Monday, December 13, 2010

The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship

Well, ready or not, the weekend was finally here. The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile race.  I had registered for it not long after running the Boston Marathon in April.  How did I come about choosing this race one may ask?  Well, mainly just due to timing and location. First, because a standard marathon was the furthest I had run at that point, I figured 8 months would be enough time to train for a 50.  Secondly, the location was one that was both easy to get to and the scenery was rated 5 stars on the race website.  I ignored the 5 star rating for "elevation change" and "overall difficulty", just minor details that I could deal with later.
One one hand I was both anxious and excited for what would be the most physical challenge of my life.  On the other hand, I was skeptical about my training, both on hills and overall mileage. I convinced myself that a strong effort and respectable finish would be all I could ask for out of myself.  Just don't embarrass myself out there.  Besides, I was running with the big dogs this time.  From what I had read in the days leading up to the race, this could be considered the strongest field ever assembled for an ultra marathon in both the men's and women's class. 
Unlike a marathon, I had no idea what to expect out of my body, especially considering the elevation changes throughout the course.  I expected this would be a true test of my mental toughness.  In addition to the course itself, I wasn't sure what mother nature would throw at us.  The forecast had a 50% chance of rain all week with temps in the 40's & 50's.  The temperature was not a concern, but the rain was.  It caused a little stress about what I would wear.  Would it drizzle, rain or pour?  Would it be freezing cold with an early morning rain?  Muddy?  How muddy would it be? A lot for one to think about on top of the fact that that it was already a challenge with just the distance and the course. 
Fortunately the race allowed for gear bags on the course.  Four of the eleven stations would serve as gear bag drops.  Each drop site woould actually be hit twice over the course of the race and therefore only two bags actually dropped.  I loaded them up with my preference of hydration (purple G2) and nutrition (Honey Stinger gels, Lenny & Larry's Muscle Brownie's and PowerBar Energy Blasts) as well as changes of shorts, shirts, shoes and socks and an assortment of other items I thought could come in handy. I later realizedI failed to packe the extra clothes, but it was never an issue.  I also had a huge gear bag at the start/finish area that allowed for warm clothes pre and post run.
Race morning, up and out of bed at 2:00 a.m., in the car by 2:45 and a short drive over to the Golden Gate Ferry Terminal to catch a shuttle to the start.  At the start area by 4:00, get all gear bags checked in staying full dressed as long as possible to stay warm and then a last minute trip to the portta potties.  They were situated a little ways up a hill and as I walked up to I couldn't help but think "OMG, this is going to kill me".  I even joked with a fellow racer that I pulled a hamstring climbing the hill up to the bathroom.
Pre-race goofball picture. WTH with the visor?
5:07 a.m. and I'm on the start line.  A quick glance to my left and I realize that the lady that just squeezed her way up towards the front is Kami Semick.  "Kami, hey, I'm Ron's friend from Texas".  It was just crazy. I was just standing there looking at Geoff Roes, Lizzy Hawker, Kami Semick and Dakota Jones in addition to all of the other elites that I didn't recognize. I will add that I saw two or three Anton Krupicka wannabes with the long hair and beards, but he actually pulled out from the race earlier in the week due to injury so I knew he wasn't there.  Then it was 5:08 and we were off and running.

As soon as we headed up the hill and hit a short stretch of pavement I knew this was an elite field.  There were so many runners ahead that just shot out of there.  For the first coupe of miles there wasn't much elevation change so the pace was a little quick, but once we hit the hills and the pace would be all over the place.  About 4 miles in to it my digestive system started talking to me and letting me know we were going to have some issues.  I knew, I just knew it was going to happen. 

Early morning, maybe before first aid station?

The first aid station was at mile 5.8 and I ran through it.  I had my own gels and my G2 in a handheld water bottle so I was good.  Another 3.1 miles and I arrived at Tennessee Valley aid station which was also the first gear bag drop.  At that point I found great relief in a vacant porta potty.  I then found my gear bag, filled up my bottle, grabbed another gel and my sunglasses.  While it was still dark, I was hoping the sun would come up soon and that they would come into use.  So as to save the suspense, they didn't and I later dumped them off at another gear bag drop. 

A little cold singletrack action on the hillside

Somewhere along the way the rain came back.  It wasn't a downpour, but enough to concern me that it might get muddy.  In addition, it kept it cool.  For some reason I had shed the gloves at the first bag drop and was now wishing I had them back.  I always have a problem with my fingers getting cold.

