Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Race Report: The 2011 North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championship, San Francisco

Act Two:  The Doing It Part

Before I start, and just to get you into the mood, you should watch this video brought to you by the badasses at the Endurables running club in the Bay Area.  It's amazing footage of the leaders and the eventual winners Mike Wolfe, and will help you envision the brutality of this course.  Really amazing footage and great music.

Over the last couple of days I've tried to reflect on a couple of themes that sort of summarize the experience of running my first 50 mile race.  I was able to come up a couple that will be recurring throughout the next few hundred words.

  • I knew this thing would be hard; turns out it was harder.
  • It seemed like there was someone turning a dial from challenging to "you've got to be kidding me" all damn day

A perfect example of the second came almost immediately in the form of howling winds from the start to the Tennessee Valley aid station.  The winds were fairly ridiculous, at one point forcing me almost upright as I climbed up the first hill which is upon you almost immediately.  This wasn't a huge shock to my body as Laguna Seca does almost the exact same thing.  Solid jogging combined with a power-hike was keeping me up with the first half of the field.  When I started the first descent, I realized that my head-lamp wasn't nearly as bright as it could be and that I was going to sacrifice some time for not practicing night-time trail running.  This was totally surprising and really didn't bother me that much mentally.  I was trucking anyway and likely didn't need to be moving much faster.

When I arrived at the TV aid station, I realized that some of the aid stations were not exactly as advertised.  I was expecting GU gels, not chomps (which cause me some gastric distress) and they were nowhere to be found.  This was a bit of an issue given that I only brought three gels with me, and had expected to refuel at each station with gels.  Whoops.  Not totally my fault, but it would have been smarter to just hedge my bets and carry enough with me to get me to Cardiac, where my drop bag was located.  I reluctantly took two packages of Chomps for the road and moved out.

From Tennesee Valley I headed out to Muir Beach which includes some fairly ridiculous switchbacks followed by a nasty little descent into Muir Beach.  The grade is simply ridiculous and it became apparent pretty quickly that this type of grade and my crappy mechanics was eventually going to take a toll, I just wasn't sure when. 

After this, I headed up to the  Cardiac Aid station where I knew my drop bag was located.  The chomps were now doing their thing on my stomach and I wondered if I would have been better off just bonking and reloading at the aid station than dealing with the fact that my stomach felt like someone stepped on it. Ultimately I stuck with my "don't get behind" nutrition strategy and I think it was the right one, it just wasn't comfortable.  When I got to Cardiac, I swapped out the long sleeve shirt for a fresh clean one and jammed my back pocket full of gels, not wanting to deal with any more stomach cramping.

From Cardiac to Stinson Beach you have a tricky section of single track that has some incredible views, if you can catch a glimpse and not get hip-checked off of the path by runners coming the other way.  If I'm being honest, this was the first time I really started to get bummed out by my conservative pace, even though I knew that it was right for me.  Runners were already coming back, so about every 50 meters I was having to step to the right and get out of the way.  By the way, returning runners on an "out and back" have the right of way, so don't be a jackass here.  I didn't enjoy the experience of being lapped here, even if it was by people I will likely never catch.

Stinson Beach back up to Cardiac is where the misery really starts.  At this point you are at mile 28 (approximately) and are staring into the pain and agony that is the Dipsea trail and its 2k feet of stairs and climb.  For me, this is where I started to question whether I was even going to finish in 11 hours, given the pace of my ascent.  It was pretty clear that I hadn't done enough hiking during my preparation and my legs were starting to skim the stairs out of sheer fatigue.

Once I hit Cardiac again though, I felt like a new man.  I refueled with some chicken soup, some endurolyte caps, and re-lubed all of my moving parts for the final push back down to the beach.  Initially I bolted out of the aid station, really stoked to be hitting some gradual switchbacks and some flat terrain.  Eventually though, these trails got tougher and more technical and my pace slowed to a crawl and I was mentally begging for the aid station that was placed slightly further out than many of the rest.  Finally I got there, after watching (and hearing) a spanish kid snap his ankle like a twig right in front of me.  We were so close to the end I felt horrible watching this unfold, but there wasn't anything to do but get to the EMTs and let them know that they needed to head up the trail.  I was actually helping him by running away from him.  Who'da thunk?

