North Face 50m, round II

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More speed, less grace than four years ago. I’ll take that trade off. Still running happy.

On Saturday, I broke a personal rule: I ran the same race a second time. The last time I ran it, I had gotten stitches out of my leg the day before. It was a brutal, 12-hour slog, beginning and ending in the dark. This time, I was hoping for a slightly better performance.

This was the North Face 50 mile championship race, in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco. Long story short, I’m proud of the race I ran on Saturday. I finished in 10:40, which is much faster than my time in 2011. I felt very strong, and my spirits were high the entire time. Overall, a good day.

Here are some pictures.

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Crossing the start line at 5:03 a.m. They started us in waves, with each one going off a minute after the previous one. I was technically in wave 4, but they didn’t seem to be aggressively checking our bibs, so I started with 3.

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Running in the dark, before the sun came up. The trail here was pretty easy to navigate, in that it was wider fire roads and not extremely steep. That said, the rains earlier in the week had shaken a lot of debris off of the trees, so there were leaves, branches, and twigs dotting some of the downhill portions. My headlamp’s light was insufficiently bright for the task, so I trusted my night vision and the much more useful headlamps of my fellow runners.

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Sunrise photo, courtesy of Will. The pre-dawn light was welcome – no more headlamp! And the sunrise was gorgeous.

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Heading downhill early in the race. Not actually sure where on the trail this was.

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Charging up some single track.

The course featured lots of hills, and many of this hills were on single track. This meant that you got into place between a couple of runners and were pretty much stuck there until the trail got wider again. This was actually a blessing in disguise; the single-file nature of these hills meant I had to keep pace with the runners around me. No slacking off! This kept me moving at a very brisk pace. Early in the race, I thought I’d regret the speed up these hills, but it turned out I was up for the task.

This dynamic also meant more of an opportunity to get to know other runners, and there were some very cool people out there! They kept me motivated, even as we leapfrogged ahead of each other on different parts of the course.

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Will joining me at the finish line. He came in at 9:18 – a 50-mile PR for him!

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Me at the finish. There was actually a heel click here, but the photographer missed it!

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More finish line joy.

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Will got me a present!
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And here are some of my favorite people on the day after the race. Several Antarctica marathon buddies came out to CA to participate in the weekend running fun as well. It was fantastic to be able to hang out with them, especially during this post-race karaoke session.

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Nanny Goat Ultra: 50 miles in 9:36

This Saturday was the Nanny Goat race – it’s a local ultra in Southern California, and competitors can run 12 hours, 24 hours, or 100 miles. I registered for the 12 hour race with no real goal in mind, and ran 50 miles in 9:36 – a great pace for me – before calling it a day.

The event was my kind of race, catering to the fringy, fun-loving, and a slightly unhinged ultrarunner demographic. This made for a great atmosphere, so different than what you find at aggressive road races. Characteristic of veteran ultrarunners, everyone at this event was extremely friendly and excited to chat. There were also runners who dressed up in costumes – @runjesterrun was there in full jester regalia, which was really fun to see! Other runners wore pink tutus or grass skirts.

In true strange-ultrarunner fashion, we started the race in a goat pen. To kick it off, they opened the gate and we all stampeded out and on to the course.

Before the race – this is the goat pen where we started

Another view of the goat pen, featuring our starting gate on the left, next to a motivational banner.

The course itself was a 1-mile loop.

Yay snark! Also, check out the guy in the pink tutu on the left – he was [mostly] walking, and his goal was a beer every three laps.

We ran through a horse stable & barn area, and some runners in the 24-hour event set up their mini-camps in the stables.

Part of the course – running through the horse stables

A 24-hour runner’s camp, gear, and supplies for the night

We got to see ponies at every mile, and ran through a tunnel of orange trees.

Coming to say hi

Do you have food?!

Other runners trotting through the orange-grove tunnel

We also met the cone of death every mile at the turn-around. Because this turnaround was so tight – myself included – took to pivoting the other direction around the turn – we’d do a little spin to stretch out the muscles on the other side of our bodies. This worked really well at the beginning of the race, and progressively less well as our muscles got more and more tired.

Cone of death

[By now, you’ve seen basically the entire course, although somewhat in reverse order.]

I was crashing pretty hard around mile 31 – pretty tired, a little dizzy, and bad body-temperature control. I pinged Will, who explained that I was probably tired because I had just run 31 miles. This made sense, and I turned on some pump up music to power through.

To participate in the costumery, I found a cat-ear headband to wear, which made me easily identifiable and also made me some friends. This included one pacer who, after he made dog-barking noises, I coerced into running my last three laps with me.

