Monday, December 5, 2011

The North Face Endurance Challenge - San Fransisco - Race Report


I've had a solid block of training since August -- nothing spectacular, bot solid: averaging 75 miles per week steady since then, including 3-4 "zero days" per month, and another 3-4 "half days off" (running <5 miles, total).  Interspersed were some key long runs, including several 3-4hr runs, six to eight Hardesty ascents, the stroll around The Sisters, a strong trail 50K, a fast "road" 50K, and most notable: the epic, unsupported Squaw to MB with Jake.  I've also learned a lot more about gait mechanics and vastly improved mine - both on the flats and hills. 

However, two issues - right pelvic pain and a last-minute left achilles tweak - were a blow to both my physical and mental prep in the fortnight+ going into The North Face (TNF) 50.  Over the three weeks preceding, I was unable to do any hill training; and then just when the pelvis came around, I tweaked my left achilles just days before the race.  My experience at WS limited the emotional panic to a dull roar, and some skilled work by Mr Woodke helped greatly, but it was more than a bit "disconcerting" to have heel pain just walking around the airport on Friday morning.

I got into SFO mid-afternoon. Jake picked me up, and we went to TNF store downtown to check in, then crossed the Golden Gate into the Marin Headlands to do a short run and a tiny course survey.  We jogged easy, and the left heel felt pretty good. We even did some strides and drills - also fine.  That put my mind and body at ease.    After checking into the hotel, we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner - I had the lasagna, which turned out to be served in a bowl of molten cheese.  Not a great decision, given how little dairy I eat, but I was starving.  We nursed two beers, including one with The Queen, settled down to some Seinfeld ("High Five!") back at the hotel, then lights out by 9:30.

Start to Tennessee Valley AS (8.7)

3AM comes early.  We donned our gear, then crossed the street for a quick bite and some bad coffee, then boarded a bus to the start line.  It was cold and very windy at Ft Barry; Jake and I huddled in an aid tent, bundled in most of our finish bag clothes, trying to keep warm, then stripped down with five minutes to go and hit the chilly, breezy, pitch-dark start line.  Seeing all "The Names" toeing the line, only then did the "enormity" of the event sink in.  But I wasn't nervous; I was too tired and cold!

The first 2K+ is paved road away from Ft Barry - the pace was rational and the packs were big and tight.  I worked on getting rhythm and paid little mind to positioning.  From there it was onto our first "rabbit ear" dirt road loop, which ascended roughty 800' over a couple miles before descending and looping back.  That first climb was a rude awakening, like a bucket of cold water to the face, or worse.  I did not feel good at all.  Dead legs, uncomfortable effort -- despite the "easy" pace in the mid to high 7:xxs.  Jake floated away, and that would be the last I'd see of him for a long time. 

I kept my own company, which meant no break from the powerful wind gusts blowing over the Headlands.  On the descent I tried to open things up and regain some ground, but I felt mechanically poor - overusing quad, unable to "glut brake" like I did on our epic MB run.  Back on the flat, the race was now well-strung out, and I was left to run with only a handful of guys in the darkness.

Another climb, more gut-churning and hard breathing.  I was near and around both Ian and Hal; mutual suffering was an appreciated consolation.  Atop that climb, we got off the road and on a wide single track path.  The course was flat, but the gut still churned -- this time, from the "molten cheese".  I pulled off the trail and "went".  A few people passed.  "Business" was quick, then back onto the path and the descent to Tennessee Valley AS (8.7).  I split 1:06 for that first 8.7 - only five in the top 40 ran as slowly or slower than I did.  I stopped quickly for some water and soda, and a random handful of Skittles (yuck), then off down the road. 

Tennessee Valley to Cardiac #1 (18.0)

I made the most of the slight downhill, but it felt like my quads were already trashed.  I caught up with Hal and Ian and a couple others, and before long it was time for more uphill, steeper yet.  Ahead I saw Ian do some powerhiking; I thought that was smart and I did so, in kind - hoping to keep the heart rate down.  The road ceded to The Coastal Trail and, though still dark, provided our first glimpses of The Pacific.  

