50-Mile Ultra Marathon Race Report: The 2015 North Face Endurance Challenge

SPOILER ALERT! 

Reaching the finish line:

Yeah, I was pretty damn happy.

WRAP-UP & WHAT’S AHEAD

Here’s my race report, 13 months later… The rough draft’s been sitting in my Evernote since last Christmas and I figure it’s time to push this one out… Plus it’s fun to remember the success as I look ahead to 2017. It was a good exercise for me to review what I did to prepare for the 50-miler in 2015, a full six months before I even started on my Uberman odyssey in 2016, especially now that I’m registered for my first 100-mile ultra in March 2017. More on that decision in the coming weeks.

Now onto the report…

THE DAY BEFORE

I worked in San Francisco the day before with all of my racing gear, commuting via Amtrak from Davis, then took a ferry to Larkspur, and from there I walked to my hotel – The Courtyard Marriott – selected because it was only 0.2 miles from one of the shuttle stops that carried racers to the starting area and I had enough Marriott Points to grab a free night. 🙂 Parking is sparse at the race start area, so the shuttle was definitely the way to go.

I arrived to the hotel around 1:00pm, checked in and worked from my room, then focused on organizing myself for the race.

For lunch, I had a Togos veggie sub and my pre-race dinner included a big salad and a gourmet burger. I’m a bit ashamed of the Togos sub, but options where surprising light in the hotel area. In both cases, I ate more bread that day than I do in month, some for the carbs and some to help block up my digestive track because I tend to have voluminous bowel movements on race morning, and I had been experiencing some as well on my long training days, mostly due to my conversation to a mostly plant-based diet. I wanted to circumvent digestive system issues if at all possible.  (Yes, such topics are normal conversations in my world…)

I was pretty nervous in the hotel, thinking about the day ahead – whether I was kidding myself about my preparation (more below on my training program). I was also feeling a bit sick with a cold, and as always, I lamented that maybe I didn’t train enough or do enough miles or do enough to prevent injury.

 

I got to bed before 8am, flipped on the TV and major score! I caught the end of “Blades of Glory” and the first part of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” I pretty much tossed and turned all night, waking up every hour to either fidget or use the bathroom.

WAKE-UP CALL

I set the alarm for 2:30am to catch the 3:00am bus to the starting area for the 5:00am start. I’m a beauty in the morning…

Event days are are long days, which is why the sleep two nights before a race is more important than the night before a race. I had Starbucks Via packets for coffee, a Clif Bar and a banana or two for breakfast. I mostly just wanted to get up and out to the race start area ASAP. It takes me a while to my body moving in the morning for training and racing. I don’t dilly dally, I just seem to have a lot of steps in my process. I got my race bags together, dropped off my computer and clothes at the front desk for Lena to pick up later and headed to the bus stop.

The shuttle ride was quiet. It’s a weird scene. You can feel the anticipation of everyone headed out there. We all try to act relaxed –  “Ho hum, just knocking out a 50-mile run this morning…” Truth is that everyone is scared shitless. Everyone had put in their hours of training, imagining this day every day for months, and now it was here. We all knew that this is it – the crescendo to the training, time and sacrifices that you and your family has made to get you there.

PRE-RACE, START & THE FIRST MILE

The shuttle arrived around 3:30am. It was a chilly morning, but not cold.  I dressed well in several layers – tights and sweats on my legs and several layers of shirts and a jacket on my torso. Once I checked in, I found a place to camp out under a tent to begin stretching and to prep my drop bags. I chatted with a couple of women, one was probably in her late 50s and was waiting to hear if she made it into the Western States 100 by way of lottery. Not her first rodeo on the ultra circuit. 😃

I put together my drop bag that included a bag of Hammer Perpetuem drink mix, a change of shirt and socks and a few other items that I can’t remember, then and checked in the bag. With nothing to do now, I was just killing time, taking my time stretching, using the bathroom, waiting for the coffee tent to open. Yum! Yum! when it finally did about 20 minutes before race start.

Racers migrated to the starting area about 5-10 minutes before 5:00am.  I was in Wave 5, which considering the race length and relativelu small number of racers (roughly 300-400), having waves seemed a little silly, save for making sure the pros were comfortably positioned at the front. I can see doing the waves in a marathon with 1000s of runners. For a 50-miler, the crowd from the starting line dissipates pretty quickly.

