience.

  • There's rocks, roots and mud. 
  • Maybe rain, snow and slick conditions.
  • The terrain is more technical than a neighborhood run
  • Your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and hips are gonna have to work harder on trails
  • Chances are pretty good you'll have more elevation with hills and descents to deal with

So I decided to run the Timberline Marathon route at Timothy Lake.

It's about a 13-mile loop around the lake with a short leg down and back to the historic Clackamas Ranger Station.

The trail borders Timothy Lake, and along the way you'll see:

Two weeks out: Here's what I found on the trail...

🌲 30 downed trees

❄Lots of sections with snow

I asked a friend who works for the U.S. Forest Service about this and she said: "We worked a ton to get the campgrounds ready for Memorial Day. But our crew isn't planning to clear the trail on the southside of the lake."

  • What's race day gonna look like in two weeks?
Timberline Marathon Race Director Chuck Neely confirmed the trail was clear, marked for the race and ready for runners.

The pre-race plan

A couple days before the Timberline Marathon, race director Chuck Neely confirmed the course was cleared, marked for the race and ready to run.

I was doubtful. So I had to confirm this.

With that minor detail out of the way, here's how my pre-race planning went...

  • Hydration: Drink 64+ ounces of water on Friday
  • Eat: Carb-happy foods for breakfast and lunch + a loaded burrito for dinner
  • Pack: My Nathan VaporAir hydration pack with (Sports drink, Huma gels, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups,  and peanut-butter pretzels)
  • Dress for the weather: The forecast showed more rain. So I went with a rain jacket, Topo Mtn Racer 2 trail shoes, compression sleeves (mainly to keep the mud away), water-resistant hat, and a short-sleeve and long-sleeve layer.

Pre-race jitters? Not here.

I've ran the Timberline Marathon multiple times over a 10-year period.

  • 2014: 4:22
  • 2015: 4:01
  • 2016: 3:41
  • 2017: 4:03
  • 2019: 3:50

It's also part of the Mountain Lakes 100 course hosted by Go Beyond Racing in late September.

Evan Jensen ran the 26.2-mile Timberline Marathon around Timothy Lake. His 16-year-old son Davis Jensen ran the half marathon.

Race morning countdown

This race hosts a 26.2-mile trail marathon and a 14.4-mile half marathon on Saturday.

It's so popular, there's even a second half marathon on Sunday.

Here's how the countdown to go-time went...

  • Wake up: About 6 a.m. to drive to Timothy Lake and race start.
  • Eat: Banana + Toasted bagel with peanut butter + homemade chocolate chip cookie
  • Drink: 16 ounces of water
  • Pick up: Bib number and T-shirt
  • Chat: About the course, race strategy, and potential for mud and rain

After an excellent year of cross country and distance events in track, 16-year-old Davis Jensen decided to run the Timothy Lake Half Marathon. So did his Sandy High School teammate Jack Nickila.

Fun fact: I started pushing Davis Jensen in a jogging stroller on runs when he was about 6 months old.

Runners start the Timberline Marathon by running about one-mile down hill to the lake. They run the loop around the lake...twice. Then head back up hill to the finish.

On your mark...Get set....Go!

After some pre-race announcements, Race director Chuck Neely encouraged the faster runners to go through the start-finish first. 

There's no way I'm the fastest. 

But I didn't want to wait around. So I crossed the starting line second and headed down the trail to the lake.

Rain was in the forecast. But it held off during much of the Timberline Marathon.

Miles 1 - 6

The last weather report I saw said rain...rain...and more rain. That's the Pacific Northwest.

But it wasn't raining. There was even some blue sky on the horizon.

I settled into a comfortable pace.

A few runners passed, then runner Elise Lagerstrom flew by.

After just a couple miles, I traded the raincoat for a short-sleeve T-shirt

Trail shoes: Topo Mtn Racer 2

Miles 7-13

Ever run a race slogging through mud and puddles?

The first few miles of the Timberline Marathon were relatively dry.

But eventually the course follows section of trail near the shoreline.

And it was muddy.

Most runners looked for ways around the puddles and thick mud. But some just plowed right through.

I chose the latter. But still ended with mud splatter and wet socks.

When I rolled into the aid station near Little Crater Lake, a volunteer under a Why Racing Events tent said:

"Dude, it looks like we shop at the same place."

  • I look down at his shoes. He's wearing the exact same Topos. (A shoe brand I didn't know a lot about until I interviewed Topo's top sales rep Casey McCombs for The Rundown.)
  • I gulped down some fruit-punch Gatorade, and ate some peanut butter pretzels.

"Topos are the only way to go," he said.

The motivational mile...

Campers at Timothy Lake created signs along the trail to encourage runners.
"They're after your Lucky Charms...RUN!"
Every time a runner reached up to high-five the "Power Boost" sign, campers cheered.

Ever need a boost of motivation during a race?

  • Maybe a good joke. 
  • A word of encouragement. 
  • Or a chat with another runner about races, work, family...

You know...something that gets your mind off any negative energy you might be feeling.

Some campers on the Timberline Marathon course served up a good dose of that during this race...

They hung out near a campfire watching the race go by.

And every time a runner reached up to high-five the "Power Boost" they cheered.

After marathon runners complete the first loop around Timothy Lake, they cross a wooden bridge and run the second lap.

At the Timberline Marathon in Oregon, runners complete two loops around Timothy Lake.

Miles 14 to 24

There's no big surprises on the second loop around the lake in this race.

But the trail conditions were...different.

  • More mud. 
  • Bigger puddles. 
  • Evidence of some wipeouts.

I ran the second loop around the lake, got lazy about nutrition and hydration and started to feel the effects.

Nothing major.

Minor muscle cramps and an upset stomach.

But enough to serve as a reminder that nutrition and hydration are just as important as training to run longer distances like the Mountain Lakes 100-miler in September.

The sign crew cheered as I passed their camp for the second time.

A few miles later, I headed up the hill to the finish.

Evan Jensen finished the Timberline Marathon in 4:21 (13th overall). Davis Jensen finished the Timberline Half Marathon (14.4 miles) in 2:38.

Hill climb to finish

By the time I reached the hill climb back to the historic Clackamas Ranger Station and finish line, I slowed to a run-walk.

Walk the uphill section. Run the flats as much as possible. When you reach the meadow, run all out to the finish...

  • I've ran the Timberline Marathon five times. 
  • I've ran the Mountain Lakes 100 seven times, which includes running around Timothy Lake.
  • And I've ran the course in training at least a dozen times over the years.

Once you make the climb up from the Timothy Lake shoreline, it's not far to the finish.

There's a couple turns that expose a green meadow.

And from there, you're within ear-shot of the finish line.

I ran down the trail, passed rows of tents used by wildland firefighters a couple summers ago, popped out of the forest on to gravel, and crossed the finish line.

Another Timberline Marathon in the books, and my official kickoff to training for the Mountain Lakes 100.

Timberline Marathon shout-outs to...

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Evan Jensen
SANDY, Oregon

I help RUNNERS reduce injuries, fix running form, run longer & faster by strength training without running ragged. I'm a NASM-certified personal trainer, and hold the record for the most finishes at the Mountain Lakes 100-Mile Ultra in Oregon.


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