Now a fifth of the way in, I was still feeling rough.  I had one thought - Patience - knowing that there's still a ton of race out there.  The Brain iPod grabbed ahold of that, and I loped along the ridge with the soothing chords of Axel and Slash:
I've been [runnin'] these [trails] at night
Just tryin' to get it right
It's hard to see with so many around
You know I don't like bein' stuck in a crowd
And the [trails] don't change but maybe the name
I ain't got time for the game...
The climb topped out with terrific views of Muir Beach ahead, and it was time to descend.  The descent down from the peak of Coastal Trail was ridiculously slow: steep, rugged railroad tie stairs and rocks.  Hal, Ian and Co. (or anyone that didn't stink at descending) flew down, while I gingerly picked my way down the hill.  Descending halfway, the trail climbed briefly once more before rejoining the road for a steep but runnable descent to Muir Beach (12.7).  By then I felt a little bonky, so I took more fluid and calories before heading north. 

Leaving Muir, we ran along sea-level dirt- and paved roads before hopping onto more single track, which wound us around to the base of the biggest climb of the course.  But before then, more gut-rot.  I held it in check, but before heading up the climb I spotted a decrepit porta-potty adjacent the course and grabbed some TP and shoved it into my pack.

Across a grass field, there began The Big Climb.  Switchback after switchback, up we went.  While unrelenting, the grades were light and the tread superb, so the running here was solid.  Moreover, I decided it was time to take an S-Cap.  I'd taken a single E-Cap earlier, but no more, given the fussy gut.  But logic told me, at nearly 15 miles in, I was low.  Since I can't gut them without disaster, I put it between cheek and gum like snus and took it slowly.  It tasted good, which meant I needed it.  I nursed it as I ascended, and within minutes felt as strong as I'd felt all day.  Hal was only a bit behind me but I put some space on him on the climbs and before long I had begun to reel in another five or six runners, including the leading female, Lizzy Hawker.

Lizzy and I - among others - yo-yo'd quite a bit during the first half, but she never looked comfortable.  To her credit - or determinent - she was really pushing it from the gun: up the first climb, and again on the relentless ascent to Cardiac.  About three-fourths of the way up, she tripped and fell right in front of another guy and myself.  She was fine, but she laid there for a bit as we passed along. 

Finally to CardiacAS (18.0) - the summit of the ridgeline upon which held the game-changing mid-section of the run.  I took an extended stop at the Cardiac AS to refill my "jet pack", which I pawned off to AS helpers as I pounded fluids and grabbed some spare gels.  Ms Hawker and a couple others shot in front of me before I could suit up, but I filed right in behind them out of the AS.

Cardiac #1 to Stinson (28.2)

From Cardiac the course ran northward, high up along a mostly-exposed ridge.  The singletrack was tight but both the tread and grade where very runnable.  Some early hills hurt, but I picked my way along.  But before long, more gut rot. Another pit stop.  This allowed some other runners to catch up, including the crafty veteran, Speedgoat Karl.  I felt better after the pit-stop, but not much - low energy, general malaise, and winded.  Signage indicated the turnaround was ahead, and not long after that, the leaders came back upon me -- a cluster of a half dozen to eight guys, then a long line of guys strung out behind.  Given the narrow single track, one literally had to step off course to allow their passage, which was fine, but momentum-killing. Maybe a half mile from the turnaround I ran into Jake, who looked "good, not great".  Finally reaching the AS, while grabbing water and gels, I asked the AS workers, "Is this the turnaround or is it farther?" - a legit question, given there was no chip mat at the turnaround - a pivotal part of the course.  They laughed and affirmed.  I was off again, heading south.

The next 2.5 miles were better running, thanks to fluid and gels, but again abrupt, given the growing head-on traffic.  Most people were accommodating, but others less-so.  No collisions occurred, but the surging Anna Frost -- at least ten minutes behind me - got my inadvertent left elbow to her shoulder as she passed, barely side-stepping the trail as we passed.  I was somewhat miffed, given that I was in front and therefore had right-of-way.  But that would quickly change.

