North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50 Miler – California

Sunrise at The North Face 50M in the Marin Headlands.  Photo courtesy of Hawkeye - via The North Face Endurance Challenge Facebook page (2011)
Sunrise at The North Face 50M in the Marin Headlands. Photo courtesy of Hawkeye – via The North Face Endurance Challenge Facebook page (2011)

Hey hey!  So I’ve been really quiet on the blogging front over the whole of November – despite being super busy doing very blog-worthy races in beautiful places.  To sum up, I amazed myself by placing 4th in the Catalina Eco Marathon (it amazed me because it fell just a few short days after a gnarly Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim experience!), and on Thanksgiving I landed 10th in the XTERRA Topanga 15K up in the splendour of the Santa Monica mountains.

So this past weekend it was another amazing TNF 50 in San Francisco.  This stunning course never fails to destroy me – with it’s insane amount of relentlessly steep and consistent elevation change.  Yet it’s the course I return to year after year, and love with an absolute passion. Ask anyone who knows me, and at some point I’ve probably forced them to hear me out on why this place is such a must-visit, magical location.  Starting any race by torchlight under the stars is always amazing.  Couple that with the mind-blowing vistas looking out to the lights of the Golden Gate bridge beyond the silhouettes of the headlands, or peering down upon the sleepy streets of Sausalito as you wind your way up higher and higher on the thrill ride that is the Bobcat trail at 6am. Now throw in a splash of Pacific Ocean on your left – as the sun slowly rises and adds an element of colour into the mix. Even just looking ahead, or behind, is a sight to behold – as the only thing to take in is the massive stream of headtorches slowly weaving their way up the hill.  No phones, no headphones, no watches. no technology. OK, maybe a few hundred headtorches… No Twitter, no Facebook, no distractions. Nothing to peel your eyes away from the beauty that is the outdoors. Running in the tranquility of darkness here in the Marin Headlands never fails to remind me of all the things that are important in life…

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Song for the moment: The Perfect Life, by Moby

Race Report

Race Date:  Saturday 7th December 2013
Location: Marin Headlands, San Francisco, CA
Organizer: The North Face Endurance Challenge Series (Sponsored by GORE-TEX)
Summary: 50M trail race (50K, marathon & shorter distances available) | 1 loop – with out-and-back section at half-way for catching sight of the elites, some killer climbs, and more than a few quad-busting, agonizing descents (FUN!!) | ~19,300 ft elevation change | SUPER SCENIC | Technical singletrack and fast dirt trails | Aid every 3-6 miles
Winning Time: 6:21:10      My Time: 8:22:08 (46th place) | 10:04/M


The North Face race village, with the Headlands looming behind
The North Face race village, with the Headlands looming behind

The Day I Beat Dakota!

OK, mark this date: Dec 7th 2013. For it is the date I beat the legend that is Dakota Jones! Granted, he had the flu, but nobody needs to know that 🙂  I really had my money on the 22 year-old wonderkid to get some timely revenge on 2013 nemesis Rob Krar – especially after Krar’s decision to run (and ultimately drop out of) the JFK 50 last month. More fool me. Krar absolutely nailed it once again this weekend, and walked away with the well-deserved $10K booty. What a way to end a phenomenal year for the king of the unkempt-bearded mountain men. A really great summary of his accomplishments in the ultra scene this year (including his utter destruction of Dakota’s very own fastest-known-time for the Grand Canyon double crossing) can be found on Ian Corless’s blog (consider subscribing to Ian’s Talk Ultra podcast too – if you like all things to do with running crazy far).

Well, aside from the huge field of elite athletes toeing the line at the North Face’s Championship event this weekend, there were also another 400 or so regular Joes like myself – battling away in the bitter cold to test our mettle and endure those 50 frickin’ hilly miles.

Weather was a wee bit on the nippy side (I could have done with my arm warmers for the entire race instead of tossing them to Allison at mile 9!), but perfectly clear weather and a bajillion times better than 2012’s mudfest.  This was my revenge race for last year, where I chose to bail at the end of loop 1 on what was a modified course because of the inclement weather.  No such thoughts this year.  I was finishing – regardless of weather – and was gonna smash my 2011 50 miler time of 9:16!  Oh yes.  That was the first 50 miler I ever ran by the way – so really I had to beat that time or else I’d be very sad 🙁

Meet the Crew!

I’m going to refer to my girlfriend Allison a lot in this post, as she was my solo support crew on Saturday. Not being from a running background, this was new territory, and she did an absolutely kick-ass job.  I really don’t ask for much in a race, but having someone there for me at those crucial crew-accessible aid stations gave me something to really look forward to – as the pain and negative thoughts started to creep in later on.  For Al to come all the way to this race was a total privilege for me, and giving her a big sweaty hug and a salty kiss every time we parted was the least I could do to repay her.  You are welcome!  But seriously, thank you.  You are amazing.  🙂

Al and me keeping warm at Mission Dolores Park, San Francisco
Al and me keeping warm at Mission Dolores Park, San Francisco

The Actual Race Report

OK I’m going to speed this blog along as I have a habit of over-embellishing as you can see.  The race got started a little late at 5:01am for the celebs, and a minute later for wave 1 elites, then wave 2 – where I was.  I was like a kid at a theme park when I saw all those superstars that I’d been following for so long, and was kind of bummed that I wouldn’t get to brush shoulders with them.  Once they were off, they were GONE!  Next time I’d see them would be at the out-and-back section just before halfway – where I’d need to jump out of their way as they came hurtling past in the other direction.

