The 2014 North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships Race Report

…well that’s a freaking mouthful. I prefer the acronym ’14 TNF50, but then you might be like, “what the…?” so, yeah- what I said above.

My race reports read kind of pedantic at times, so hopefully I can keep this interesting without boring you with every single little minute detail, but my guess is that if you’re here to read a race report there’s a pretty good chance you run these types of races, too. And like all of us trying to figure out “what went wrong?” we try to glean as much info off of each other as to not repeat the same mistakes again.

So here we go.

In the weeks leading up to the race I had some really great runs; I felt as though everything was coming together- sleeping well, eating well, keeping the stress levels down, cutting back on the mileage and bumping up the intensity a bit; everything felt right.

So I decided to do my first 5k on Thanksgiving morning, I figured a quick 3 miles as opposed to doing six or seven “junk miles” would be great for leg turnover, sharpening my speed, whatever. That went off without a hitch, I felt fast and good and generally had fun (and a pretty good time, considering how slow I am). It’s nine whole days out from North Face, I’ll be fine…

Then the next day, about 5 miles into an easy 8-miler my left hammy suddenly felt tight and uncomfortable- not painful, just tight. This was the same discomfort I had felt back in early October one morning doing a track workout that forced me to shut it down for a few days and really freaked me out; it kind of had me questioning everything in my life at that moment and coming to the conclusion that I was kind of burned out. Not only on running, but my job, too.

Luckily I was able to cut back some running and go on my honeymoon right after this. By re-prioritizing some things I was able to start enjoying running again (and by taking a week off of work I was able to start enjoying work again- funny how the island of Kaua’i has that effect on people). I had some fun runs while vacationing and didn’t feel any pressure to get out there every day and grind.

So here’s that hamstring thing again, 8 days before TNF50. I thought, “oh well, here’s my season…” but within a few days it was gone. I think tapering combined with solid nutrition and good sleep solved that whole thing. And the idea that if I wasn’t able to race North Face I’d volunteer and defer my entry to next year.

But everything has a way of working out for me. Call me lucky or just hashtag BLESSED, yo.

So the actual race report starts here:

I woke up at 2:30 AM to some coffee (if you don’t have a coffee maker that you can set the night before, get on that) and set about making some steel-cut oats. This is the first ultra I’ve run in close to two years that I actually ate before, lately I’ve been trying to get something in me about 2 hours before running (especially on some 20+ milers).

I’m not sure if this contributed to my eventual stomach issues but I think I’m just the type of runner that likes to start racing in a semi-fasted state. I don’t know if that means I’m fat-adapted or that my tummy has become so sensitive that I just can’t start running while digesting, but it might be good to figure this out going into 2015.

Anyway, ate, got dressed, got in the car at 3:30 and drove over to Marin. Listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory because it keeps me chilled out. Had a Vespa Super Concentrate at 4:15 am while sitting in the traffic for the thru-tunnel. Parked, got on the shuttle to the start. Pretty uneventful, standard nervous chatting with folks on the bus.

Sorted all my items into their correct drop bags, greased up, checked bags again, hit the porta-potty, got ready to queue up in Wave 2. Watched the elite wave roll out to hoots and hollers, saw all the obligatory ultra people like Bryon Powell and Dean Karnazes doing their thing, yadda yadda.

Start, let’s go. Chatted briefly with some of the guys in my wave on that first concrete section but soon as we hit the first road crossing we had thinned out considerably and it seemed like everyone was there to work. So I kept my head down and just powered into it.

First event of note: took some of my pre-mixed Vitargo-Tailwind concoction at :30 ( I had planned on taking something every :45 but just felt a wee bit flat those first three miles) and within 5 minutes knew something wasn’t okay. Luckily there was a porta-potty right at the top of the climb at what would become the Alta aid station, so I jumped in there right quick. That was a life-saver.

Felt better immediately and flew down Rodeo Valley Trail and readied for another loop. They’re making us do two loops at the beginning because they completely eliminated the 6 mile loop through Muir Woods and Redwood Creek. These beginning loops are really nice, wide groomed fire trails so I figured I could open it up a bit, it still being dark and all and really make up some time here at the beginning.

I felt great through those two loops and right after we split off from them we went up Miwok and onto Old Springs. Right here I could stop using my headlamp and lo and behold I had caught up to my buddy Tony. It was really good to see him, we had met at Miwok right around mile 45, a mutual friend had told us to look out for each other and we ended up meeting on the course (ultras are like that). We ran some of the Coastal 50k together and here we are again, running together. He told me he had just run a 5-hour Quad Dipsea seven days before and here he was giving TNF50 a go. What a monster.

We ran into Tennessee Valley together, I left my torch in my drop bag, grabbed some more Vitargo-Tailwind and took off. I neglected to do a “systems check” here and just ran. I also have to admit that I was blinded by all the ultra “stars” here, there were some elites spectating and I didn’t want to fan-boy out or look uncool, so I just kept running.