The trail turned west and downhill, thus ending the traffic headache and beginning a long and fairly technical descent of 1500' to Stinson.  I was feeling OK but in no shape to push this descent, knowing we were scarcely halfway.  I picked along the switchbacks as we lowered into forest, the trail interspersed with railroad-tie stairs of varying size, shape and angle.  Not a third the way down, I heard pounded steps and saw the flash of white and red Salomon; it was Anna, who'd made up a mile+ gap in the last 10K to catch me.  I readily let her pass and watched her quickly disappear down the hill.  Just as she passed, I caught my foot on a step, stumbled, then went headlong into the brush.  Sheesh.

Looking back, this section -- between Cardiac #1 and Stinson Beach - was the turningpoint for nearly all the front runners.  Those who ran a strong but measured ascent were able to push this rolling-yet-flat single track session; those who did not -- by either pushing the ups or pounding the downs to Stinson -- crashed and burned, receding to mid-pack or dropping, altogether. 

More switchbacks, stairs and bridges before finally descending the full quarter mile to the Sinson AS (28.2).  Once on the flat and having to run with my own steam, I felt flat and bonky.  The aid station was busy with spectators, runners and pacers - now allowed to run along to the finish.  While scouting for fluids I saw Meghan. She was set to pace Kami Semick to the finish.  I was hoping I'd be running strong when I saw her.

Meghan:  "You holding it together, Joe?" 

Me: "Ugh".

I pounded some soda and water, grabbed some Gu Chops, and I bid her adieu.  As I struggled out of the AS, I wondered when, not if, I'd see her and Kami. 

Stinson to Cardiac #2 (32.9)

The climbs out of  Stinson were brutal -- at first, wide double track dirt road/trail with nice views...of the impending climbs.  Despite having just left the AS, I was bonking hard.  I walked, taking another gel nip from my flask, then an entire pack of Chomps plus water.  Hiking along, I look back - there's Ellie"Shoot.  I gotta go."  I get a shuffle stride going and crawl up the grade, into the woods, hoping to stay in front of Ms Greenwood as long as possible, knowing a whole slew of runners would be in her wake. 

In the woods the course segues with the famed Dipsea Trail, meaning climbing and stairs-galore.  I reeled in another fellow and tried to keep in front of him by power-hiking quickly and powerfully, as I'd seen Ian do earlier, even with hands-on-quads for added boost.  It worked.  Before long I had a good rhythm going.  I began to take stock:  things are not going well; they haven't all day.  I would drop only if the achilles hurt, but it was fine.  Know when to hold 'em...know when to fold 'em.  Kenny appeared and The Brain iPod had a new tune.

First it was this rendition (and Michael's over-the-top harmony). That made me smile.  Then it was the real deal.  That got my legs and my spirit moving. I chipped away at the climb...

Cardiac #2 to "Old Milwaukee" [Inn] (38.9)

I climbed 100% of the way to Cardiac 2, which was now a scarcely controlled chaos with the merging of both the 50K race (now at mid-pack) and the 50-mile, who would hence forth run together.  I was nearly out of water, so as I ran in, I doffed my jet pack and began to open it.  Stuck.  There are folks that use a Camelbak bladder in a Nathan pack for a reason -- the Nathan bladder is impossible to seal and remove easily.  A befuddled AS worker watched me struggle for a bit before I asked him for help; while he struggled with it, I ran to the table to pound more fluid and grab some potato nuggets and gels.  In the chaos, the following happened:  1. Neither he nor I could get the bladder open.  2. I lost my gel flask, 3. I was able to find an empty 12-oz Gatorade bottle to fill with water that slid into the front of my pack. 

During that chaos, several people passed me, including Hal and Ellie, among others.  I finally got on my way down the hill, into the imposing Muir Woods.  Not an eigth-mile down the trail did I make it before the gut went again.  F.  I wasn't messing around: I stepped off trail right in front of the 50Kers I just passed, and went for the third time.  Then it was back on trail.

This descent was less steep, less switchy, and less technical, so I made fairly quick work.  Despite the need to go, my stomach was now fine and my legs had retained some of their pop.  At the bottom, time for more climbing.  Despite the narrow and sometimes treacherous canyon trail in the gorgeous Muir Woods NM, it was nice to have the 50K runners in there -- they were targets to pick off.  I powerhiked most of the steps but ran everything else, reeling in tons of bodies.  Before long there the trees began to open to steeper trail and more switchbacks. 