Ultrarunning stars.  Rickey Gates on left, Rob Krar right of center, blocked by the massive Cameron Clayton
Ultrarunning stars. Rickey Gates on left, the bearded Rob Krar right of center, blocked by the massive Cameron Clayton in red jacket

After a couple of miles of solitary running and reflecting and stargazing and staring at the snaking parade of headtorches on the hillside, I quickly found a buddy as we cruised up the initial “baby” climb of 800ft up the Rodeo Valley Trail.  Just two years prior I recall finding this to be an absolute monster!  Not this year.  It was relatively effortless in fact.  That maybe elevated my ego a little – making me think this could be a very good day.  No harm in that right?  Confidence?  So I rolled with it – taking care not to get too carried away, and trying to control the heart rate as best I could.  The guy I was running with for these few miles was Alex Kurt of Minnesota.  I thought I was brave in my shorts, t-shirt, armwarmers and gloves.  This guy was in a friggin’ racing singlet!  At 5am, in 30-something degree temps!  Crazy Midwesterners.  It was his first North Face event, his second 50M, but he was clearly gunning it.  We spoke of past ultras, and I learned that last year he ran one of the toughest trail ultras out there – the Superior 50M, at Lake Superior’s north shore (I’ve since researched and found they do a 100M next September – on my birthday!  Destiny?  Perhaps…).  We’d cross paths again many times during the race, and never got separated by more than a mile I’d say.  We worked off each other a lot.

I got a little ahead of Alex on the downhill into Tennessee Valley aid station (he was running a wise race – saving those quads for later; he’d be back).  At the aid station, I grabbed a few potatoes, handed over my gloves and armwarmers to my trusty crew member Al, then trotted on down the section of road leading towards the Pacific, and the Coastal Trail.  Here I met yet another chap I’d be seeing a lot of over the next 6 or 7 hours: a German chap named Stefan, from NY.  This was his birthday!  And his first 50 miler.  What an absolutely perfect way to spend your birthday.  We chatted for a bit then I pressed on, but I never really got much ahead of him.  He’d later pass me and ultimately beat me by just 19 seconds.  Same with Alex.  In fact, we all finished within 2 and a half minutes of each other.

By the Muir Beach aid station a few miles later, the sun was up and we could ditch our headtorches.  That reminds me, I never did get that headtorch back…   Anyhoo, now the real running/climbing began.  I always find running in the dark almost seems effortless.  And sure enough, once the light kicked in, everything seemed way harder!  I think it’s that sense of sight – where you can actually see what’s ahead of you.  And when that thing ahead of you is the seemingly endless 1600 ft climb to Cardiac, that can really start to bear down on you.  Having those breathtaking views of the ocean on our left was more than a consolation though 🙂  It was a real hard slog getting up that longest climb of the day, but we managed it, and sure enough Stefan, Alex and I were all fuelling up at Cardiac aid station (mile 18) together.  We were a third of the way!

From Cardiac, the 50 milers leave the shared 50K course and head off along the Matt Davis Trail – a technical singletrack section looking down towards Stinson Beach, where we’d be heading soon.  This leads onto the Coastal Trail again where a 2.8 mile out-and-back section begins – where some lucky folk get to see the leaders face-to-face as they make their way back along the tight, winding trail.  I saw the lead pack of about 10 runners (with Rob Krar hanging out at the back) thunder past me with about 2 miles til the turnaround – meaning they were 4 miles ahead after 22 miles.  That equates to about 40 minutes at my pace.  By the time I reached the turnaround aid station, I’d counted 50 people ahead of me.  That’s when it hit home that I wouldn’t be winning 10 grand that day 😉

I also saw the lead women, including Magdalena Boulet, Michelle Yates and my personal high point – Emelie Forsberg!  Woulda been nice to see Killian Jornet in the flesh, but he didn’t start pacing Emelie til Stinson beach…  (I asked Al and she didn’t recall seeing him.  I should have briefed her and had her take photos!)  No sign of Rory Bosio at all 🙁    Tough day for her.

After the turnaround, and the brutally steep descent into Stinson Beach, I got to see Al again at the aid station – where I refilled, grabbed a few glugs of some Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy (mixed with 3 Berry Nuun to make it semi-palatable), pocketed some hummus wraps, and hugged her farewell for what would be a long, long time til Tennessee Valley (almost 20 more miles!).  I was thankful for the immediate ascent that faced me, as it felt like a fine excuse to walk and nosh down on some good solid food.  I typically get sick at mile 30 – with all the energy gels and sugars I take in.  I could feel it coming on, so I skipped a round of gels and just sipped water and forced some solids down my neck.  That seemed to work, so that was a little victory for me.