The clock struck 5:00am and off we went!

The first mile was just about realizing the race had finally come. I was mostly shuffling along to warm up and enjoy the fact that the day had begun – I was on the course and moving. Woohoo! From here, it was all about focusing on the next segment, then a mile at a time and returning to the finishing gate in one piece in a reasonable amount of time, uninjured.

[INSERT VIDEO]

MILES 2-14: AND AWAY WE GO!

After a couple of relatively flat miles, we hit our first big climb. Everyone around me stopped and walked, which was my plan too. Plenty of chances ahead to run. I just wanted to situate my body and mind, and focus on reaching my first big landmark – the Mile 9 aid station.

This segment was very peaceful. The sky was dark with stars everywhere above and headlamps lining the trail ahead. Conversations with scattered enthusiasm from running neighbors quieted and I listened to the “crunch crunch crunch” of rocks under my feet. I had a moment of panic when I realized I’d left my supplements back at the race start -– Endurolytes, Race Caps and the like. I let it pass quickly and accepted that there was nothing i could do, and with the weather what it was, I didn’t feel like I absolutely needed them.

Once over and down the first climb, I dropped off my headlamp at the aid station (that later went missing and I never got back… :-/). I took time to balance my accouterments, retie my shoes and prep for the next five miles to the bottom of a long gnarly climb that started at mile 14.

This is where it felt like the day began. The first nine miles were a precursor in a way – a microcosm of the the rest of the day – running on a short spell of flats, walking up a big climb, pacing myself on the downhills, monitoring and adjusting my physical and mental state and walking up the inclines.

My strategy was to reach Mile 14 feeling good and warmed up, then walk from Miles 14-18 up the big climb, then know that once I got up to the top of the big climb at mile 18, then it was a bunch of rolling hills then a long descent to Mile 27 where I’d pick up James, my pacer. So even here at Mile 9, I was thinking about those next 18 miles, chunking them into manageable pieces.

After reaching the segment peak, there was a long, steep, treacherous downhill, including sections with craggy rocks jutting out from ground and steps built into the trail. I felt like I should be making up time on the downhill, but also didn’t want to crash and tumble into the ocean because that was definitely possible.

The top of the climb rewarded us with a view of the Pacific Ocean and the red sky reflecting the sunrise behind us. Magical. After a steep descent, I hit Mile 14. This stretch was familiar to me – it was here on my 50K attempt in 2010 that I felt the first twinge of a calf injury that eventually caused me to withdraw from that event by Mile 18. Psychologically, it was a little spooky at first to hit this same stretch. Today was different – I was good and strong today. Squarely in the 11:00-minute mile pace, I felt fresh and was nearly through a third of the race already!

MILES 14-18: THE BIG, LONG, SLOW CLIMB

This section started with switchbacks where I alternated between running and walking – running the flatter sections and walking the steeper ones. Even in walking, my pace wasn’t much slower or was equal to runners trying to run the inclines expending lots more energy that me.

I reached the mile 18 aid station feeling very accomplished. The course does a lollipop, and this stop doubles as the Mile 31 aid station atop a long painful climb aptly named “Cardiac.” (More on this later when I talk about my experience with this stretch.) Here, I saw a pro competitor coming up the last few steps of Cardiac. He was 13 MILES AHEAD OF ME ALREADY! Incredible.

I didn’t know who he was at the time, just that he was a complete badass to be at mile 31 when I was reaching mile 18. The dude was just humming along and it reminded me that one of the best parts about these long events is that I am running the same course as the pros. When the race starts, just like an Ironman race we all have the same challenge – the same obstacles, climbs, and distances, and that when I finish, I’ve completed the same challenge as the pros.

Later, I found the post-race interview with this runner and race winner, Zach Miller.

Seeing that Zach won a whopping $10,000 shows that the pros are out here because they love it. They’re not making millions of dollars, and in most cases, not even making $100k a year as athletes. They’re doing it for the love of the grind [INSERT LOVE THE GRIND] and the sport. This is something rewarding and redeeming to me, especially compared to Ironman races which have quickly increased their commercial value with more athlete sponsorships and higher paydays. The age grouping and competition for Kona spots becomes tiresome. Grant it, even the top Ironman athletes are barely breaking even each year too, and the ultra running competitors are an even earthier crowd.

