On a very crisp and dark Saturday morning, I stood at the start of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. As the light rose we were able to take in the stunning Marin Headlands.
Dean Karnazes was our race host, the ultra marathon man (his Instagram handle is seriously @ultramarathon). Mr. Karnazes hosts almost all of the North Face Endurance Challenge races throughout North America, so I don’t know how routine every race feels for him. But for me it felt poignant and beautifully simple when he instructed us to turn to the runners to our left and right and wish them luck. It felt empowering to briefly bond with others who were about to come together and embark on a new journey of visceral self-discovery.
The announcer counted down and our wave was off.
My taper for this race sucked. In the past my approach to tapering is to rest more, run less, and still run somewhat hard. It felt good to finally be able to rest at the start of this taper, as my body felt battered and tired from the previous months of accumulated days of intense training on roads and trails. My weekly volume peaked at 50 miles a week, a huge boost for me. Yet during the taper I had a niggling muscle strain that was completely different to any of the other injuries I had spent all year working through. Seriously, it had been my right knee and leg, and then all of a sudden during my last track workout while tapering, I strained my left quad on the track. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe it.
I fell into a pattern of resting a day, allowing my quad to feel better, go for a run, and then suffer pain resurgence until I rested again. At the beginning of the second week when I realized I couldn’t walk without pain with the sore quad, I decided to cut my losses and not run for the rest of the week until my planned shakeout run before race day. Although the taper became more of a rest period than I intended, I was ecstatic when the pain subsided and I was able to run an easy shakeout run with no residual pain. Small victories! Lesson learned…if in doubt about pain, even if it seems minor, rest will help. When the intent is to make it to a starting line healthy, final tune up runs can be sacrificed if that’s what it takes. Trust your training!
Going into a new distance, I wanted to settle on goals that were realistic. Considering this course involves more than 6,000 feet of climbing, and that it could be very slow going if muddy, I chose a C goal to finish under six hours, a B goal to finish under five hours, and an A goal to finish in the top 15. I worked these out by looking at past results and working through a pacing plan.
I spent time preparing by going through the course mentally on Google Earth to understand the layout of the turns, climbs and aid stations. And I also created a pacing band to display my goal splits between the A and B goals for the aid stations correlating to a 8:12’/mile and a 10’/mile pace.
This band was also helpful for my wife and my brother who were tracking me to have an idea of when I expected to get to each aid station, and it worked great for me during the race since I could gauge how ahead or behind I was (see the note on the pacing band at the end of this post). Shout out to Sarah Lavender Smith, a running coach and writer who I’ve never met. She has a great blog and explains how to create this chart in some of her posts. Thank you!
The first three climbs felt easy to me, and that’s not surprising because the half marathon is my wheelhouse distance. From our first climb up the Miwok trail until we made it past the 24 switchbacks of Heather Cutoff, I ran with a local ultra runner and coach named Alex Ho, and he gave me some great education on the course. For example, as we were running down the Coastal trail to Muir Beach, Alex instructed me to remember what we were running down, a really flipping steep descent, since of course we would be returning back in reverse later in the race.
Before going into my suffer narrative which covers the second half of the race, I have to say that the entire course had spectacular scenery, especially at the top of every huge climb when I had breath taking views of the Bay, the Pacific, and the Headlands. If you race in the Headlands, realize that although the climbs are really steep and long, they always culminate in another stunning vista as reward for the hard efforts.Muir Beach overlook. Not part of the course, but this offers an idea of the day’s scenery.
Back to the action of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K!
My wheels fell off on the climb up Cardiac, the highest point on the course. After the Heather switchbacks, about 13 miles in, I almost instantly flipped a switch from feeling great to feeling tired. I didn’t even try staying with Alex and it felt as if I had fallen off a speed boat cruising away from me. Alex was great and continued giving me course pointers as he was rolling ahead and disappearing. He would go onto finish 10th. My mind became slightly paranoid as I passed the Cardiac aid station entering a steep descent into Muir Woods. At this point elite runners from the 50 mile championship were joining the course, so it felt like being hunted. On a tangent, the next 20 km was actually my favorite part of the whole race. Imagine running through Endor or Jurassic Park, with iconic Red Wood trees and green ferns surrounding you while moving down a really lush track, crossing a series of wooden stairs and bridges scattered through a network of water crossings.