I don’t even want to talk about the next few miles.  They were horrible.  That climb back up to Cardiac is awful.  The famous Dipsea Trail steps make you question how anyone could possibly run up there!  Powerhiking’s the best I could muster, and even then my legs were feeling pretty done in.  Getting out of those trees and into the open air reminded me I was close to Cardiac (the aid station, as opposed to “arrest”).  I saw Alex up ahead (he was dominating those hills, but even that one took it’s toll on him) and I got a jog on.  At the aid station I saw Bryan Powell who was doing his live broadcast for  I asked who was leading, and sure enough he gave the 3 names of the ultimate podium winners – Rob Krar, Cameron Clayton and Chris Vargo.  I was sad that Dakota wasn’t mentioned.

I sped through Cardiac aid station (mile 30) with just a few cups of cola and a much needed water refill – and set off on what was to be another quad-destroying descent into the Muir Woods National Park.  The 50M course meets up with the 50K course here, so there was a lot of passing to be done.  It’s nice to get all the “good job”s from the folk you pass.  Makes you feel much faster than you know you actually are, and those positive vibes were always reciprocated right back.  50K is no mean feat either!

This 6 mile section of the course – to the Old Inn aid station – seemed to go on forever, but it was certainly a gorgeous run through those giant redwoods, and had a lot of fun, runnable, rooty sections where a lot of passing could be done.  I briefly bumped into Erica Teicheira – who I’d met at the Coastal Series 50 Miler just a few months prior.  She was doing the 50K, and had it not been for her, I’m fairly sure I’d have taken a wrong turn down there in the woods 🙂   After reaching a road crossing, I was dejected (you do turn into a bit of an over-emotional drama queen after 35 miles) to find there was no aid station there.  A little Englishman advised me it was another mile (argh!), as he ushered me back into the woods.  I was so certain there’d be aid at that road, that I’d tanked all my water.  Thankfully the Old Inn aid station came pretty quickly and I was replenished.

Alex and I hooked up again here, chowed down on some spuds, and set off on a 3.5 mile trot along nice flat terrain – through some crazy high grass on the Redwood Creek Trail – back to Muir Beach.  Cramps were starting to kick in big time in my calves.  I felt like my compression sleeves were literally holding my muscles back from bursting out my skin!  Not pleasant.  I worked through it though by running in a style that can only be likened to running on hot coals.  I wasn’t looking forward to the hills I knew were about to come upon us…

From Muir Beach, you are sent back up the steep hill you came down hours earlier.  At the “top”, you now turn left onto a fire road that takes you even higher.  This was a complete walkathon.  Everyone was walking here.  Mainly 50K runners, since the 50M field was so fragmented by this point.  Alex was a godsend.  We each took turns to run ahead for a bit, then walk – while the other would catch up and repeat.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was a system.  And we were passing people.

That relentless climb takes you to a crest with amazing views across the entire Headlands, and dumps you out on the super-fast, steep, winding Miwok Trail back down to Tennessee Valley.  I snuck past Stefan and his pacer again here, as his quads were really hurting him.

I was so pleased to get here and see Al again.  And not just because I got to dump all my gear with her and run light and free for the last 6 miles to the finish 🙂   Having her there raised my spirits so much.  And the crowds here were phenomenal – giving a ton of much appreciated support to all the runners (apart from one arrogant a-hole I would hear about later).

I got back on the road and straight into the big climb up to the Bobcat Trail that would take us to Alta and home.  I was running maybe 100 yards then walking 50 – for this long uphill.  Once it opened up, then I got to open up too.  Word has it that Rob Krar was hammering out 5 minute mile pace at this point!  Me – more like 10.  But it was all good forward progress.  At the Alta aid station I learned it was 2.8 miles home.  I knew the last 0.8 was on the road, so that was just 2 more miles to go in my eyes!  And I didn’t walk any of it.  I could almost taste the cold beer that was waiting…

Seeing the finishing village as I turned the corner to the Headlands Hostel was just the best!  The magnificent red North Face arch was there waiting for little old me to come and pass under it.  I clapped for all the supporters who were out there cheering us all on, and crossed the line with a smile in 8 hours 22 minutes and 8 seconds – close to an hour faster than the first time I ran these 50 incredible miles.

Another day, another North Face medal :)  That red arch just gets me so excited every time I see it!
Another day, another North Face medal. That red arch just gets me so excited every time I see it!  Maybe it’s cos it looks like a bouncy castle
Birthday boy Stefan finished seconds ahead of me, so this merited a manlove photo
Birthday boy Stefan finished seconds ahead of me, so this merited a manlove photo

Much beer was to follow!  And a fun weekend all round 🙂   Cheers!