If I had stopped for just a second and asked myself “what’s going on?” my body would’ve revealed to me that I HAD TO GO POOP AGAIN. Dammit. There were porta-potties and real toilets back there, and I can’t turn around now.

So there’s a trail maybe 3/4ths of a mile out of TV that leads to Hill 88, yeah I pooped there. Well, crouching tiger-style in some weird brambly bushes and you know what? NO TOILET PAPER. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice another Buff to wipe myself a la SD100 so I said a quick prayer to the ass-crack chafing gods and hoped all of the fecal matter had projected out of me and there wasn’t any residue left behind.

I knew Muir Beach was a quick four miles away and if I ran fast I could probably get some wipes or at least some paper towels and Vaseline and be good to go. I had to think about all this the whole time I was running on the best stretch of trail on the whole course, Coastal Trail into Pirate’s Cove. I had to force myself to stay in the moment and just relax and enjoy the views.

I look happy because I just pooped.

I look happy because I just pooped.

So Muir Beach Aid was a super happening place to be; more elites and ultra royalty here- I’m not going to name drop but let’s just say one of the fastest women in the world was here, just hanging out (or possibly crewing?) Anyway, I got my paper towels and Vaseline and jumped into the porta-potty, cleaned myself up and this time did a full systems check. Good to go.

Felt awesome along Highway 1 and onto Redwood Creek and up the Heather Cutoff Trail, which was now a creek bed. Yes, that’s right. The trail was replaced at many portions by running muddy water, and I could no longer hop around puddles and stay dry, I guess I was going all in now. Actually, I guess I should be kind of surprised I made it 20 miles with dry feet.

Felt great through Cardiac Aid and was generally jazzed about everything; my pace, the weather, nutrition, hydration, etc. I was about to hit the part of the race from last year where I started to feel not-so-great. I got a fill up on water, re-stocked my Vitargo-TW mix, grabbed some Gu and did a full systems check while at Cardiac, even sat down for about 30 seconds.

Rolled out of there onto Old Mine, through Pan Toll and onto that top stretch of Matt Davis to Coastal. Just like deja vu in reverse, I started to feel not-so-great. Same spot last year, even though this was about six miles further in. I just felt a little bit flat here so I took a Gu, not wanting the 200+ calories from my V-TW mix and it seemed to help a bit. Looking back at my Garmin file, this was some of my most inconsistent running of the day.

The cascading water coming down off Mt. Tam was beautiful here and I stopped a few times to enjoy it (or so I told myself) but in actuality I was really just feeling kind of spent. I made the decision to run hard to the next aid station (McKennan Gulch) and then re-assess.

The idea of dropping started to creep in here and I had to surround myself with other people to make sure I made the right decision. Once again, (just like last year) the second half of the top ten elite women’s pack was heading towards me; Alicia Shay,YiOu Wang and Kami Semick were three runners I recognized, as well as some guys just outside the top-50 like Joe Uhan and Salomon team manager Greg Vollet.

The constant stopping and jumping off the trail to yield was both annoying and frustrating but part of the course’s rules (see page six of the 50-mile Course Guide) but I figured I was collecting some good trail karma by doing it and that the favors would be returned.

Just before the aid station I saw Coach Sally McRae– we had met on a training run a few weeks before right near Muir Beach, exchanging pleasantries as we passed each other. We both said “hi” and I said something like “you’re so rad” or something like that and powered along the road down into McKennan. I chugged some Mountain Dew and asked everybody how they were doing, kind of lingered a minute really trying to decide if I was done for the day. I drank another Dew (I do the Dew, yo) and then figured if I didn’t improve on the downhill into Stinson, I’d drop there.

Well I gotta say this is where everything turned around for me as far as that shitty mind-state I was in was concerned. I started to feel really great here- I was actually moving well and able to find a good rhythm; to the credit of a good 90% of the runners that were actually yielding the trail here.

Down the treacherous Matt Davis Trail, I’m starting to pass runners now at an alarming clip. I stopped to pee real quick, then bombing down past fallen trees, rivulets and streams that weren’t there two weeks prior, smiling at hikers, just basically killing it and feeling good.

I greet Stinson Beach Aid station with a classic Dr. Nick “Hi everybody!” and chug some more Dew, tell everyone they look awesome, geek out on all the ultra stars there and then bounce. I flew up Dipsea and felt awesome right until it splits off to Steep Ravine. Wait, what? We’re going up Steep Ravine? Since when? I guess I should’ve read that course guide a wee bit closer.

Not that I was disappointed, SR Trail was as epic as I’ve ever seen it- gushing like a broken dam, just straight deluge coming down. Pretty, beautiful, loud, just amazing. I power hiked the ups and ran the flat(-ish) sections as best I could. I took some more V-TW mix and kept at it.

Uh oh. Not feeling too good again here. Feel like I got the wind sucked out of my legs on Old Mine going back into Cardiac Aid, I was just feeling so good at Stinson. Oh well, such is the ultramarathon. Highs and lows and high and lows. Took the chance at Cardiac to sit down and chill for a minute, really lube up and see what was going on.