Cat eats! Surprisingly not at all irritating to wear for 10 hours.

My surprised but surprisingly enthusiastic pacer, in the yellow shirt! Also, does anyone know him? He apparently knows some Antarctica runners from this year. [photo credit: Rose]

The best part was seeing one of my Antarctica shipmates at the finish – Rose, who lives nearby, came to cheer me on for the last lap and a half, and we went to get ice cream right afterwards. Great end to a very fun race.

Just finished! Photo with Rose, Antarctic badass, while wearing my Antarctica shirt [and cat ears].

I was definitely not trained to run a 100-miler this weekend, and that was never part of the plan, but now that I know how fun this race is, I’m thinking about it for next year …

North Face 50-miler in D.C. – a race in three parts

I signed up for this race a few months ago because it seemed like a good weekend to run – with Boston also happening, I knew I wanted to get in some non-road-race mileage in a slightly logistically easier way. This race seemed like a good option.

Part 1 – running in the dawn

The race started at the uncomfortably early hour of 5am. Even though it would reach >70*F that day, it was cold in the morning, and we huddled around fire pits in the darkness before the race started.

This was a larger 50-mile field, with about 300 runners. Because we’d immediately clog the single-track dirt trail, we started in three waves, each a minute apart. They’d slotted me to start in wave 3 – I don’t know how they assigned these – but I snuck up to wave 2, which was a good plan; there was a significant amount of non-passable trail that we had to navigate in the dark, so it was nice to get a decent pace going at the beginning.

The first mile was around a very wet and muddy field. Given that this course was actually 50.9 miles, I’m convinced the race organizers just added this part in with sadistic intentions – we were wet and muddy, with shoes thoroughly soaked through, within five minutes of starting. They’d also set up a photographer at the biggest of these mud puddles, reinforcing my interpretation of these early tortuous motivations.

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Leading a train of headlights

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Running through the mud

When the sun started to come up, it illuminated a gorgeous, lush forest, bordered on one side by the rushing Potomac River. We continued to dance along single-track trail, still energetic with early-race adrenaline, as mist wove between the trees and settled over fields of tall green grass. Bright blue flowers hung from knee-high stalks all around us, carpeting the forest floor.

It was quite the contrast with Philly, and that made it so much more spectacular.

The first 13ish miles were hilly, but not excessively so. I walked the steeper parts and took it easy on the less steep parts, speeding up on the downhills and flats to conserve energy.

After a few hours, we entered Great Falls Park, which looks like this photo below.

Great Falls Park (source: National Parks Service)

It was a great start to a beautiful race.

Part 2 – three loops

The next part of the race would involve running the most convoluted 7-mile loop three times. See below for the illustrative map, which was intended to be helpful.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

We started at the end of the first leg, then ran long a wider path for a bit, which had a slight uphill. We turned onto some single track, did an out-and back to a turnaround where someone marked our bib, then came back to the wide path. We crossed that, did another out-and-back to an aid-station, then took a side path back to the main, wider path, and headed back towards the start of the loop … only to take a sharp right, down to another out-and-back, then come partway back but take another detour to the start of the loop. Then do that two more times. Honestly, even though I’ve done it three times, I don’t think I could retrace my steps if I went back today. That’s how confusing it was.  The map is still not clear to me.

Look how pretty the park was!

The first loop was exciting, because we hadn’t done it before. By the 2nd loop, the 50k racers joined us, which was fun – they were pretty energetic, and many of them were excellent cheer captains. I paused at the mid-way aid station to take off my socks and shake the rocks out of my shoes – it was a great feeling to get the grit out, and I felt rejuvenated to knock off the third lap.

Third lap … tired of running … let’s try something different!

Part 3 – the long road home

Passing through the end of the last loop, having run about 35 miles, I felt ready to take on the remaining ~15 miles of the race. That feeling quickly faded … when I realized I still had to take on another 15 miles. Food seemed undesirable – not that there was anything wrong with the aid station options, which were great – my stomach just didn’t seem keen on any of it. I was mostly subsisting on Mountain Dew and water, and maybe a Gu if I could force one down.

The first four miles to the next aid station were challenging because they were flat, so there was no excuse to walk. At this point, it hurt to do anything – walk, run, or sit down – but the fastest way to the finish line was running, so I kept moving at a slow trot.

The remaining ten miles were very warm and humid, and seemed to take a very long time. Even though I was hurting, I seemed to be doing okay – I was passing some of the slower marathoners and 50k runners, and several 50-mile runners as well. Most frustratingly, the trail was completely perfect for running – soft, mostly flat single-track, pretty easy to navigate – which meant there were no excuses to walk. At least with hilly courses you get an externally-imposed walk-break. I found myself longing for the vertical ascents characteristic of West Coast races.