Muir Woods was also single track, so I knew I would have to pull over any time I was overtaken by faster runners, and this was the beginning of many runners who overtook me. In the knowledge of being hunted, I pushed hard down the Dipsea and Ben Johnson trails into the forest. Although my pace was pretty fierce when some of the terrain became more technical, I could still hear runners move up on me and I was little surprised that I was being passed by other 50K runners at first. Shortly afterward I started to be passed by trail running elites like Alex Nichols and Paddy O’Leary who were clearly in the zone. Another elite who passed me was Cody Reed and I didn’t expect to yo-yo with him over the next 10 km as he entered his own bonk but he did a great job fighting through.
The track between the Old Inn Aid station at mile 20 back to Muir Beach at mile 23 was the smoothest part of trail on the whole course, a long gradual downhill, yet this was probably my low point. I knew the distance past 22 miles would feel unknown to me and I didn’t know how my body would start to cope as my glycogen stores were done. Unfortunately, my quads started to cramp and lock up like the Tin Man just spent up his oil stores. And my feet felt battered. Thankfully my stomach was never problematic, but I was hungry. Coming through aid stations I started consuming new stuff like potatoes in salt, Clif Bar shot blocks, pretzels, potato chips, Tailwind, and coke! But I also became ignorant of diligently hydrating. Just to get out of Muir Beach I had to walk, and I continued walking while entering the climb back up the Coastal trail, and this was very steep. Some creative photographers were set up to capture every runner’s magical moment of suffering up this climb, and I joked with one of them which helped my spirits. The one runner I saw actually run this hill was Ida Nilsson, the eventual women’s winner of the 50 mile Championship and she was on fire as she zoomed up.
Meanwhile my brother was waiting at Tennessee Valley and Annie was a little frustrated about the failure of the chronotrack system following from home. They were trading texts and phone while i ran.
At the marathon point I came into Tennessee Valley and found my brother Roger who prior to this race knew nothing about the trail and ultra running community.
He had quite the intro witnessing this race, especially the race between Zach Miller and Hayden Hawks who went toe to toe for 50 miles and both pushed one other to break the course record. I met up with Roger and swapped out my hydration vest for a handheld as this was the point I wanted to roll into competitive mode, at least in my original plan. But my body wasn’t going to allow it and I had to keep walking to get out of the aid station. For me the last climb up the Marincello trail was a trial. Every time I tried to run, my quads would again lock up on me and push me back into power hiking mode. Once I made it to the top of the climb through the Alta aid station, I was able to run again and move downhill, but not as fast as I normally run since my feet were in such bad shape. This is where I turned to mental reserves and reflected on an important mantra: “you are almost done.” This knowledge became immeasurably helpful to get through how my body felt and push to the finish line with all I had.
I remember feeling better heading towards the finish. I was glad to be able to run. I don’t remember seeing Roger as he took the photo above.
As I crossed the line, I felt done. Mentally, physically done.
It took about 30 minutes for it to soak in just how stoked I was to finish. My finish result was 36th place out of 505 runners, and my official time was 5:19:32 for the 50 km distance (about 31.2 miles). I was in tough shape after the race, and made my first actions to get warm clothing on, get a massage, and soak my swollen feet in an ice bath which was truly painful.
Then it was all about calorie intake with some great veggie ravioli and beer which the vendors were serving. After a delayed shuttle back to Larkspur, I finally had a chance to talk to Anna, and then I drove for about an hour east to my brother’s house in Vacaville where I got to hang with him and my young nieces over some spectacular pizza. What a day!
There were many lessons I learned from this experience and that’s what the next and final post is all about.
Note: The way I created the pacing chart was to create an excel document with the first row showing the distance to each aid station, and the second and third rows depicting the faster and slower times I needed to get to those aid stations to meet my goal pace range. Interestingly, I finished exactly at 12:19 so I think I fell into a mental trap of just trying to stay ahead of my slowest goal pace. After printing the chart, I cut it out, and laminated the final product with clear packing tape into a band that I wore during the race. I also gave copies to my crew.