Two more aid stations got me to Bootjack for the 2nd gear bag at mile 18.9.  I pulled in just under 3 hours and 3 minutes.  A bit under 10 minute pace which I was happy with, but I knew I couldn't hold it.  I was already feeling very fatigued and somewhat concerned about the next 32 miles that lie ahead.  I got some help from a very nice lady in changing my shoes.  I had to transfer my timing chip from my MT 101's over to the Brooks Cascadias.  I had made a last minute decision to go with the 101's based on a shuttle conversation with a runner, but I thought I was going to need better traction if it got too muddy.  Loaded up on more G2, grabbed my own Lenny & Jerry's Muscle brownie, a gel and I was off again.  I immediately could feel the extra weight of the much heavier Cascadia's on my feet.  Wow, maybe not a good choice, but I was sticking with it now.  I tried to convince myself that the superior traction of the shoes would come in handy as well as the overall support.  Looking back I don't know if it was a good choice or not, but it was the one I made.
The mud and the shoes I switched to, the Brooks Cascadia 6.
My goal was to try to stay as close to that 10:00 pace as possible now. Six miles per hour, c'mon I could do it right?  Nope, I couldn't.  It took me 1:01 to knock out the next 5 miles.  In that section there was an out and back to McKennan Gulch in which I would see the leaders coming back the other direction while we ran on a single track on a hillside.  As the leaders approached those of us still going out, we would step of the track and get out of the way.  They were moving.  The section was maybe 2 miles long, so about 4 when doubled.  I didn't recognize the leading men, but did recognize Kami as she passed me again when I was at 21.65 miles.  Doing the math in my head  I could tell that she was already about 4 miles ahead of me.  Of course I didn't think I was going to hang with her, but just wanted to get an idea of how great the elites were.  Soon after there was Jenn Shelton and Texas' very own Liza Howard, winner of this year's Leadville 100. 

The turnaround at McKennan Gulch aid station was just shy of mile 24.  It was raining and I was cold and starving.  This was the first station that I stopped at for food.  I had a couple hands full of Ruffles chips, 3 or 4 small round brownies and a qtr of a PB&J and then I was off again.  You'd think the turnaround meant the halfway point, but I knew better.  The runners guide said 51.2 miles so I knew I was still shy of the midway point. 

In the week prior to the race, I had studied the guide, the aid station locations and distances between each, but somehow things started getting a bit fuzzy for me and for much of the race back towards the start I just took what the course gave.  I had totally got lost on where things were such as the hills, aid stations and significant landmarks. 

As it turns out, it was 4.7 miles to the next station and then 3.4 more miles before the course circled back to Bootjack, 31.7 miles in and just under 20 left.  I filled my water bottle, grabbed another muscle brownie and was out of there.  This was in the Muir Woods so many of the upcoming miles would be run under tree cover, up and down several steps, over and under trees, through at least one Redwood, a few bridges and a ladder.

By chance I happened to leave Bootjack with a group of 3 runners.  It consisted of both a male and female 50 mile participant and a male pacer for the female.  I didn't intend to, but ended up following them for several miles through the woods and a couple of aid stations.  We may have even leap frogged each other a few of times, I'm not sure, but it seemed that I would be ahead of the female racer as I approached aid stations and she would be ahead of me by the time we left them.  I didn't feel like I spent more than a couple minutes tops at the stations, but she spent even less.  A very efficient runner.  The male racer that was a friend of the other two eventually left us behind and ended up beating me by about 16 minutes.

There were other racers along this section that seemed to either pull ahead or fall back, not really sure as I lost track of them in the woods.  I just wasn't too concerned about beating anyone, but instead just trying to finish with a decent time.  When the day started, the goal was under 9 hrs.  As it progressed, Mr. Mathematician had some work to do figuring out time left to get 9.5, 10, and then eventually 10.5.  At some point in the race, just trying to determine the pace I needed to get 5 miles in one hour was a challenge.   It may as well have been titled The North Face Endurance and Math Challenge.

Powerwalking behind Larissa on Coyote Ridge leaving Muir Beach
Coming out of Tennessee Valley aid station for the second time I found myself a long distance behind Larissa (the female racer).  Larissa didn't even stop that I noticed, but Rick (her pacer) did as did I.  The two of us left at the same time and we could see that she was way ahead up the hill.  One of the handful of hills that seemed to never end. In addition to Larissa, I could see green jacket guy (who I later found out was a Brazillian in my age group).  I was on his tail much earlier in the day, maybe around before mile 13 when he dropped a lightweight green jacket that was tied around his waist and I picked it up for him.  Look closely and you can see him here from the early stages of the race.  No, look even closer than that, he's midway up the hill.

   Green jacket guy from early in the race, maybe before Muir Beach station at 13.9??? 

In addition now, it was evident that there were several runners ahead of me.  It appeared that we had joined up with the 50K runners as they came out of Tennessee Valley as well. This would be a 1.5 mile incline in which we gained almost 700 feet.  As with all the huge hills in the 2nd half of the race, I chose to power walk this section with a few burst of running.  Keep in mind that my "bursts" of running at this point were no faster than 11:00 pace, while that walking was probably closer to 16:00. Miles 42 & 43 took me a combined 31:46, brutally slow and seriously chewing into my goal time.  The good thing was that even though I was moving slow and power walking, I was gaining ground on green jacket even though he appeared to be running.  I was also passing numerous 50K runners.  While this meant nothing in the standings, it was huge psychologically to me. 