That is, until we hit the final hilly section. Then I immediately hated the hills – they’re hard to climb! – and yearned for the flat trails I’d been on just moments before.

The last few miles were pretty rough. At one point, we reached an aid station where all the shorter distance runners went straight for another mile or so to the finish, but we had to take a sharp right and do a two-mile out-and-back – that was pretty disheartening, because the finish line was right there!

Seriously … I can basically see the finish line.

I fell into pace with a younger runner – Naval Academy student doing his first 50-miler. We picked up the pace and were doing 9ish-minute-miles for about two or three miles during this out-and-back, which is really fast for the end of a long race! He dropped back at one point with just a mile to go. Feeling strong, I pushed hard to the finish.

At one point, I thought I saw the finish-line – it looks like a big red arch. Turned out I just saw a red back-hoe. Disappointing.

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Just a few minutes later, I saw the actual finish-line. And crossing it was great. I had some enthusiastic friends – fellow Wharton students, running the 13.1 the next day – waiting at the finish line, and it was so fun to see them.

Crossing the finish line with #mywharton girls!

Friends at the finish-line!

Overall, it was a pretty great race. Tough towards the end – but what 50-miler isn’t? – yet I’m proud of my performance. I came in 3rd for my age group, and in the top quarter overall [including men!] which is pretty good. My final finish time was 10:28, which isn’t my fasted 50-miler, but isn’t bad considering the hills.

North Face is a pretty commercial ultra series, which means there are a lot of new or first-time runners. It’s always great to indoctrinate newbies into the sport. However, it also means that the spirit of the ultra community isn’t as present at these sorts of races – there’s a sort of camaraderie on the trails that arises from having done a lot of these. It’s an understanding that we’re all out here together, and a great way to get through the pain is to rely on each other for conversation, pacing, and support. North Face didn’t – doesn’t – really have that vibe. But being down there with friends, who would be running the next day, more than made up for it.

On to the next challenge …

Bring it on.

Into the Mist – San Francisco 50-mile race report

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After finishing!

As some of you know, I’m training for Pine Creek 100-miler, a flat 100-mile trail race in northern Pennsylvania in early September. As part of my training, I like to get in some long, hard runs – so the San Francisco 50-miler in the Marin Headlands seemed like a great fit.

The out-and-back 50-mile course covered some familiar ground in the gorgeous hills just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It also included quite a bit of climbing, with almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain over the 50 miles. Check out the course profile:

 

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My theory behind tackling this race was that if I could handle this much climbing over this distance, I’d be pretty well prepared for a flat 100-miler in September. For me, hill climbing can be psychologically devastating; you’re working very hard and moving very slowly. For this race, I was prepared for the worst.

There were 72 registered runners for the 50-mile race, and 18 runners taking on the 100-mile race. We’d all run together for the first 50 miles, after which the crazy people would stop, and the crazier people would keep moving for another 50 miles, on sightly different but equally challenging terrain, to finish their 100.

This was basically what it looked like at the start line. Our first ascent was up those hills on the far side of the beach. Source: http://forallmyfriends.com/page/309/

The morning was characteristically foggy. We followed our intrepid race director out of the parking lot, and he laid out two orange cones as our relatively informal start line while explaining how to follow the ribbons to stay on course. “We’ll have a mat at the finish line to record your time … we haven’t put it out yet, but it will be there.” “You’ve got plenty of time!” one of the runners called back. The course record for the 50-miler was just under 8 hours, which, while fast, certainly left them some time to set up.

We took off on a flat road, heading south into the fog. It’s always tempting at the beginning of a race to run quickly – after all, it is a *race* – but in ultras, speeding up that early can tire you out really quickly. I reigned in my enthusiasm for the first mile or so, listening to a couple of runners chatting behind me.

A few of them were using this race as a training run too, as they were preparing for various 100-milers around the same time as mine. Training for a 100 can logistically challenging, as there are very few people to compare training plans with. Marathon training plans are pretty well-established and straightforward in their mileage, frequency of runs, and distribution of long runs, but there’s no formula like that for a 100. It was good confirmation to hear that other runners had the same idea I did about this race.