It was also here that I knew I had this race beat. I knew if I could stay healthy, I’d be able to finish – I was fit and prepared – leaving the Mile 18 aid station feeling confident.

Mile 18-21: UP & DOWN

This stretch included a bit more climbing and a few places to open up and do some running. Coming out of the mile 18 aid station, I hit the eucalyptus forest and the single-track with two-way traffic. The single-track was a little frustrating because there were logjams with 10+ racers in a single line plus runners coming back the other way. Those of us in the outbound direction stepped off the trail to make way for the returning runners – that only seemed fair to the faster competitors. And I also I hoped that meant for good karma coming back… Not exactly altruistic, but that’s the way it goes…

I began drinking Coca-Cola at the mile 18 aid station to give myself a little boost, and began a concoction of water, Coca-Cola and whatever drink mix was left in my bottle. Interesting flavor that somehow tasted good.

With the slower pace, I kept reminding myself that there was still more than half the course left and that I should be thankful for the opportunity to conserve energy. I tucked in behind a couple of guys that I found to be relaxing and entertaining. The Bearded Guy was an ultra veteran, talking to his running mate about various runs in Colorado and other places in the nether regions of the ultra running land. They had no desire to run faster and Bearded Guy seemed to be simply pulling his buddy along. That was cool to see.

We finally hit a somewhat open stretch and I asked Bearded Guy if I could pass. “Yeah dude. Whatever you need. It’s all good. You just let me now when.” Once passed, I made my way up to the mile 22 aid station. I was still under a 12:00/mile pace at this point, and I expected to pick up some time on the descent down to Mile 27 where I’d pick up my pacer, James.

MILES 22-27: THE FIRST FALL

The good feelings continued at the Mile 22 aid station. Yes, I felt tired, but still strong and confident. My strength, conditioning and training that focused on building a “go all day” heart rate was paying off. I knew that I had mostly downhill for the next five miles, and that was exciting to me – I had made it to the zenith of the course, and James would be awaiting me in just five miles.

In this stretch, I did get back some of the course karma with outbound racers mostly stepped aside as I worked through the return.

The downhill started gently then got gnarly for the next three miles. For all of the open grassy switchbacks on miles 14-18 on the way up, steep, wooded switchbacks with tree roots and exposed rocks pestered me on the downhill.

I attached myself to a train of runners – about eight of us that kept a nice, steady pace so that I could see where the trail was going next by following the bright jacket colors ahead of me and focus on footing. We encountered plenty of day hikers coming up the hill, and having a train of runners helped to have the hikers step aside for us. Most of the hikers had a look of confusion and partial astonishment in seeing scores of runners zip past them.

As I watched my Garmin click off to Mile 27, I felt a sense of personal satisfaction that I had now run longer than I had ever done in my life. More than a marathon!!

And then almost immediately thereafter…

OOMPH!!!

I fell.

Hard.

Fortunately two things happened. First, I rolled my body to the side and landed on my shoulder rather than flat on my face. This cushioned the fall instead of scraping my hands and face. Second, my head landed about six inches short of a large rock. Whew. Another six inches and I probably would have cracked open my head. Who knew you needed a helmet for ultra running?

As I fell, I heard a runner behind me yell – “Ahhhh!” My fall disrupted the rhythm of the runners directly behind me who had to pull up to keep from tripping on me. The guy either cramped or jammed his hamstrings. (Hamstrings take the brunt of the force headed downhill, so stopping quickly puts even more torque on this muscle group.)

I took a second to take stock of how I felt– nothing broken and head in tact – then asked the guy me if he was okay, and luckily he was.

“Okay,” I thought. “Let’s keep going.”

I got back up and kept on the descent, reaching the Mile 27 aid station with James there, ready to rock. I took a few extra minutes here to stock up on food and clear the rocks from my shoes.

By the bottom on the descent, I barely scratched back any time on the 12:00/mile pace. Kind of a bummer, but still feeling good and strong. More than half the course was behind me, I had a pacer for most of the rest of the way. Just time to start thinking about getting into the 30s and 40s, then finishing this thing.