I think (and I hope I’m wrong) it was the Tailwind. Having only trained with it briefly before this race I can’t help but think that’s what was wrecking my tummy- I’ve been doing Vitargo for a year now, Gu are like oxygen during races (as is the DEW, oh you sweet nectar of the gods) so maybe it was the Tailwind?

Hate to throw them under the bus here but it felt like 5-10 minutes after every feeding of the V-TW mix my tummy just went south, like I had to take a dump and then my legs felt sluggish. Maybe Tailwind and Vitargo are not to be mixed? I’ve got to figure that out.

So I took 2 Gu Roctane Electro caps, washed it down with some more Dew and took off. I knew it was all downhill to Muir Beach Aid and hopefully I could restore myself by letting gravity do all the work.

The next mile or so was kind of rough but soon as I hit the switchbacks down Heather Cutoff I felt better. I’ve run a bunch of different races out here and always have said “I hate going DOWN Heather Cutoff” but this time it was more than welcome. The muddy splashing mixed with dodging the 50k runners coming up (and almost all were yielding like champs so I must say THANK YOU 50K RUNNERS!!!) even though uphill traffic usually gets the right of way, I guess they were instructed to let us have the right of way down? Either way, I’d love to buy y’all a pizza.

So flew across that grassy field and across Muir Woods Road onto Redwood Creek, I was moving at a decent clip now and as I spit out onto Route 1 for that little stretch of road into MB Aid I see Hal Koerner and his baby daughter, just chilling and smiling.

“Dude, you’re Hal Koerner. You’re kinda the man.”

“No way- you’re kinda the man” says Hal. That was a cool moment. Good times.

Oh yeah, back to the race and around this time I noticed how bad my legs were hurting. Concrete has a subtle and shitty way of reminding you that you’ve been running for seven-plus hours, so thanks for that.

I am faking it right here.

I am faking it right here.

MB Aid- got a refill on water, chugged 2 cups of the Dew and took off. Ran really well up Coyote Ridge- catching up to Tony (who was really feeling the Quad Dipsea now, he told me to “run ALL of Marincello!”), so I alternated power hiking and shuffling but felt spent on the slight downhill over to Miwok and into Tennessee Valley.

Slammed a salted caramel Gu, took another cup of Dew and put the headphones back on and decided that this was it.

Gut check time.

How much grit did I have? How bad was I willing to hurt in order to be proud of my finish and ultimately my 2014 season?

So many highs and lows today.

So many highs and lows this year.

I was going to have to go deeper into the pain cave, maybe deeper than I’ve ever gone; just let it all in, completely and totally. Just have to accept that it might get a lot worse. This is where music plays an important role- it’s like a natural painkiller.

Luckily, my iPod cooperated with me and I got Girl Talk’s “Oh No” first (a mashup containing Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and Ludacris’ “Move Bitch”) so that got me beyond hype. Then Crystal Method’s “Busy Child”, another jam that causes me to jump out of my skin.

I forget what else I listened to (I vaguely recall there was some Metallica, Bloc Party and Wilson Pickett in there) until I got to Alta aid station, the last aid and right at the top of Rodeo Valley Trail, the last descent. You can see the finish line from here, it’s less than three miles away.

So on comes The National’s “Mr. November”. I slammed 2 cups of Dew and took off, running between low-6 and low-7 pace down to the flat.

I also started to cry a little, as I am wont to do in the late stages of an ultra. I think all the pain, the relief, the journey, the accomplishment, the discomfort, everything sort of coalesces and there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop it. So I had a nice little cry to this National song while running 6:30s down RVT.

I pulled my hat down low so no one could see the grown man with tears running down his cheeks.

Of course I get over that moment and my ego kicks back in on that last pavement section as a few 50k and marathon runners pass me, and I’m all, “OH, HELLLLL NOOOOOOO” so I decide on a sprint finish because I am the only person allowed to wreck my sweet photo op.

I had to out-kick that nice couple behind me that were running the marathon together. I know, I'm a jerk.

I had to out-kick that nice couple behind me that were running the marathon together. I know, I’m a jerk.

That split from TV to the finish was by far the best part of the race for me, running the last 5.62 miles in 53:29.

Garmin Stats here.

Every race has become a new learning experience for me or another chance to grow; I spent a whole day trying to figure out what was wrong with me and what was right with me, etc.

The thing I learned last Saturday: it’s all part of the process and there’s not really any point in trying to figure it out because it takes away from the actual experience. In those few fleeting moments where I was in a state of flow, deep in it; whether it be pain, joy, discomfort, whatever; I was lost in the moment.

And that’s really what it’s all supposed to be about- getting lost in the moment, letting it wash over you…

…and ultimately allowing it to change you.

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2 Responses to The 2014 North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships Race Report

  1. Mike says:

    Great running into you after the race! Congrats again on your strong finish!

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