Ultrarunners have a very particular way of running that is pretty easy to identify. There’s zero wasted motion, and the range of movement is also very tight – again, the goal is to conserve as much energy as possible. We spotted one runner way out in front – he had a big backpack on, and it looked like he had to overcompensate his body movement to keep it in place. I learned that he’d biked almost 20 miles to get to the start, and, today, was taking on the 100-mile distance. Internally, I raised my eyebrows (actually raising them would have taken up a lot of energy 😉 and wished him luck. We passed him at one point, and despite much speculation amongst runners on the course, I’m not sure how he ended up.

In ultras, my mantra is “if it looks like a hill, walk it.” This gives me permission to interpret any surface as a hill – even if it isn’t one – and walk it. The surface only has to *look* like a hill, not actually *be* a hill. So, when we hit an easy hill very early in the course – it was a shallow, 200-foot climb – and I knew I could run it, I dropped to a brisk walk – I’d need that energy later.

One of the runners behind me caught up and started walking, as well. We shared the same hill philosophy – walk all of them. He introduced himself as Rick, and was using this run as a training run for the exceptionally challenging Wasatch 100; it has something like 27,000 feet of climbing at ~5,000 feet of altitude. This guy was a speed demon hiking up hills – I kept telling him to take off when he’d inch ahead, but we ended up running together for the rest of the race, which was really cool!

The first 8-12 miles weren’t bad at all. The fog was incredibly thick – one of my friends once likened these conditions to running inside a ping pong ball, because all you can see is the ground in front of you and a greyish orb everywhere else. Having run those hills before, I knew the views of the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge could be beautiful and expansive. However, it was a relief to not see the huge stretch of trail extending miles into the distance, knowing that I’d have to run it. Instead, I focused on the trail just in front of me and the deep, vibrant greens and browns around us.

As part of the race, we had to descend, then climb on the way back, this ladder, a famous feature of the Dipsea trail. Source: http://adventurerun.wordpress.com

Around mile 20, after a few aid stations and a lot of climbing, we hit a the high point of the course and an aid station. We then left the rolling hills and plunged into a wet, green forest. This was part of the infamous Dipsea Trail, which is known for its challenging climbs, including 688 steps over 7.5 miles.

The turn-around was at mile 27, at Stinson Beach. On the way in, we had some beautiful views of Stinson’s long stretch of white sand. While the sun was clearing out the clouds a bit, it still wasn’t too hot, which was also great.

Usually I carry an Amphipod water bottle, which has a hand strap and is curved to fit into a palm so the runner doesn’t have to squeeze to carry it. However, I’d left mine back in Philly – traveling with carry-on only isn’t conducive to toting around lots of gear. Instead, I was using a cheap 16-oz disposable plastic water bottle and refilling it at the aid stations, to the confusion and consternation of the aid station crew. I also didn’t bring a jacket, arm warmers, compression socks, or a Camelbak backpack; I was definitely (and proudly!) the runner with the least gear.

After taking a quick minute to refuel, Rick and I turned around, looking forward to retracing our steps along now familiar trails. We’d done the first 27 miles in 6 hours and 10 minutes; not bad at all.

The third quarter of the race is always the most challenging for me. It’s tough to face the fact that I’ve got to do double the mileage I’ve already done. While I’m more than half way, there’s still so far to go.

To compound that feeling, we faced one of the steepest climbs of the course on the way out of the turnaround. The course profile shows it as vertical line, which inspires little confidence. I remembered tackling that climb around the same mileage at Northface and feeling completely defeated. I assumed I was going to be wrecked on this climb, too. However, the combination of my summer training mileage and having a fellow runner along for the pain of the climb made it completely manageable.

We re-climbed Dipsea, which was conveniently shaded. Once we hit the aid station just after that, we had a 4-mile downhill stretch. This was the first time my muscles started really complaining – the downhill can be hard on quads, and I was just starting to feel it. We had some switchbacks on this portion that were really brutal – I had to take some downhill walk breaks. However, it meant that the biggest climbs were behind us.

I’d done no hill training in the past three months; New York City is pretty flat. I’d been very worried about how I’d hold up during this race, but all the climbing seemed okay; I guess running in crazy heat and humidity will train muscles pretty well, too.

The last few hills were challenging; we encountered freezing winds on the ridges, which we’d also found on the way in. This time, though, we were running downhill and looking forward to being done, so we stretched out our arms as if we were flying down the mountain.

That being said, miles are miles; 12 isn’t a lot, but you still have to run them. When we only had 8 to go, it seemed like we were almost done – but we still had to actually run the miles. Mile 42 to 43 seemed very, very long to me. I was so lucky to have found a compatible running partner; we’d been sharing stories throughout the race, and our chatter really motivated me through this tough spot. Mostly, we were looking forward to finding the final “shortcut.”