MILES 28-31: HIKING

Cardiac. Yep. That’s about right. I picked up James as a pacer and about the only thing we did for the next three miles was walk. Pretty frustrating. The trail was so steep that steps were built into the hill. Not even a gentle slope to jog a bit. I even joked with James – “You signed up to be a pacer and instead you get to hike.”

James was great. Really great. He kept saying – “This is awesome. I get to be out here in Muir Woods and nature. No worries. I can’t believe how beautiful it is out here!”

I never hit a truly dark moment in the race, though this section was one of two low moments. The slow move up Cardiac was a real bummer. After watching my pace per minute drop down into the 11:40s at the course peak, I watched seconds tick higher and higher until I was well past 12:00 minute miles. This was frustrating mostly because I felt good and wanted to run but couldn’t because of the steepness and terrain.

We hit some single track flats on the way to the Mile 31 aid station where I saw the course leader TWO HOURS AGO! That made his pace even more amazing to me. I was about six hours into my race hitting Mile 31and he hit this point at only four hours. Really amazing.

This was a big spot for me. In training leading up to the race, I thought about dropping back to do the 50k instead of the 50-miler. Now I knew that had I chosen to drop back to the 50k instead, I would have regretted it because I had plenty of gas in the tank and I would have missed out on pushing well past my previous limits.

I took a while at this station, rummaging through my drop bag,changing into a fresh shirt and restocking my nutrition. James was awesome. He helped me reset, filled my water bottle and got me square.

Feeling we reached a new beginning, I felt ready to finish. Less than 20 miles to go.

Let’s do this.

Off we went.

MILES 32-45: WINNING THE DAY

I only remember moments in bits and pieces from this part of the course – hitting a good stride for a while after Cardiac and making up some time, running through Muir Woods and forest and really feeling like we were pacing and making good time, passing a group of 4-5 slower runners on a downhill set of steps and one of them pulling up lame, and feeling that I caused that by trying to pass him and forcing him to change his stride and asking if he was okay, and while he said yes, I’m still not convinced I hadn’t caused it.

I remember passing a couple of racers on the 50k course and hearing them say – “A lot of these guys passing are doing the half-marathon…” then thinking- “Well I’m not one of them! I’m doing the 50-miler and I’m passing you!”

I remember tripping on an exposed tree root and landing pretty hard, and James asking how I was. “Let’s keep going. You fall off a horse, you get right back on it.” I really wanted to remain undeterred in getting to the finish.

I remember working back to the Mile 14 area of the course and making really good time. We were running an 8:30 pace on a flat area. Around mile 40, I asked James – “What time of day is it?” It was just past 1:00pm.

“If I run 11:00 minute miles from here out, I’ll break 10 hours.” I felt that good that Iet myself think this. I knew I had the course licked and I was seriously thinking I could run 11:00s from here to the end, even if I hadn’t considered whether the course would let me.

We reached the bottom of the hill and a rest stop. I turned and saw a huge open climb ahead on the fire trails. Starting the climb, we passed a couple of hikers who asked how far we were running. James told them – “50 miles.” Then they asked how far we’d gone so far today. With pride, I said – “We’re on mile 42.” It before 2pm and I’d freaking run 40+ miles already today! Even better, I knew I’d finished the full 50 miles save for a freak injury.

On this climb, we tried to jog the slight inclines, but there was little we could do. The climb was ferocious. We hit a turn that I thought was the peak and looked up only to see another long section of at least a half-mile of more climbing.

I blurted out: “That’s just gross.”

We eventually made it to the top and were treated to another long smooth descent, then back down to the mile 45 aid station where James would ceremoniously take leave of his pacer duties. His work was done. It was up to me now to finish the last 5-6 miles. Thank you, James!

I still felt good and strong (relatively speaking of course…), especially after the long descent with good pace.  A volunteer told me that the rest of the course was easy, and nothing would be as hard as what I’d been through. I was skeptical because I knew there was one more climb, but she remained steadfast on her message.

