The North Face Endurance Championships 50M

Preparation

I decided to do this race after finishing UTMB at the end of the summer. I figured it was a long time until my next race in January and this would fit in quite nicely with training for a road marathon given the course runs like a track meet through some hills. I got in some reasonable workouts but probably lacked any actual long runs that I could describe as purposeful. Mostly I just ran with the RMR crowd focusing on my socializing game.

Basically, don’t ask me for training advice. I have no idea what I am doing.

I had a pretty crappy week leading up to the race, suffering from a slight cold earlier in the week which I luckily managed to shift after Silke made me eat some raw garlic. Not sure if it was that or the thought of having to eat more of it but by Wednesday it had dissipated. Unfortunately, on Thursday morning I awoke totally incapacitated with what can only be described as some kind of old man disease. I couldn’t really move my neck at all and my whole back was in agony! There was absolutely no chance that I could run in this condition! Luckily, I was able to pay a last minute visit to Ginna at Boulder Acusport who went to town on me. Needles, fingers and an intense cupping session later and almost immediately I could move my neck again. I tested the water with a short 2 mile run on Friday morning which I was able to do as long as I didn’t look around. Good job I was going to be racing too hard to enjoy the views anyway!

Goals

My goal for this race was first and foremost to finish in 6 hours 30 minutes. I have no idea how I came up with this arbitrary time goal but based on previous year’s times and my 50 mile split at Sean O’Brien 100K earlier in the year I figured that would be a pretty cool time. Next target was a top 10 position but really I was hoping for a top 5 which I thought on a perfect day wouldn’t be outrageous. To do well, you have to first believe you are capable of doing well.

Strategy

My usual strategy is to throw out all strategy and just go out hard. Everyone likes to see carnage so I try to contribute to that as much as possible. Hopefully more on the inflicting end than the receiving end but the fun is usually in finding that out along the way.

The starting pace didn’t phase me too much. It felt right about where I expected it to, cautiously reckless. I quickly settled in about 100m behind the leaders and was quite happy that no one decided to come with me. I like running by myself in races as I am my own worst enemy. There is no one to pace yourself with so the only conclusion you can draw is that you are not running fast enough!

Mile 12. Photo by irunfar.
Mile 12. Photo by irunfar.

About 6 miles in I had to succumb to nature’s call and stopped briefly to take a leak. I quickly lost sight of the leaders but somehow was not passed. This would be my longest pause for the entire race. I knew the aid stations would be brief affairs but on coming into the first aid at mile 9ish, I decided to just throw my bottle on the ground and grab a refill as I flew past. This would set the tone for the remainder of the day. If I had to guess I had less than 1 minute of stoppage time total. So much for the aid station buffet.

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Fake it so you make it. Photo by Nate Dunn.

Execution

Overall my energy throughout the day was pretty decent. I was climbing well, especially on the steeper stuff, of which I wished there was more. The difficulty in this race is just the shear quantity of highly runnable terrain. Sure it has 10,000ft of gain but most, if not all, is entirely runnable bar for a few stair climbs.

My biggest struggle was with the downhills which, to be honest, was not surprising. I should probably do some kind cross training or exercises or stretching or whatever Runners World tells me will stop me from becoming such a stiff, delicate old man. After the first downhill at mile 6 my legs were already complaining. I told them to stop being such pansies and to suck it up. They conceded. At least for a while.

Sunrise up Cardiac Hill. Photo by irunfar.
Sunrise up Cardiac Hill. Photo by irunfar.

After running for a good stretch with Dylan Bowman from the top of Cardiac (mile 18) along the out-and-back I started to suffer a little and dropped back a touch but kept him in sight until Stinson Beach (mile 28). The climb back up to Cardiac (mile 30) was probably my weakest stretch in terms of effort but it wasn’t terrible. I had held position all day so far with only Dylan and Max King passing me since the start. Nothing unexpected there.

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Type 2 fun. Photo by Nate Dunn.

Unfortunately, on the descent from Cardiac my knee and groin threw a total tantrum and shut me down. I was in a lot of pain descending into the valley and was fairly certain I’d have to drop. I soldiered on and finally came up to Silke and Tim towards Panoramic Highway who told me I was the first person they’d seen who was running the climb. That jazzed me up a bit and I soon came up to and passed Tyler Sigl who was looking pretty rough. Chuffed that I was finally moving up again I was swiftly brought back to reality as I was unexpectedly caught and passed at the next aid station (mile 36) by Ryan Kaiser and Allan Spangler. Damn it. There is nothing as crushing as being passed. I tried to not let it bother me and focused on continuing on as I was.