As mentioned, the turn-around was at mile 27, and this was a 50-mile race. So, we weren’t perfectly retracing our steps; the last few miles would take us off of our original path along a shorter trail to the finish line. Even though 50 miles is 50 miles, we – Rick especially – were really looking forward to finding this shortcut.

The last aid station was 3.2 miles before the finish line, and they pointed us to the shortcut. We left the original out-and-back and trotted on the final stretch to the finish line.

We ran as much of the last ~5k as we could. With a bit over a mile to go, we could see the finish line, and, while still moving, spent several minutes speculating how we’d get there and where the course would take us. At one point, a 50-mile runner *blasted* past us – he was seriously flying. “I’m trying to come in under 12 hours!” he shouted, and blazed down the hill. We didn’t know what mile we were at, but we estimated he’d have to be doing an ~8 minute/mile pace or so to get there, which is really fast after ~48 other miles before it. (He made it in 12:01:49 – very close!).

Rick and I agreed he’d have to really push it to make it, and we kept our steady trot.

We descended into the beach area and turned off the trail and onto the road. The fog was still blanketing the area, and it was getting a little darker – it was about 7pm now. There were two runners behind us as we took on the final stretch.

Motivated to not be passed within a half mile of the finish, we “picked up the pace” – i.e. didn’t walk – and made the final turn into the parking lot.  The timing mat had, as promised, been laid out. Rick and I crossed the finish line simultaneously at 12:07:54. Pizza, soup, and hotdogs waited for us at the finish line. Delicious.

Lisa and Rick just after crossing the finish line. That fog’s still out there!

One runner we’d been trading places with back and forth took off; he was a 100-miler.

Overall results: 7 of the original 18 runners in the 100-mile race finished. 7 additional 100-milers dropped to the 50-mile. Of the original 72 runners in the 50-miler, 61 (excluding the 100s) finished. I finished right in the middle of the women’s pack, and came in 2nd for my age group (… okay, there were only two of us. She was about 30-seconds per mile faster than me).

One of the hardest parts of running long distances is the psychological challenge. There can be some serious, serious lows, where you feel completely demotivated to continue and even doing another mile seems completely out of the question. I was fearing that I’d face that on this run, but this was actually one of the easiest races, mentally, I’ve ever run. I chalk it up to good company, good weather, great scenery, and long, solo training runs over the last several months.

I’m not quite sure what my training plan is for the next five weeks. I’d like to get a couple of 20 or 30 mile runs in without overdoing it. Since I’ll be traveling through the southwest with my equally crazy boyfriend, who is also training for this 100, I’m sure we can fit that in – the challenge will be making sure to get the rest and the taper.

Overall, great race – I feel well-prepared for what comes next.

Delicious post-race meal. California, you rock.

12 hours, one mile, as many laps as possible

Getting started – feeling good

 

About a quarter-mile into the loop

I ran my first 12 hour race yesterday with the Broadway Ultra Society. It was the 2014 Joe Kleinerman 12 Hour Run.

I’d never done a 12 hour race before, but I’d heard of them. It’s pretty straightforward: the course is a loop – often a half mile or a mile – and you run around it as many times as you can in the time allotted. I signed up for it because I needed a long run in preparation for some races I’m doing later this year, and this seemed like a good way to get miles.

Going into it, I was apprehensive. We had a 0.9704 mile loop – just short of a mile. I was sure I was going to feel like a hamster on a wheel, just churning around and around and around. On the plus side, however, we would get an aid station every mile, and access to our personal drop bag too.

My plan was to run all 12 hours. I thought there was a slight chance I could do 60ish miles in that time, and a better-than-good chance I could cross the 50-mile mark. Those were the goals going in.

Before the race, I was chatting with a few other runners. The New York ultra community is extremely strong, and close. Everyone seemed to know each other, and it was fun to see that camaraderie. I also noticed that, in comparison to the west coast ultra community, the New York community has so much history. Joe Kleinerman, after whom the race was named, was the founder of the New York Road Runners, the organization responsible for the New York Marathon. Several people present knew him or had run with him.

This sense of community was further reinforced at the start of the race. There were about 60 runners at the start – it was a pretty small race. Richie, the race director, made some announcements at the beginning, including introducing several of the other runners, many of whom had won this very race several times in previous years and had come back to run it again. It was a star-studded field.

And, with those introductions, Richie blew his whistle and the race began.

During the first loop, I followed the group to get an idea of what the course was like. I realized that I’d be seeing it many more times that day, but I’d only get one shot at seeing it for the first time. It was actually very pretty – it was a winding asphalt path through a grassy park, with many trees and ample shade. The park featured a couple of baseball mounds and tennis courts. Best of all, there was an actual bathroom along the course, which, as many runners know, is a true luxury when racing.