I looked up to see a familiar beard: it was Jake!  He was only a few yards above me, but a good hundred meters; I picked and plucked my way up the trail, trying not to go anaerobic to reach him. 

It was awesome to see him, even if we both weren't doing great.  We briefly exchanged status reports as we floated along a high, steep, exposed ridgeline atop Redwood Canyon, occasionally passing fellow 50Kers, who by this time gladly stepped off course for us.  I explained my water situation, as my 12er bottle was now near-empty, and asked to pass in order to take advantage of a strong stride and blast into the AS in front of him.  He let me by, but before long was right in tow as we descended more steep steps and trail that spit us onto Muir Woods Road, on which we ran downhill for a good 600m.  It felt good to be with a friend and have a strong stride, so I let 'er rip down the road, then back onto trail, down a steep staircase, more trail, and into Old Inn AS.

"Old Milwaukee" [Inn] to Muir Beach #2 (42.6)

I stopped at "Ol Milwaukee" for more fluid (no beer) and more food, along with salt, of which I was running low.  Jake was nice enough to wait a bit and we were off.  Earlier he'd asked, "You have any time estimates?".  I did not, because I had no clue where we were.  Now at mile 38.5, it was 10:20 AM.  Both Jake's and my "secret goal" was to finish at or before noon, for a sub-7-hour performance.  That left 1h40 to do 11.5 miles.  Very doable, given how good we were now rolling. 

We cruised down the hill out of Old Inn before a steep uphill cut our steam. I had good energy and stride, but as I plucked my way up the steps...."blip-blip!"...both inner quads started to pre-cramp.  F.  I hiked, popped an S-Cap into my cheek and sucked it.  Tasted good. The cramps laid off a bit so I ran some more, as we passed one or two 50-miler guys before a nice double-track descent to a wonderful, mercifully flat valley trail.

I put a bit of distance on Jake on the descent, but no sooner did I hit the flats did the calves start blipping!  F! More walking. Another S-cap, a pack of Gu Chomps.  Jake pulls up and we go again.

Honing the form - emphasizing the forward lean and pelvic/trunk action to save the legs - we cruised along.  I felt great again but the effort was measured.  The calves would "blip" here and there.  More water.  An E-Cap swallowed.  We passed a couple more guys who looked like 50-milers.  We had to be cruising in the 7:xxs.

Back on the road, nearing Muir #2, the bonks returned.  Another gel.  Almost out of water, but close to the AS.  I was slowing down.  Jake and I rolled into Muir 2 together.  I didn't know what I needed: salt? Water Calories?  All?  I tried to get all.  "Got any S-Cap?".  "Nope!".  All they had were Nuun Tabs.  I took 3 and hit the road, but by then Jake was in front by ten seconds as we rounded the corner and began the beastly climb we'd descended four hours previously. 

Muir to the Finish (51.2 miles...?)

Leaving Muir we ran into more traffic, this time the marathoners were coming down, but there was plenty of room on the dirt road.  Ahead of me was Jake, but also Hal and another 50M guy.  Jake floated past them and I followed in-kind; however, I could run no more than 20 - 30 seconds before "blip-blip-blip!" of the quads and calves.  F!  My energy was now back, but the cramps were rampant.  I took a Nuun, broke it in two and put half in my cheek.  It burned but still tasted good.  I sucked and chewed it slowly like a candy, washing down with water.  This would be the pattern for the remainder of the race.

The climb out of Muir was simply unreal.  Indescribable: a rolling dirt-road over a...treeless, barren grassy mountain directly teetering over the Pacific -- such is The Headlands.  The road would climb at 15% grade+, then level out for a 2% downgrade, then up again.  I ran as much as the "blips" and grades would allow, powerhiking the rest.  I watched Jake ahead and tried to run when he ran, but he slowly pulled away.  The "Nuun Candy" worked, as the blips became somewhat less infrequent, and before long, I began to reel in Jake -- paying scarcely any attention to the surroundings -- the surreality of this climb, which now resembled something like a daylight "Rainbow Road": my abs and arms like "power sliding", the gels, chomps and Nuuns like miniature mushroom boosts. 