Mile 30. Photo by irunfar.
Mile 30. Photo by irunfar.

I kept Kaiser and Spangler in my sights as much as possible for the next several miles as we headed for Muir Beach (mile 40) where I knew the actual race for position would begin. In another crushing blow, just as I was leaving Muir Beach I glanced over my shoulder to see Justin Houck and Daniel Kraft about 20 meters behind me. I cannot overstate how hard it is to stay focused and motivated when being caught this late in the game.

Luckily for me, there were two decent climbs left and I was still feeling pretty decent in the energy department. I climbed out of Muir Beach up the long, grinding path to the summit with Kraft and although I didn’t turn to see, I could sense Houck wasn’t sticking with us on the climb. After the summit we had made up decent ground on Spangler and I decided to close the gap on the descent into Tennessee Valley. To my surprise I caught and passed him relatively quickly and continued hard into the aid station (mile 44).

I had thought going into this race that the real charge had to come in the last 6 miles. One big climb, one brutal descent. How much did you want it?

I caught a glimpse of Silke and Tim at the aid. I immediately charged. Tossed my bottle to the ground. Grabbed the bottle that Tim held out and blew through the aid station. Game on.

Tennessee Valley running aid station (mile 44). Photo by Cassie Scallon.
Tennessee Valley running aid station (mile 44). Photo by Cassie Scallon.

Shortly after leaving the aid I heard someone over my left shoulder hanging on. I assumed it was a 50K runner but to my surprise it was Kaiser who I had caught and passed as I charged through the aid. We chatted a bit as we climbed about how pleased we both were to be in this position and worked together to really attack the climb. Both of us still feared getting caught again.

At the top of the final climb I turned off the brain and charged into the descent making sure that whoever crossed the line first between us would have to suffer. A lot.

Running the final climbs with Kaiser. Photo by irunfar.
Giving it everything on the last descent with Kaiser. Photo by irunfar.

A gapped Kaiser but never by much to be sure. I glanced over a couple of times to see him charging behind me. This was pretty much the worst scenario imaginable. I put down two 5:30 miles before a final short and awful climb into the finishing straight. Silke and Tim were there to see me finish and told me I was 400 meters from the finish. It was too good to be true. I asked what place I was in. 5th they said. Again, too good to be true.

The End. Photo by irunfar.
The End. Photo by irunfar.

But it was. I turned onto the grass, crossed the finishing line and went on the hunt for beer.

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Both named Ryan. Both in green. This is statistically significant apparently.

6:32:50 for 5th place. Short on the time goal, but hit the position goal. Big race, big day, big result.

Reflections

Ultramarathons are changing. People are really starting to see what’s possible. There was a huge amount of talent out there this weekend and the margins were miniscule. Any wrong move, any loss in concentration, any weakness would result in several drops in position. I was about 1 minute 20 seconds behind 4th place and 40 seconds ahead of 6th place. It was exhausting but not in the physical sense. There were several styles of running on show; run from the front, charge in the middle, come from behind, but all were gutsy, solid performances that everyone should be proud of.

Ultimately, I am encouraged in that I can see some areas for improvement, most notably in the middle section of the race where I think my biggest issue was mechanics. I really do need to start working on my hip, glute and lateral strength to try and avoid this in future.

As it turns out, I had the fastest last 6 miles on the day which is a true testament to the power and lure of beer.

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Silke ran this course 7 and 5 years ago so it was about time for me to give it a go

Logistics

Racing ultramarathons is getting harder and simpler. With the increased speed comes a smaller, lighter and simpler approach. I traveled out to San Fran with a single messenger bag that fit under my seat. When will I learn to stop flying with those criminals at Frontier Airlines!?

I raced in the La Sportiva Bushidos which I chose because of their relative stiffness which I thought would translate into some good speed on this course. They were excellent paired with the Feetures! Elite Merino socks.

I took one Simple Hydration bottle which was more than adequate. I put CarboPro in it which worked great given I didn’t stop at the aid stations for any real food.

I carried around a few gels for added weight training, a couple of ibuprofen, and a little tub of vaseline in my Naked Band. A great, practical, no-nonsense belt for carrying the essentials.

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