During the first lap, I encountered the race photographer, who was walking the course backwards – with a lot of camera gear. I joked with him – I said he’d be able to get all the runners in the first ten minutes of the race, then he could go home! He laughed and said he’d be here all day. (I was impressed – he actually ended up walking 16 laps – about 15.5 miles – with all of his gear!)

Lisa keeping a solid pace with this 6hr runner

I was running laps at just under 10 minutes each, which felt comfortable. After about ten miles, I feel in with another runner. He was a lap or two behind me and was planning to leave at the 6-hour mark for a family engagement. I learned that many runners were not planning to stay the entire time, instead opting to run for 6 hours or for some predetermined distance. One older gentleman’s goal was to walk a marathon, for example.

At mile 20, he and I went our separate ways. I was still keeping my 10 minute pace and feeling pretty good. The scenery still wasn’t boring, although now I could run the course on autopilot, which meant that navigating wasn’t a challenge.

However, it was warming up – the temperature would reach the low 80s. Also, the asphalt was really taking its toll on my feet. Each step felt like a challenge.

I still hadn’t taken a walk break during a lap, so I mentally committed to at least finishing a marathon before that happened. Once I reached the end of lap 27, I decided I would run four more – to get to 31 laps – which was the equivalent of 30 miles.

This guy lapped me billions of times - which strangely wasn't as demoralizing as it was impressive.

This guy lapped me billions of times – which strangely wasn’t as demoralizing as it was impressive.

At this point, we were a bit over 5 hours into the race, and I was feeling exhausted. I started thinking about changing my goals so I could get off the course earlier.

Ahead of me, I heard a few runners chatting. One woman was saying, “You’ll get a second wind – we always do in long races like this. Just wait a bit and you’ll feel better.” I knew she was right, but it just seemed impossible to believe.

At hour 6, I picked up my phone to leverage the musical glory that is Pandora. I’d planned to listen to something extremely upbeat and fast to keep me moving. But, when I thought about the prospect of music with so much energy, it seemed like it would be too irritating, and my brain would have to think too much about it to stay focused on running. I picked an 80s pop mix instead.

I was really struggling at this point. The idea of spending four more hours on the course to get to 50 miles seemed horrifying. I couldn’t even imagine it – it seemed like there could be no worse fate than needing to stay on my feet for another twenty miles.

I have a personal rule for running – no texting, phone calls, etc during the run or race. I feel that we’re so connected and plugged in every other time of the day, and running should be a time to be separate from that. This race seemed different, however – since we weren’t venturing off into the wilderness, it seemed like we weren’t that far away from civilization. Since I had my phone anyway, and I was feeling so disheartened, I broke my cardinal no-texting-while-running rule and sent a few messages to Will.

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I walked another lap, thinking hard about what to do. I’d set a couple of goals, and I really didn’t want to fail at meeting them. I knew I needed to get the miles in for training, too. But I really was feeling miserable, and I knew that there was no such thing as a DNF (Did Not Finish) designation for this race; they just counted the number of miles you ran and that was your score.

At that point, I decided it was okay to stop running.  I reached the end of my lap and broke another rule of mine by sitting down during a race. There was a very comfortable folding chair near the aid station, and I slumped into it, grateful to be off of my feet.

Lisa and new friend struggling through the late afternoon heat

I chatted with the man who was working the aid station. He’d brought a spray bottle, and had been spraying runners to keep them cool. I was a huge fan of this, and he told me that when he coached, he was known as the coach who brought the spray bottle. I asked what he coached, and he said he was the Head Coach of the Millrose Athletic Association, which is apparently kind of a big deal, since their yearly relay has its own Wikipedia page. He was pretty surprised (and maybe a little offended? I couldn’t tell for sure) that I hadn’t heard of it, and we agreed that my ignorance of this prestigious event indicated that I clearly wasn’t a very dedicated runner.

Running a race engenders a very strange psychology. Most of the time, runners actually really want to run and are just looking for an excuse to do it. That’s why runner encouragement works so well.

There was one runner who came into the aid station and announced he was going to walk a lap. I jumped up and said I’d walk it with him, because any forward movement is a win in a race like this. After one walking lap, we ran a few. Then I sat down again.

A few minutes later, a girl came into the aid station, and I tagged along with her. She was walking a third of a lap, then running the other two thirds. Before I knew it, we’d done several miles, and I was feeling much better. I’d crossed the 40 mile mark.