The climb finally leveled for a downhill into Tennesee Valley; I ran strong but measured yet again, so worried was I about my quad and calves.  Jake pulled way ahead, such that when we rolled into Tennessee Valley AS,  he had thirty seconds+ on me. 

At Tennessee, more bonks, more food, more water.  "More everything!"  I hiked my way out, but even when hiking, the quad were blipping crazy.  Then the hamstrings kicked in.  Sheesh.  As I hiked along, I saw Jake pull out of sight.  But there'd be no pity-party: more Nuun, more water, more gels.  I'd run ten seconds - "blip-blip-blip!" - then walk. But I knew we were close -- only about four miles from the finish and a bulk of that being downhill.  I just needed to get to the top!

Despite the rough going, I passed a couple folks before finally, mercifully, the hill crested into a nice downhill.  But we were still far from the final descent.  It looked like we had one more climb.

I fought the blips constantly, as if tip-toeing across a mine field - one false move and it was a death of tetany, and at best a painful limp to the finish.  At worst?  A DNF. 

Strategizing, I realized I needed total relaxation.  Moreover, I had to smile.  So I did.  A huge, ridiculous grin, almost non-stop, was pinned on my face as I floated along down the road and onto the final climbs, onto the last "rabbit ear" that lead to the home stretch.  I had to soften it as to not look insane as I passed a Park Ranger in his squad, then a random aberration of "The Gentle Giant" running downhill past me.  "Hey Dave!", I said, the smile slightly less ridiculous. 

But it worked; moreover, it forced me to reflect on the day -- a beautiful run on an exceptional course with incredible competition.  And, despite the struggles, I was once again able to flip "The Switch" and go from death to all-out hammering!.  And, cramps notwithstanding, I was finishing hard and strong!  A truly great day to be alive and smiling!

After passing Dave I saw a tall guy in white and blue in front of me.  No way.  Had to be someone else.  I ran, got closer, had to hike.  Ran, got closer.  It was him: Mike Wardian.  He was clearly hurting, but so was I.  It was on...sort of.

With no bravado except my ridiculous cramp-stopping smile (which seemed to work), I shuffled past.  However, not 30m past, "blip-blip-blip!".  More walking. He crept back up and passed.  I ran again, ignoring a few blips because we were finally at the tops.  Amongst palm fronds and eucalpytus trees, the course leveled out  to the final AS, which begot final descent.

I got into the AS looking for anything to stave off cramps - fluid, salty potatoes - but as I was snacking, Mike flew through, not breaking stride.  F.  Gotta go.  Wardian got a good 50m on me on the rocky double track downhill, but he wasn't hammering.  "F-it, let's roll.".  I cut it loose, a controlled fall down the trail, weaving through washouts and 50Kers before catching Mike about midway down.  I shot past without hesitation and built a slight lead, focusing on using the gluts as best I could to preserve the quads and calves.  My lead was short-lived: he gathered himself and made a decisive push past me.  I found gear, but it wasn't enough; he began to pull away as the hill gave way to the grassy valley.  A veteran move, indeed.  He was hammering.  I couldn't - or wouldn't - hold it. 

But then we'd made it to the cutoff that would take us to the course.  I lost sight of him, but kept moving: abs and gluts, forward progress.  The road ascent to Fort Barry was surprisingly quick and easy, and before long I could hear the cheers of the finish.  'Round the corner, a hard right, and down the grass hill to the finishing mat.  I crossed, stopped, and stood still [Tetany? Anyone? Anyone].  Then smiled.


Just outside the finish area was Wardian, who'd finished a good minute in front of him.  I shook his hand.  "Congrats!".  "I had to run 5:30s to beat you!", said Mike.  That was cool.  I just battled the three-time USATF Ultrarunner of the Year and #2 in the World 100K, and made him work hard!  Cool.  I made my way around the finishing area, looking for Jake.  He was in the med tent, getting patched from a couple early falls.  Nice road rash!  Post-race beer ("Big Daddy IPA" from Speakeasy in SF - smuggled into my drop bag!), and great rehashing with The Community, including most of the folks in front of me and several notables behind.  It was so enjoyable at the finish - especially with some IPA in my squeeze bottle - that I nearly got a sunburn.  Jake and I lingered with his family, taking in the scene, before finally shoving off, and putting a close onto a great morning. 