MILES 45-47: ONE LAST CLIMB

Out of the aid station, I immediately hit a climb. I remembered this climb from the half-marathon event I did here back in 2009, and I remembered it being tough but not heart-breaking. The problem was that there were no flat sections. It was all walking. My hopes of breaking ten hours were severely dampened, but not completely obliterated.

I told myself to stay patient and just get to the top to the last aid station. So I did. I kept a solid walking pace, passing other competitors.

THE BIG FINISH: MILES 48-50

At the last aid station around mile 47, I knew I had only downhill to go. I refilled one more time and prepared for one last push.

Coming out of the station, I heard a pair of runners talking – “I’ve got 30 minutes to get there.” His friend said “Go for it man.” I asked if he was going for a 10:15 race and he said “10:30.” The timing didn’t make sense to me. He took off and started bombing down the hill. I figured what the heck and I did my best to keep up with him.   I couldn’t but at least I had a rabbit ahead and a reason to keep pushing. The first mile or so from the aid station was a steep, rocky fire trail, so I made sure to use some caution to avoid a catastrophe. Then the course descent leveled off to a nice downhill and I pushed, running about an 8:30 pace.

The course worked down to the main road leading to the finishing gate. There was a slight incline and I kept pushing. Coming around the bend, I could see the field and the gate and then a feeling of utter elation came over me.

I crossed the line just before 3:12pm, which put me at a 10 hour, 09 minute day. (It took about three minutes to hit the starting line with my wave.). Wow. Awesome. Just awesome. And I felt like I could have gone more – another 25 if the course had required. Easy to say that post-race with no more miles ahead and adrenaline pumping, but I’m sure I had much more in the tank.

What a day. What a finish. What a sense of accomplishment.

NORTH FACE RACE ORGANIZATION & EXECUTION

I’ll hand it to North Face – the know how to put on an event. While there were a couple of hiccups along the way – the online registration app wasn’t working and I had to email and call to register which was kind of annoying, though they did answer the phone and respond to emails quickly. They lost my headlamp when I dropped it off at the Mile 9 aid station and made it up by responding to my emails and sending a replacement headlamp from those that went unclaimed.

This was my third North Face Endurance Challenge event. I did a half-marathon way back in 2009 and then attempted the 50k race in 2010 (the one from which I withdrew). Super job at the race start and finish – everything from tons of Port-o-Johns to race help to food and heaters. They run a top notch event and I’d definitely recommend any of The North Face Endurance Challenge events. In fact, James went back a year later and slain the 50-miler himself!

MY TRAINING PROGRAM:  STRENGTH, MOBILITY, FEWER MILES & MANAGING INJURY

I had a good fitness base going into specific event training in September – the Donner Half-Iron race in July and the Touch ’n Go 2.5 Alcatraz swim – to put me at a good place cardiovascularly. The swim training in particular gave my body a rest from the heavy running work.

Most of my running focused on keeping runs easy, light, and smooth with a big focus on heart rate. I only used my Garmin on training runs occasionally – about once a week for shorter runs just to make sure that I was keeping a consistent heart rate, and  for all of my longer weekend runs. For me, running under 140 bpm is a very good place, and on several longer runs in the 9-12 mile range, I was down in the 133-137 range.  On some of my longer training runs, my heart rate dropped down to 130 which was a bit alarming in that my body temperature would also drop and I’d feel cold even though I’d be 15 or 16 miles into a running session, but not low enough that I was experiencing bonk.

In total, I did only four long runs in the 17-19 mile range, each one the day after a 12 mile run the day prior. I tried to hit some semblance of hills by driving to Cantelow on a couple of occasions. I also did some running in San Francisco when I was there for work overnights. I knocked out my final long run on Thanksgiving morning on the trails at Forest Park in Portland – doing nearly 19 miles at a sub-10:00/pace over 2500 feet of elevation gain. That’s when I knew I was either ready or not for this thing.

My biggest goal was to get to the starting line without injury. At most, my body can handle 35-40 miles a week in total miles. I tried to inch up to a 50 mile week, and I could feel my knees, calves, and body generally feeling cranky on me.