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I thought back to the woman from earlier in the race – this was clearly my second wind.

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At 10 hours and 37 minutes into the race, I’d just finished my 51st lap. 52 laps was the 50-mile mark.

In my my mind, a 50-miler under 11 hours is a respectable time, because it’s the qualifying standard for the prestigious Western States 100 race. I knew this race didn’t count as a qualification race, but I also knew that I’d be frustrated with myself if I finished 50 miles in over 11 hours, especially since I was close. I ran my 52nd lap, finishing in 10:49.

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About 1/2 way through the loop

With just over an hour to go, I gave myself permission to walk as much as I wanted – everything here was upside given that there was no chance of my crossing the 60-mile mark.

Partway through my next lap, I found a runner sitting on a bench. He looked wrecked, so I encouraged him to walk a bit with me – which he did. After the race, he told me he probably wouldn’t have kept going if it weren’t for that. Jut like me, he was another runner who really wanted to run, but just needed an excuse.

A bit later, I was chatting with a runner about Zipcar, which was how I’d gotten to the race that morning. A runner ahead of me was curious, so she and I talked about Zipcar for a few minutes. Then I asked her about her running, and was immediately humbled to be in the presence of such an amazing athlete.

Her name is Alicja Barahona, and she’s run 350 miles self-support across the Alaskan tundra – several times. She’s run350 miles across the Sahara, and she’s run 100+ mile distances two weeks apart. She’s come in first in some extremely grueling 100+ mile races, and she’s been the only finisher in some distance races where everyone else dropped out due to extreme weather conditions. She finished first, five consecutive years, in a 24-hour race. Needless to say, she’d run this 12 hour race before – and come in first, of course.

In any case, I was in awe of her accomplishments. She seemed happy to talk about her experiences, so I shut up and listened to her incredible stories. We parted ways after a bit.

Lisa feeling honored to run with this champion

After finishing my 55th lap, we only had 11 minutes to go, so I decided I was done – for real this time. Then, a woman came through the aid station and said there was no way I could stop now. She was right – I was still racing, and I really did want to keep running. She and I ran until the airhorn went off, making it almost a full lap around together.

I ran just over 54 miles.

It was a really, really hard race for me – much harder than I anticipated. The combination of the asphalt and the weather really pushed me, and I felt like giving up more than once.

One of the things I really liked about this race was the sense of camaraderie. This manifests itself in two ways: the fact that we all finish at the same time, and the fact that we’re all on the same course. This latter, specifically, means that you have a lot of opportunities to run with, and talk to, people who you wouldn’t encounter in the course of a normal race – because they’re either faster or slower than you. Because this is a lap race, you can sync up with people who are a couple of miles ahead or a couple of miles behind you and chat for a bit.

Also, it means that the finish-line is for everyone, from the guy who ran 84+ laps (he looked like a machine!) to the people who ran just under 40 laps. We all get to celebrate together.

I stayed for a bit to congratulate runners I’d met along the way, but didn’t stay for the awards ceremony – I had to return the aforementioned Zipcar, and was worried about traffic back to Manhattan.

Overall, though, this was a really fun race, even if it was really hard. I’d definitely run another timed race again.

Me on my last complete lap

Me on my last complete lap

Race Report: The North Face Endurance Challenge

 

I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge on Saturday.  It was seriously the hardest race I have ever run.  51.2 miles and 10k of elevation gain.

[This is a really long race report, so don’t feel obligated to read all of it, especially during work hours. 😉 If you’ve read the first line, you’ve already read the important parts. I’ve also never written a race report, and I can’t believe how long this one is.]

Here’s the elevator pitch:

Situated in the visually stunning Marin Headlands just north of the city, The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship course has surprised runners with both its scenery and amount of elevation change. Participants are encouraged to train for repeated uphills and downhills of several hundred feet at a time. A majority of the course covers a runable fire road (very little technical single track) overlooking the Pacific Ocean with occasional glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge.

There were several races of varying lengths, from a 5k to a 50 miler. I ran the Gore-Tex “50-mile” [which, as I mentioned, ended up being about 51.2 miles. But who’s counting? More on that later].

Here’s the course profile:

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The race started at 5am, which meant a 3am wakeup call [brutal!].  We started out in a pack that quickly spread out as we started up the first hill.  It was completely dark; there aren’t any city lights in the valleys between the mountains. The only lights were the stars and a string of runner headlamps going up the hill.  The sun rose at some time during the race, and everyone’s spirits picked up a bit.  The ocean was a steely-grey color, and we could hear the ocean waves on the cliffs below.  Not much better than NorCal nature on a pretty day.