My official time and place was 7:11:25, good for 19th place.  Jake was 15th in 7:05:55, in what was billed by iRunfar as "The most competitive ultra marathon ever assembled".


The remainder of the day and into Sunday (over "Crepes A-Go-Go"), Jake and I rehashed the day, then waxed philosophic about the race and the sport.  We both agreed that we learned a lot: of being smart early, of fueling properly, and of the beauty and wonder of "The Switch", which we were able to experience together from 38 to the finish.  And, once again, just being a part of the cameraderie of the finish line made the 50 miles and 7+ hours of effort worthwhile. 

Pragmatically: the things I need to do for next time:

1. Eat more, often.  Two gels an hour.  End of story.
2. Don't get injured within two weeks of a race!
3. Prep for 5AM races by training then
4. Get a proper warm-up - at least fifteen minutes worth before the gun, unless I'm hiking the first 4.5 miles...

I'll leave this drawn-out tale with one more, and a prelude to my next post.  Jake and I were contemplating our place in a fast-growing sport.  Are we actually "good", or simply on the very front-end, tip-of-the-iceberg of the "Competition Era"?  Did we just get lucky, placing top twenty when we were lucky to get mention, pre-race?  Maybe, maybe not.  But no matter what you do, there will always be a place for smart guys with some guts:

Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep
'Cause every hand's a winner and every hand's a loser
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep
The Grades

Pacing: A.  I squeezed blood from a stone: I could honestly say I could not have gone faster, given the circumstances of dead legs early and cramping late.  Taking what the body would give early was crucial in feeling strong late; I can only hope better preparation (across many lines) will allow a faster start next time.

Mechanics: B+. Good, not great.  I was able to hone in the power-stride during The Surge from 38, on; however, I felt messy and out of control on the early descents.  As such, my quads are now quite sore and my gluts only mildly so -- nothing close to the "blissful descents" I rocked during our Michigan Bluff run in October. 

A great measure of mechanics is the degree of pain and soreness post-race.  I had next to none!  Toes were fine, knees fine, and overall the soreness symmetrical.  Some pictures revealed a bit of left trunk, but I was lucky to be upright, for Pete's sake! 

Hydration/Fuel/Electrolyes: C+.  Worst grade yet.  Bummer.  I'm still finding my groove, and today solidified it.  Post-race, I found my gel flask (either the AS worker or I put it in my main pouch): it was over half-full.  So, for 33 miles, I'd "nipped" less than three gels.  The cramps were due to lack of calories, as I'd only taken whole gels and potatoes inconsistently early.  As such, I'd get only a short bump of cramp-relief from water and salt.  Like The Queen said, I needed 200 kcal/hour; I got maybe half that. 

My stomach was sucky early from eating the cheesy lasagna the night before. "Would an IDIOT do that?" 

Mental Toughness: A-.  It was a bit of a sufferfest early, but the late stage toughtness - and pity-party avoidance - was awesome.  My "battle" with Mike Wardian was my first end-of-race competition since the end of AR and only the second time I raced anyone to the finish in the last three miles of an ultra.  Awesome fun!  I need to grab that and store it in a jar for 2012. 


  1. Nice report (and run), Joe. It was an epic day.

  2. @Ian: Thanks! It was a fun, though tough day! See you around.

  3. @Joe - Upon further reflection, aside from the physical/mental preparation Squaw to MB gave us, I think suffering alongside one another for 12hrs 30min gave us a cohesive element and taught us how to run with one another, so that, when you went by me, what naturally flowed was what we'd unkowingly practiced that day being put into perfection by us running together. Good stuff!

  4. @Jake: Very true, even though no Seinfeld trivia was exchanged. Honest to Golly...without the cramps, we would've hammered the rest of the way and cleared 7:00! Next year!!