After this I headed back down to Muir Beach where things start to flatten out and you can actually get some speed going.  I was totally jazzed to hit some terrain that felt comfortable and rattle off some decent times where I could.  At this point 9 min miles seemed like light speed.

I reloaded at Muir Beach and got out of there as quickly as I could, knowing there were just a few more hills to go before the finish line.  A dude dressed as Buzz Lightyear was there to cheer folks on and I tapped his "talky" button before I moved on.

Yeah, just a couple.  Of gigantic ones.  With smoked legs.  Awesome.

I won't belabor the point here, but these final mountains were simply soul crushing for me.  At this point, my legs were destroyed and running up them was just not an option.  Running down them was miserable as well.  I don't know what else to say besides everything hurt and I couldn't work up any kind of speed without some fairly intense pain, which was a completely new experience for me.

I was buoyed at the end by the sight of an athlete fromt the Challenged Athlete Foundation, a lady with two prosthetic legs, totally gutting out 6 miles of a marathon relay.  It was clear I didn't have shit to complain about and ran faster than I had in over 6 hours toward the finish line.

I didn't finish as fast as I wanted (I wanted to qualify for States, just to have a goal, not because I think I'm capable of it right now) but luckily when you have a wife as awesome as mine, you don't have to worry about hearing anything other than congratulations or getting anything other than a smile.  She's been nothing short of amazing to me while I trained for this and frankly, when I train for anything.  She even busted out her own running PR just before she came up to see me finish!

And my three daughters, that are always encouraging and there to give me a hug despite the stink.  What a beautiful group!

Probably the coolest part of running Ultras is the on-course camaraderie you develop with dudes you don't even know.  Jose and I met a guy with probably the coolest moustache on earth and had to get a picture:

I honestly wasn't too stoked on my time until I bumped into Mr. Ultramarathon Man, Dean Karnazes and he offered his congratulations.  I told him my deal, that I hadn't run a marathon until a year ago and that this was my first 50 miler and second Ultra.  What happened next shocked the hell out of me.  His eyes got wide, his jaw dropped and he said, "Brother, you picked one HELL of a first 50 miler! Wow."  Said the guy that just finished running across the country.

So I got that going for me.

I've got a few more general reflections but I'll save them for later, they're a bit more pensive (likely the post-race blues kicking in).  For now, I'll setting for knowing I got it done despite not having my best day or my best coach and training buddy Mike there to make sure I didn't do anything stupid.  I will say that although it was an amazing day, things were a bit bittersweet without him there.  Next time, next time . . .

For now, I'm going to put my feet up and have a cold one.

By Marcus with 9 comments


Yep >>> I knew this thing would be hard; turns out it was harder. Those were my thoughts on the 50-mile experience as well.

A huge well-deserved congrats to you!! I'm super impressed. Sounds like one bitch of a course.

Love your choice in beer, by the way. Sierra Nevada is good stuff!

Ahhh, loved this read. Made me realize you are both human and a BAMF at the same time. Sounds like an amazing experience. Congratulations to you 50 times over! #EpicShitDone Can't wait to see what you AND Mike do it 2012! It will be epic indeed. Wheeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!

Thanks to both of you. The toughest thing to deal with mentally was knowing that I was pretty darn fit, but that I had some limitations.

The North Face actually had a Sierra Nevada beer garden waiting for us, but I had to drive back to Monterey. I didn't want to be super sleepy so my wife hooked me up on the way home :-)

For 2012, I think I'm going to focus on getting better (or at least more comfortable) at these distances. It'll be at least another year (assuming I don't get deployed, etc) before I try the lotto at States or something.

I'm still amazed that someone would run 50 miles, on purpose, with no one chasing them.

Awesome accomplishment! I'm glad that you enjoyed it enough that (it sounds like) you're considering another one, too.


This story is jsut as impressive as when I heard you tell it to me. Agood story coupled with the family support makes it complete.

Great adventure that you will never forget!

During my marathon in JAN 12 I reflect on your agony and think its only 26.2 miles, not 50!! :)


Hello are you an infantry officer? And if so do you have any suggestions to get prepared for RASP? Thanks

Nice work! Great to have other military out there. Mike Wasson is an O-6 at Vandenbery AFB and was 49th (7:20), he is the guy who got me into running trail ultras. Awesome webpage!

I am inspired for my half this next Sunday! Thanks buddy!

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