This was a very hard race.  There were several points in the race where I seriously considered dropping out, not only because of exhaustion (5 hrs of sleep the night before), but because of the incredibly difficult terrain.  See forthcoming examples.

Around mile 20, the course had been re-routed to include a single-track out&back for about 8 miles.  It was a very very narrow single track, with a rock wall on one side and a drop into the Pacific Ocean on the other.  Every 20-30 steps, we had to throw ourselves to the side of the trail to let oncoming runners pass.  The constant stepping up on one side made my right knee a bit sore, but that worked itself out eventually.  The challenge here was keeping pace with everyone along the route so as not to mess up the flow, and also paying attention to the oncoming traffic.

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Bring it on

For miles 25 and 26, which were through a gorgeous jungly redwood forest, I was joined by the race director of the Quicksilver Half.  He’s apparently pretty fast, and he told me stories about keeping pace with some of the top ultrarunners.  The conversation was inspiring – even though I was still thinking about dropping out, talking with him was a welcome distraction.

I’m not sure what happened next, but somewhere around mile 28 or 29 I ran across a bridge and saw a sign that said “Caution: Ladder 10 feet ahead.”  The next three miles were a vertical ascent up a brutal, steep stairwell of rock.  This was my first interaction with the Dipsea trail – now I see why it’s so famous.

I got to the aid station around mile 31 or 32.  At this point, I was seriously ready to call it quits. Until this point, I’d been spending almost every step thinking about when I could respectably drop out of this race [I had decided around the 50k mark would be acceptable.]  I sat down on the grass and contemplated the meaning of life for a bit.  A medical guy rebandaged my shin wound [This is the one that required 9 stitches.  The stitches had come out the day before the race.]  I took my shoes off and saw that there was a huge hole in one of my socks, which, I found out later, created a blister on my big toe that was about the side of a quarter.  I took my socks off and put them on the opposite feet in hopes that this would mitigate the pain of the hole.  This proved to be a good idea.

The next aid station was six miles away, and I decided I could probably run six more miles, so I took off again.  The logic here wasn’t completely clear to me in the moment, and now, 48 hours later, is still equally incomprehensible.

The aid station at mile 38ish was great – it had vegan chocolate chip coffee cake [literally one of my favorite foods, because they use potato flour as the base.  It’s really moist].  The next aid station was only a few miles away, so I kept going.  It was around this time that I figured I could finish the race, because there was less than a half marathon to go.

At the mile 42.6 aid station, I started doing math.  The next aid station was 2.8 miles away, so I’d be at mile 45.4, which meant I’d have less than five miles to go.  Completely do-able.

At mile 45.4, they told me it was another 2.8 miles to the next aid station, and 3 more miles after that.  I realized this did not add up to 50 miles, but I figured that a) this was my fist experience losing mental acuity during a race, or b) (more likely) the aid station volunteers didn’t know how much longer the race was.  I decided it was b).

Around this section, all of us runners were feeling very beaten down, and the hills were unrelenting.  At some point during the race, you feel like “Man, I’ve worked really hard up to now.  The last few miles should be a rewarding, easy downhill.  We should coast to the finish line.”  Unfortunately, both nature and the race directors didn’t agree with this assessment.  Those last two hills were punishing, and the downhill was too steep to really take advantage of with any speed to speak of.

It wasn’t until mile 48 that I found out, from another runner, that the race was 51.2 miles long.  This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was devastating to learn I’d have to drag myself through another 15 minutes of pain at the end of 50 miles. [Yeah, it was probably longer than 15 more minutes.  I wasn’t moving very quickly at that time].

At mile 50.2, I passed the parking lot with my car in it. 1 mile to go.  No comment required.

I finished the race in just under 12 hours, about 10 minutes after the sun had set.

Immediately post race: ate some chicken and pasta, got my shin rebandaged, inhaled oxygen at the medical tent, walked back to my car (another mile – I couldn’t find the shuttles back to the parking lot), and somehow convinced two young men to jump my car in the dark (yeah, running down the battery is awesome).

Generally post race:  feeling good – No major soreness. Went for a short [2.5 mile] run this morning, and got a massage during lunch.  Should be back to regularly scheduled running program by the end of the week.

I’m pretty excited about having completed this run.  It was really an adventure run [rather than just a trail run], and it was the most mentally challenging race I’ve ever completed.  That being said, I feel very well prepared for any future [longer?] runs that might be on the horizon.

Thanks everyone for your support, and for listening to my boring and relentless runner-talk over the last several months [and just now, if you’ve made it to the end of this post].

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At the finish