Eventually I passed green jacket guy on a downhill section and never looked over at him.  I also caught back up with Larissa and Rick and decided to hang with them for the company on the way in. Turns out they were from the area and actually did their "Thursday" runs on the course, how nice. That reminds me, I need to send Rick a picture of the pumpjacks I get to see on my daily training runs.  Equally beautiful......if you own them.   The section we were on now was predominantly downhilll and to be honest, this was the most painful section of the entire run.  Each step started with a jar to the knees, up the quads and ended with the lower back and ribs.  How in the world could running downhill hurt so bad?  It reminded me of a conversation on the shuttle early in morning in with prior year runner.  He had discussed the very issue and how he incorrectly assumed the final downhill would be nice.  Mile 48.4 - 50.4 dropped just under 800 feet and it was not easy, although I preferred that over climbing. 

The last mile was pretty flat, most of it on pavement and I found that I had a little left in the tank once the course flattened out.  I brought home the last mile pretty strong and even passed one more 50 miler along the way.  I had no intentions of leaving Larissa and Rick behind in doing so, but I had to pee so bad I wanted to hurry and get it over with.  Had it not been so close to the end I would have just stopped on the side of the road, but green jacket wasn't far back and I wasn't about to give up a position in the standings for that reason. 

I finished in 10:15:40, 79th overall and 12th in my age group, 40-49.  It wasn't 9, 9.5 or even 10, but I was pretty damned thrilled that I had finished.  My biggest concern coming in was that I would fall flat on my face and embarrass myself with a poor showing.  I now had a 50 under my belt and in fact a qualifying time for entry into Western States 100.  What a great experience that was.  Exactly what I was hoping for in that sense.  I learned more about myself and what I capable of doing, but more so it taught me that I have a lot of room for improvement.  To see the elite athletes run the course in such incredible time was both amazing and humbling.  I had no thoughts of it as I sat around at the finish line, but in the days since I have made up my mind that I will go back for 2011 to give it one more shot, goal..........sub 9:00.  And the beauty of it is that my wife Gina has agreed to go with me next year.  How nice it will be to have her at the finish line the niext time around.  After all, I couldn't do any of this without her support.

A few interesting statistics from the race:
               Total distance: 51.24 miles, avg pace 12:01(5mph)
               Elevation gain per Garmin 15,759 ft, descent 15,537 ft
               Fastest mile:  7:32 (mile 5)
               Slowest mile:  21:31 (mile 33)
               Estimated calories burned:  5,702
               Approx days until I get my revenge: 357

Men's podium - Dave Mackey (3rd), Geoff Roes(2nd) and Miguel Heras(1st)

Women's podium - Anna Frost (1st), Lizzy Hawker (2nd) and Kami Semick (3rd)


John Nguyen said...

Congrats on your first 50 miler! That is a very respectable time, considering how tough the course is. I'm sure you'd be able to go much faster on a flatter course. I'd like to get some revenge on the course next year too. I'll be interested in your race plans for 2011. Maybe a few more 50-milers?

Nick said...

Wow Steve, I would love to try something like this but it is pretty scarry. I think I will have to learn a little bit from shorter stuff first. Amazing race and I imagine there is a big learning curve as these races are so technical. You are one tough runner.

screaminzab said...

Wow, Steve. I know how strong you are both physically and mentally....that just shows how difficult this course was and how well you handled it. I struggle with math at the end of marathons, I can't imagine the math issues I'd have from this.

Congratulations and I wish you the best of luck next year in your revenge visit. I hope you are recovering well. Well done, sir.

Girl In Motion said...

Excellent report! You are something else, Steve, I really can't fathom wanting to do such a thing must less count down the days till the next one. I will always be impressed with your work ethic and your running talent. ::bowing emoticon guy::

ExSoccerGuy said...

You gave it everything you had on an unforgiving course, went as deep as you could go, and finished saying, "Thank you sir, may I have another?" Impressive grit and determination. Can't wait to see how your ultra-year plays in 2011.

I will say that your race-day attire was surprisingly sedate [hint, hint].

Cheers, ESG/Ron

Steve Berrones said...

John - Thanks and sorry about you taking a wrong turn. I had a couple of moments myself in the woods that I wasn't sure about the direction. Definitely a few more 50's in 2011.

Nick - Thanks! With all the miles you are putting in you would be fine. You just need to get some trail experience.

Zab - Thanks man! Recovering well as I hope you are. Still sorry I couldn't make it to Vegas.

GIM - Thank you! Doing it one more time is what got me motivated for Boston 2010. Hoping for similar improvement at TNF.

ESG - thanks! I decided not to draw any more attention to myself than neccessary. If you go to TNF with me in 2011 I'll let you determine my race outfit????

AgileToes said...

Oww, oww, oww...that's all I could think while I was reading about the course. To deal with all of the climbs and descents while fumbling through mud and rain, that's just not how I would describe awesome conditions. Nevertheless, you prevailed. Quite strongly I might add! Not many folks from flat-ass Texas could do what you did out there.

Anonymous said...

Great race and great report! I don't think you embarrassed yourself at all. I got my first 50 in a month and Bandera next week, but it is always inspiring to read others' race reports.