I did mobility work about five nights a week, spending 10-20 minutes stretching my quads and hip flexors with ”Couch stretch,” my hamstrings and calves with a lacrosse ball, and rolling my calves and quads. Each leg and muscle group got two minutes of attention, thus the 10-20 minutes total. I would do the same before training runs, and a bit after. Mostly I was worried about my body holding up to the miles. In my two previous ultra attempts, I had to quit because of injury – once during the race and once before I could even get to the starting line. Check out “Ready to Run” by Kelly Starrett & TJ Murphy. (And thanks to Lena, who of course found the book for me…)

After my first two long runs, I decided that I would probably need to skip the eventual 30 mile day that I planned early in my training schedule for two reasons:

1) Time available to train: 30 miles in a day is a really long day. Even getting up at 4am and starting a run at 5am, with stops and rest and everything else that goes into a 30 mile run, that’s a 5-6 hour training session, which just seemed to be too much.

2) My body’s message to me: When I hit the 18-mile mark on runs, while I felt muscularly and cardivascularly that I could do more miles, it just felt like my legs and joints were telling me otherwise  “Dude chill. That’s all we’re doing today.”

I decided about six weeks before race day that I would rather do a solid, strong 18 miles than struggle to eek out a 30 miler and risk injury. About then, I also began introducing a few basic Crossfit workouts into my routine to give myself a strong midsection and core. Occasionally I’d throw in a few planks or stability work. These workouts were mostly body weight and kettle bell work with movements and exercises such as:

  • Burpees
  • Candlesticks
  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Goblet squats
  • One-armed snatches
  • Kettle bell swings

An example workout would be 4 sets:

  • 25 push-ups or Burpees
  • 25 Sit-ups
  • 25 Kettle bell swings
  • 25 Squats (either goblet or air)

I also used my Elevation Mask regularly, including one run in San Francisco on the hills from the Marina to Pacific Heights then through the Presidio. Again, working on my breathing and heart rate. I figured if I could get into top cardiovascular fitness and was muscularly stronger enough, I could eschew training miles and manage my way through race day.

My one injury occurred trying to squeeze in a quick Cross-Fit workout one night at a hotel gym in late October. I didn’t warm up properly and jumped right into an exercise like the one shown above. I ended up tearing the tendon on my pubis bone. At the time, I thought it was a lower abdominal pull and I was able to manage through it.

In early 2016, I visited a sports doctor and a specialist who informed me of what the injury was. Unfortunately, this injury doesn’t heal without either surgery or LOTS of rest. It’s now January 2017 and I’m still at the same spot with this injury 15 months later… Kinda sucks. I need to figure this one out…

NUTRITION & EATING

For the months leading up to the race, I started and kept on a mostly vegetarian diet, partly for health and partly experimental. Most of my protein came from avocados, seeds, nuts and dairy. I did use some protein supplements and ate protein bars.  I wanted to scale back “bad” meats, especially processed meats or poorly farmed meat, and I wanted to see if would maintain the same, or better, nutrition and health without meat. As described in my detailed post about this decision, I’d been reading about more and more ultra athletes going straight vegan. I wasn’t ready to go that far, but did want to try a shift.

I can’t say one way or another if the diet made a difference. This got me eating far more salads – usually a salad as the main course for most meals, especially breakfast and dinner. Along with my mobility and strength work, I was able to stay injury free and I do attribute my recovery time between workouts to my diet and nutrition.

As a manner of habit, I also stay away from simple sugars and carbohydrates. I do eat a lot of fruit – bananas, apples, strawberries and whatever else is in season. While these all have sugar, they also have fiber to help with digestion. I skip bread, pasta and anything with added sugar. So while not officially “low carb,” I am definitely carb-conscious.

Post-race, I barely felt any soreness whatsoever. While I wasn’t interested in hitting the trail the next day, or even for a few days, my recovery time was very short.

COMPUTER OUTPUTS

My computer outputs from my Garmin activities page for the event:

screenshot-2017-01-09-10-20-19

screenshot-2017-01-09-10-20-05

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3 responses to “50-Mile Ultra Marathon Race Report: The 2015 North Face Endurance Challenge

  1. Pingback: Applying Mind Games & Project Management to EnduranceTraining | Go Farther

  2. Pingback: I registered for a 100. Why? #gofarther | Go Farther

  3. Pingback: All in one sip of coffee this morning | Go Farther

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